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Great expectations: How parents affect school success for teens with LD

This study shows that parents' high expectations of their teens with learning disabilities are linked to better educational outcomes.

By Candace Cortiella, The Advocacy Institute

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.

School experiences

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.

Academic performance

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.

Candace Cortiella's work as Director of the nonprofit The Advocacy Institute focuses on improving the lives of people with learning disabilities, through public policy and other initiatives. The mother of a young adult with learning disabilities, she lives in the Washington, D.C., area.