Improving Educational Outcomes for Students with Disabilities

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Improving Educational Outcomes for Students with Disabilities (PDF, 659K)


Lex Frieden, Chairperson
May 17, 2004


Executive Summary

Part I – Policies to Support Positive Outcomes for Students with Disabilities

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act
The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act
IDEA Reauthorization and Alignment with NCLB
Perceived Impact of NCLB on Students with Disabilities
Impact of NCLB on the High School Dropout Rate of Students with Disabilities
NCLB's Impact on Expectations for Students with Disabilities
Professional Development and Highly Qualified Teachers
Achievement Standards
Assessments and Accommodations

Part II – Evidence-based Research and Practice

Effective Evidence-Based Practices for Students with Disabilities
Evidence-Based Practices to Reduce Dropout Rates for Students with Disabilities
Evidence-Based Practices in Transition 51

Part III – Conclusions and Recommendations

Appendix A: Interview Protocol
Appendix B: Evidence-Based Practices



An important component of this National Council on Disability (NCD) project was the discussion of key project issues with federal policymakers, national researchers, and practitioners from across the United States. Information garnered from this process provided critical perspective about these issues related to the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), students with disabilities, and the use of evidence-based research. NCD wishes to thank the following agencies and organizations for participating in this process:

  • Arlington, Virginia Public Schools
  • Colorado State University, Research and Development Center
  • for the Advancement of Student Learning
  • Disability Access Information and Support (DAIS)
  • Social Security Administration (SSA), Office of Disability and Income Security Programs
  • SRI International, Center for Education and Human Services, Disability Policy Program
  • National Association of State Directors of Special Education (NASDE)
  • The Education Trust
  • The George Washington University, National Clearinghouse on Postsecondary Education for Individuals with Disabilities (HEATH)
  • TransCen, Inc.
  • U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences (IES)
  • U.S. Department of Education, National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR)
  • U.S. Department of Education, Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA)
  • U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Administration on Developmental Disabilities
  • U.S. House of Representatives, House Committee on Education and the Workforce
  • University of Hawaii at Manoa, Center on Disability Studies
  • University of Minnesota, National Center on Educational Outcomes

NCD also wishes to express its appreciation to Betsy Brand of the American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF) and Scott Swail of the Educational Policy Institute (EPI) for their insightful work in preparing this paper.

Executive Summary

The educational landscape for students with disabilities is undergoing vast changes. Thanks to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and its push for increased access to education for students with disabilities, and the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), with its push for improved student outcomes, educators across the U.S. are reexamining their practices to find ways to close the achievement gaps between groups of students. Students with disabilities are a focus of this attention, as schools and states labor to improve their academic outcomes. Policymakers are studying both the reauthorization of IDEA and the ongoing implementation of NCLB to determine the most effective means for serving students with disabilities.

The National Council on Disability (NCD) commissioned this paper to assist policy leaders and stakeholders in identifying, disseminating, and aligning evidence-based outcome producing practices with the Federal Government's commitment to leaving no child behind in the attainment of a free appropriate public education. This paper is a precursor to a more detailed analysis that NCD will be conducting in coming months to provide additional input and recommendations to Congress and the Administration. NCD is an independent federal agency making recommendations to the President and Congress on issues affecting Americans with disabilities. NCD's overall purpose is to promote policies, programs, practices, and procedures that guarantee equal opportunity for all individuals with disabilities, regardless of the nature or severity of the disability; and to empower individuals with disabilities to achieve economic self-sufficiency, independent living, and inclusion and integration into all aspects of society.

NCD is particularly interested in how IDEA and NCLB are improving outcomes for students with disabilities and to what extent evidence-based practices are being used to make policy decisions affecting students with disabilities. The outcomes for students with disabilities in which NCD is most interested include:

1) reducing the number/percentage of students with disabilities nation wide (currently at about thirty percent) who drop out of high school;
2) increasing the number/percentage of students with disabilities nation wide (currently at about 56 percent) who graduate high school with a diploma as opposed to a certificate of attendance; and
3) increasing the availability and usage of effective strategies to help students transition to and remain connected with postsecondary education.

Data for this paper were gathered by conducting a literature review and a series of interviews with a panel of policymakers, researchers, and practitioners from across the country. The literature review included major databases, but unfortunately resulted in few evidence-based research studies for students with disabilities. The questions for the panel (See Appendix A) focused on the impact of NCLB on students with disabilities, alignment of NCLB and IDEA, and the use of evidence-based research in decision-making processes at the school and district levels.

Major Findings with Regard to NCLB and IDEA

This paper explores how attitudes and expectations for students with disabilities are changing as a result of NCLB and the impact of IDEA. Overall, there is strong support for increasing expectations for students with disabilities and helping them to improve their academic outcomes. At the same time, there is concern about how states and schools will manage this process, largely as a function of lack of knowledge of effective interventions and strategies. At times there appears to be some lack of will to undertake the difficult change, and fall back on excuses, but findings reveal a hope that these laws and policies will result in more equitable outcomes for students with disabilities.

Many respondents in our interviews indicated that the focus on closing the achievement gap for certain student groups, such as students with disabilities, was a very laudable and necessary goal. One of the main messages is to change the low expectations people have for students with disabilities.

Findings also show that there is a great deal of concern about how educators will respond to the possible poor performance by students with disabilities on standardized assessments and high stakes tests. The pressure to meet adequate yearly performance (AYP) and the use of high stakes tests to measure it is leaving states and districts with little time to think constructively how best to do that. Fears exist that high stakes tests may have a disproportionate impact on students with disabilities. "We're very concerned about the unintended consequences of holding schools accountable for [the disability] population. We're sensitive to the potential for pushing students out, for scapegoating students, for identifying these students as the reason that a school or a district isn't measuring up." (Mitchell D. Chester, assistant superintendent for policy development in the Ohio education department, cited in Education Week, 2004b, p. 16). Unfortunately, at this time, there is no data to indicate whether high stakes tests will increase the rate of dropout by students with disabilities, but it certainly needs more study.

There are also concerns about how states and schools will handle measuring adequate yearly performance (AYP) for subgroups of students with disabilities and whether they can "game" the system by setting unrealistically high subgroup levels that most schools will not meet, and therefore won't have to report performance numbers. Others felt that a particular school could be punished for low scores in a subgroup, and administrators fear including students with disabilities.

One other concern expressed by several respondents is the limited focus on measuring academic skills because of the assessments required by NCLB. Particularly for students with disabilities, it is important to find ways to allow them to express their abilities in various ways, and they also benefit greatly from developing workplace competencies.

The role of school leadership and teacher qualifications was also explored. Not surprisingly, respondents noted that when school leaders had the vision and commitment to increase expectations for students with disabilities, the teachers and staff held similar views and were supported in their efforts to change teaching to help individualized needs students achieve.

A number of issues were raised regarding teachers. It was mentioned by several respondents that the push for highly qualified teachers is needed and that improved outcomes for students with disabilities should result from a better teaching force. But the logistical issues of finding and training those teachers is a difficult reality faced by schools.

The types of assessments and accommodations used for students with disabilities are also under review by school leaders. They are working to align assessment accommodations and instructional accommodations and align all of that with the standards – very time consuming and difficult work. Others saw value in more frequent assessments of students, saying "[A]ssessments are fundamental to education reform in this country, whether a regular assessment or high-stakes test. NCLB does not necessarily require a high-stakes test, it is an accountability test—not necessarily the same thing. It is forcing the question of how to test and assess." But a final concern was expressed about the misuse of assessments, "If students with disabilities aren't accommodated or there aren't alternative assessments, school scores will be affected. If so, the school will figure out a creative way of counting these kids out or the kids will choose to leave."

Evidence-Based Research and Practice


This paper also provides a summary of relevant scientifically-based research, as well as a discussion of how such research is used by education practitioners and policymakers. Unfortunately, the amount of rigorous, evidence-based research on programs that promote positive outcomes for students with disabilities is severely limited. First, most research is aimed at young students and strategies to help them learn to read. Second, the few evaluations that are available usually involve a very limited number of students, sometimes fewer than a dozen, which makes drawing conclusions about a broader group very difficult. Third, most of the evaluations only focus on one type of disability (e.g. severe cognitive disability or learning disability), again making general applicability of findings difficult. And last, while a few scientifically rigorous studies of programs were identified, there were almost none in the area of dropout prevention, and only a few on the transition from secondary to postsecondary education.

According to the research that does exist, strategies that seem to be most effective in helping students with disabilities persist in high school typically include counseling services, reading remediation, tutoring, attendance monitoring, or after-school clubs (Lehr, Hansen, Sinclair, & Christenson, 2003). Other services could include sustained and supportive monitoring interventions focused on school completion (Scanlon & Mellard, 2002). An early 1990s study of three dropout prevention programs for students with disabilities sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education found that five components were common to all programs: persistence, continuity and consistency; monitoring; relationships; affiliation; and problem-solving skills.

To help students with disabilities transition from secondary to postsecondary education, strategies that appear to be most successful include:

  • Competence in:
    • functional academic skills (e.g., reading, math, writing, and problem-solving);
    • community living skills (e.g., money management, community access);
    • personal-social skills (e.g., getting along with others);
    • vocational skills (e.g., career awareness, job search); and
    • self-determination skills (e.g., self-advocacy, goal setting);
  • Participation in vocational education classes during the last two years of high school, especially classes that offer occupationally-specific instruction;
  • Participation in paid work experience in the community during the last two years of high school;
  • Participation in transition planning;
  • Graduation from high school; and
  • Absence of continuing instructional needs in functional academic, vocational, and personal-social areas after leaving school. (Benz, Lindstrom, & Yovanoff, 2000)

Even when there are evidence-based practices, practitioners, for various reasons, don't always end up using them. Two major barriers to the implementation of evidence-based practices are the lack of time and inadequate support from administrators. Other barriers include "pressures associated with high-stakes testing, insufficient materials, a mismatch between teacher style and the practice, a lack of fit between the practice and other methods mandated by the school district, and teachers' lack of in-depth understanding of the practice or forgetting" (p. 413). Practitioners need incentives and technical assistance in using evidence-based practices, yet little is done to help them learn to apply research to practice.

Comments were also made on the need to value the input by parents:

Which is more valid, the work of an evidence-based research center or the experiences of families of children with disabilities? What is the basis for the criteria? Someone's [research] numbers or someone's real life experience? For example, a school district got an evidence-based strategy from a university, but a parent suggested something else that they knew would work with their child. The strategies were polar opposites…There are parent groups organizing around what really works for their child. (Researcher)

Not only is a stronger research base sorely needed, but researchers must work more closely with practitioners and parents to help them understand how to use research findings and to incorporate and value practical and parental knowledge.

Conclusions and Recommendations


NCD recognizes that the bulk of change occurring in schools today is a result of NCLB's focus on accountability and outcomes. The change being brought about is very fundamental and deep, but also difficult, in that it involves changing attitudes, beliefs, and values about all young people being able to achieve to high standards. Another barrier to change has been the lack of evidence about what works, as well as the lack of disaggregated data. Fortunately, there are signs of positive change and evidence that holding students, including students with disabilities, to higher expectations results in improved outcomes, which leads to the first recommendation, which is "stay the course."

Stay the Course. While some naysayers believe that NCLB sets too high a bar for students and schools, the vast majority of people believe that we must maintain high expectations for all students, particularly students with disabilities.

Capacity Building. In order to help school leaders and education practitioners pro