Good news is scarce in recently released findings from the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 (NLTS2), a 10-year federal investigation of the achievements of secondary students with disabilities, which began in 2001. But among the reports’ sobering statistics on grade retention, graduation rates, and quality of instruction, there is hopeful data indicating that parent expectations make a positive difference in education outcomes for teens with learning disabilities (LD).
NLTS2 is generating information on the achievements of youth with disabilities in their secondary school years by surveying a nationally representative sample of more than 11,000 youth with disabilities. Findings generalize to youths with disabilities nationally and to youth in each of the federal special education categories found in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), including Specific Learning Disabilities. This article provides highlights of the findings of the NLTS2 studies in six categories: school experiences; academic performance; instructional settings; accommodations and learning support; teacher perceptions, qualifications, and support; and parental expectations.
Among students with disabilities, those with learning disabilities are the oldest when they first receive special education services, age 9 on average. In general, students from more affluent families tend to begin receiving special education services earlier than those in less affluent families.
Students with disabilities are much more likely than their non-disabled peers to repeat a grade in school. Among students with learning disabilities, 35 percent have been retained at grade level at least once, usually in elementary school. Since grade retention has been shown to have a direct link to school drop-out and also to have no positive effect on academic achievement, this is a disturbing finding.
Among students with learning disabilities, 27 percent have been suspended or expelled during their school careers, a much higher percentage than students in the general population and one of the highest rates among students with disabilities. Students who get suspended or expelled tend to be older and male.
Significant numbers of students with learning disabilities at the secondary level function substantially below their actual grade level. More importantly, older students are further behind than their younger peers, indicating that students with disabilities, including those with LD, continue to lose ground as they progress through school. These discrepancies would suggest that the majority of students with learning disabilities at the secondary school level, who are reading and doing math three or more grade levels below their assigned grade, would have serious difficulties accessing the general curriculum and performing adequately on large scale assessments, many of which carry high-stakes consequences.
Discrepancy between tested and actual grade levels among secondary students with learning disabilities:
|In reading, percentage of students whose scores are:|
|Above grade level, at grade level, or less than one grade level behind||11%|
|1 to 2.9 grade levels behind||23%|
|3 to 4.9 grade levels behind||45%|
|5 or more grade levels behind||21%|
|In math, percentage of students whose scores are:|
|Above grade level, at grade level, or less than one grade level behind||13%|
|1 to 2.9 grade levels behind||23%|
|3 to 4.9 grade levels behind||44%|
|5 or more grade levels behind||20%|
The NLTS2 studies found that there is virtually no correlation between grades and academic functioning. Despite serious gaps in reading and math achievement, teachers give 27 percent of students with learning disabilities grades of mostly As and Bs and only 8 percent receive mostly Ds and Fs. This finding indicates that teacher-given grades take into account more than content mastery and real academic performance. While consideration of such factors as class participation and performance on special projects or activities would seem appropriate when assigning grades, parents should note that, according to these studies, grades are not reflective of student achievement.
The majority of students with learning disabilities spend most of their instructional time in a general education setting. In fact, 31 percent of students with LD at the secondary level receive all classes in a general education setting.
Within their general education academic classes, students with disabilities consistently participate less actively than their classmates. Responding orally to questions and making presentations to the class are the areas where this lack of participation is most dramatic. Class participation is dramatically higher within special education classes, when class size is generally lower.
Small group or individual instruction from a teacher occurs less than half of the time in general education academic classrooms while such instruction occurs more frequently in special education classes.
- Within special education classrooms, only 23 percent of students with learning disabilities receive an individualized or special curriculum, the lowest of any disability category. Almost 22 percent have no curriculum, indicating that the focus of their special education classes is more oriented to study skills.
Accommodations and learning support
Within general education academic classes, the vast majority of students with LD receive some sort of accommodation or support (94 percent).
The most common accommodations are additional time to complete assignments and more time in taking tests.
Within general education academic classes, 63 percent of students with LD have their progress monitored by a special education teacher, while 36 percent receive more frequent feedback on their performance.
Learning strategies and/or study skills assistance is provided to 23 percent of students with LD, while only 2 percent receive training in self-advocacy.
Few students with disabilities use technology such as calculators and computers to support their learning within general education classrooms, and even fewer use such types of technology when the other students in the class do not. Computer software designed for students with disabilities is used by only 1 percent of students with LD in general education academic classes. Unfortunately, technology use is no higher in special education classrooms.
The use of accommodations and various instructional supports declines as students with disabilities progress through grades at the secondary level.
Teacher perceptions, qualifications, and support
The majority of general education teachers view the placement of students with learning disabilities in general education academic classes to be very appropriate (69 percent), while roughly 7 percent find such placements to be not appropriate.
Even more (90 percent) of general education teachers view the placement of students with LD in their general education vocational classes to be very appropriate and only 1 percent find those placement to be not very or not at all appropriate.
Ninety-six percent of students with disabilities who take general education academic classes have teachers who hold credentials to teach those classes, a much higher rate than overall teacher certification at the secondary level. Teachers have an average of 14 years of teacher experience. This finding suggests that students with disabilities are possibly assigned to more experienced, better qualified general education teachers.
Only 62 percent of general education teachers receive any information about the needs of the students with LD in their academic classes, and a mere 11 percent receive any in-service training on meeting the needs of those students. Only 14 percent of these teachers receive a smaller student load or class size in order to provide more support for their students with LD.
In contrast, almost all (92 percent) of general education teachers receive information about the needs and abilities of students with LD assigned to their vocational classes and over 17 percent receive some type of in-service training on meeting the needs of students with LD.
The contrast between the perceptions of teachers regarding the appropriateness of students with LD in general education academic versus vocational classes, as well as the differences in teachers’ preparedness to teach students with LD, may indicate lower expectations for such students at the secondary level.
Students whose parents expect them to go on to postsecondary education after high school evidence better achievement than those who are not expected to further their education. Among these are:
- More positive classroom engagement behaviors
- Better grades
- Achievement in reading and math that is closer to grade level
Findings from these and forthcoming studies from the NLTS2 project provide important new information that can and should be used by parents, teachers, administrators, researchers, and others to improve the educational experiences and outcomes of students with disabilities.
To learn about other findings from NLST2 related to students with LD, read: National Study Follows Youth with Learning Disabilities from High School to Adult Life.
- The Achievement of Youth with Disabilities During Secondary School (November 2003). A Report from the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 (NLTS2). Menlo Park, CA: SRI International.
- Going to School: Instructional Contexts, Programs, and Participation of Secondary School Students with Disabilities (December 2003). A Report from the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 (NLTS2). Menlo Park, CA: SRI International.