Disabled students aren't as disabled as you think [Commentary]

This summer, Arne Duncan, the U.S. secretary of education, startled public school systems nationwide by shifting the focus of enforcement of federal laws covering students with disabilities from technical compliance like timelines to accountability for academic outcomes. The shift has seismic impact, plunging the number of states who fully meet federal requirements from 41 to 18. Maryland, despite laudable efforts, is one of the fallen states.

Parents of students with disabilities think the change in policy is long overdue. They applaud Mr. Duncan who says outcomes "are simply too low." Less than 10 percent of eighth graders who receive special education services scored proficient in reading in the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests.

But how well should they do? The U.S. education department doesn't specifically say, though Mr. Duncan is clear that the bar should be set high. "No belief is more damaging in education," he declared, "than the misperception that children with disabilities cannot really succeed and shouldn't be challenged to reach the same high standards as all children."

Really? Reach the same high standards as all children? Almost all educators and commentators shake their heads in disbelief: Has Mr. Duncan, already under heavy fire for federal intrusions into state and local K-12 education policies, completely lost his senses? How can students with disabilities be expected to meet the same high standards as their non-disabled peers?

Well, not all can, but many more than imagined should. As reported by the National Center on Education Outcomes (NCEO), the leading research institute on accountability in special education, "The vast majority of special education students (80-85 percent) can meet the same achievement standards as other students if they are given specially designed instruction, appropriate access, supports and accommodations" as required by federal law.

The disbelief in the learning capacity of students with disabilities stems from the failure to understand the wide range of legally-recognized disabilities under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA). The large majority of students with disabilities are classified as having relatively mild disabilities like dyslexia, speech and language impairments and attention deficit disorders. The rest have more severe disabilities like intellectual limitations and some kinds of autism.

These classifications, however, are not medically or educationally precise. And under IDEA and the No Child Left Behind Act, states can develop alternate tests based on less-demanding alternate academic standards for students "with the most significant cognitive disabilities." But "the most significant cognitive disabilities" are not further defined, and educators have struggled for decades to sort out appropriate expectations. The result is a muddle of state academic standards and testing requirements.

So Mr. Duncan's mission of raising the bar for students with disabilities could not be more daunting. Opposition to any standards is fierce. Witness the uprising over the Common Core state standards.

Moreover, even if educators accept the principle that most students with disabilities can achieve high standards with the right "supports," school districts — especially large districts with large percentages of poor and minority students — will have to struggle to find the resources to provide them.

The root of the problem is rock-bottom reading skills. Most revealing, students in the largest category of disabilities — those identified as having a learning disability such as dyslexia — have cognitive abilities that range from low average to above average. Yet one national report showed that 88 percent of high school students with a learning disability were below average in reading comprehension, often three to five years behind grade level.

Also, while students with the most significant cognitive disabilities generally can't be expected to meet the same high standards as their more able peers, they too are victims of low expectations. For example, there is extensive evidence that students with Down syndrome are capable of achieving much more academically and in adaptive life skills than they do.

All this is a mountainous climb for beleaguered public school systems. Educators are skeptical and fearful of failure. But Secretary Duncan is likely to stick to his guns. "We can and must do better," he says. And he's right. It is legally and morally wrong for the learning potential of students with disabilities to be underestimated. Policymakers and educators must understand this tragedy and rise to the challenge.

Kalman R. Hettleman is a former member of the Baltimore school board and president of the Baltimore Special Education Advocacy Coalition. His email is khettleman@gmail.com.

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