State Education Agencies (SEAs)/Local Education Agencies (LEAs) provide youth with equitable access to a full range of academic and non-academic courses and programs of study.
To prosper and gain the knowledge and skills necessary for success in a variety of settings, all students-including students with disabilities-must have access to educational curriculum and instruction designed to prepare them for life in the 21st century (Murnane & Levy, 1996). The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) underscores this assumption, as does federal legislation in the areas of workforce development, youth development, postsecondary education, and other areas. For students with disabilities, this assumption was the basis, in part, for the requirements included in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) legislation of 1990, 1997, and 2004. Under IDEA, states must provide students with disabilities access to the general education curriculum, including: the identification of performance goals and indicators for these students, definition of how access to the general curriculum is provided, participation in general or alternate assessments, and public reporting of assessment results. All of these requirements are embedded within a context of standards-based education, in which standards for what students should know and be able to do are defined at the state level, appropriate standards-based education is provided, and success in meeting expectations is measured through large-scale assessment systems.
The need for access requirements in legislation was supported by research demonstrating both a lack of educational success (or a lack of any information about educational success) for many students with disabilities (e.g., McGrew, Thurlow, & Spiegel, 1993; Shriner, Gilman, Thurlow, & Ysseldyke, 1994-95), and the all too common provision of an inappropriately watered-down curriculum (Gersten, 1998) or a curriculum undifferentiated for students with disabilities (McIntosh, Vaughn, Schumm, Haager, & Lee, 1993). According to Nolet and McLaughlin (2000), the 1997 IDEA reauthorization was "intended to ensure that students with disabilities have access to challenging curriculum and that their educational programs are based on high expectations that acknowledge each student's potential and ultimate contribution to society" (p. 2). Within the educational context of the late 1990s and early 2000s, this means that all students with disabilities, regardless of the nature of their disability, need to have access to standards-based education.
Providing meaningful access to the general curriculum requires a multifaceted approach. Appropriate instructional accommodations constitute one piece of this picture (Elliott & Thurlow, 2000). Other elements include the specification of curriculum domains, time allocation, and decisions about what to include or exclude (Nolet & McLaughlin, 2000). The process of specifying the curriculum in a subject matter do main requires cataloging the various types of information included in the domain (facts, concepts, principles, and procedures) and setting priorities with respect to outcomes. Allocation of time for instruction should be based on the priorities that have been established. Decisions about what to include or exclude in curriculum should allow for adequate breadth (or scope) of coverage, while maintaining enough depth to assure that students are learning the material. Universal design is another means of ensuring access to the general curriculum (Orkwis & McLane, 1998). When applied to assessment, universal design can help ensure that tests are usable by the largest number of students possible (Thompson, Johnstone, & Thurlow, 2002).
Research indicates that a variety of instructional approaches can be used to increase access to the general curriculum and standards-based instruction (Kame'enui & Carnine, 1998). Approaches such as differentiated instruction (Tomlinson, 1999), strategy instruction (Deshler et al., 2001), and technology use (Rose & Meyer, 2000) are showing that access to the curriculum can be substantially improved, with positive outcomes for students with disabilities.
Other researchers have examined the teaching and learning conditions and strategies in schools that lead to positive outcomes for students (Wagner, 1993). Gersten (1998), The National Center on Secondary Education and Transition (2004a), and Nolet and McLaughlin (2000) noted that students with disabilities and other at-risk students need access to the full range of curriculum options, not watered-down versions, if they are to meet content and performance standards. Research by Tralli, Colombo, Deshler, and Schumaker (1999) indicated that many low-achieving students can be taught strategies that will raise their performance to meet content standards. Other academic and non-academic components that have been linked to positive youth outcomes include:
SEAs/LEAs use appropriate standards to assess individual student achievement and learning.
States and districts have become engaged in the work of identifying content standards and setting performance standards for what students should know and be able to do in the 21st century (American Federation of Teachers, 2001; Partnership for 21st Century Skills, 2003). While these standards-setting efforts may not initially have considered students with disabilities (Thurlow, Ysseldyke, Gutman, & Geenen, 1998), as time has passed, many states have reconsidered their standards in this light. This reconsideration occurred, if for no other reason, because the IDEA assessment requirements indicate that states need to develop alternate assessments for those students who cannot participate in general assessments. The alternate assessments, like the general assessments, are to be aligned to the state's standards, a requirement reinforced by the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, known as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).
The IDEA requirements for inclusion of students with disabilities in assessments and access to the general curriculum have been reinforced strongly by NCLB, which requires that students with disabilities participate not only in assessments but also in accountability systems. The purpose of these requirements is to ensure that schools are held accountable for access to the general curriculum, high expectations, and improved learning. Requirements for students with disabilities to be included in state accountability systems and for measuring whether schools have achieved adequate yearly progress (AYP) have heightened the importance of access to the general curriculum for all students with disabilities, while also raising concerns about access to transition-related curricula and experiences (Furney, Hasazi, Clark/Keefe, & Hartnett, 2003).
Research (Thurlow, Elliott, & Ysseldyke, 1998) and reviews of standards-based approaches (Elmore & Rothman, 1999; McDonnell, McLaughlin, & Morison, 1997; Thurlow & Johnson, 2000) indicate that assessments and standards must be aligned and that all youth, including those with disabilities, must be included in large-scale assessments and other accountability measures to ensure that accountability systems are valid. Further, schools should provide the supports and resources to help all students meet challenging standards (National Research Council & Institute of Medicine, 2004). Assessment accommodations, alternate assessments, and other performance indicators should be addressed within accountability systems (National Center on Secondary Education and Transition, 2004a; Thurlow et al., 1998), and assessment results should be used in individualized educational planning. Standards should also look beyond purely academic goals and include the knowledge and skills required for desired postsecondary outcomes such as employment, higher education, and civic engagement (Achieve, Inc. 2004; National Center on Secondary Education and Transition, 2004a).
No Child Left Behind requires that educational decisions be based on student performance data and research-based instructional strategies, and that performance data be shared with parents and other stakeholders. Components of this data-based decision-making process that have been identified through research and best practice reviews include:
SEAs/LEAs systematically collect data on school completion rates and postschool outcomes and use these data to plan improvements in educational and postschool programs and services.
The prevalence of students dropping out of school is one of the most serious and pervasive problems facing special education programs nationally. The National Longitudinal Transition Study (NLTS) found that more than a third of students with disabilities exited school by dropping out. The NLTS data also revealed that factors such as ethnicity and family income are related to dropout rates, and that some groups of special education students are more apt to drop out than others. Of youth with disabilities who do not complete school, the highest proportions are among students with learning disabilities and students with emotional/behavioral disabilities (Wagner et al., 1991).
National data indicate that there has been some improvement in the overall graduation rate of students with disabilities in the United States. Between the 1995-1996 and 1999-2000 school years, the percentage of youth with disabilities graduating with regular diplomas, as reported by states, grew from 52.6% to 56.2%. During the same period, the percentage of students with disabilities reported as having dropped out of school declined from 34.1% to 29.4% (U.S. Department of Education, 2002). While these data are encouraging, the dropout rate for students with disabilities still remains twice that of students without disabilities.
Concern about the dropout problem is increasing because of state and local education agencies' experiences with high-stakes accountability in the context of standards-based reform (Thurlow, Sinclair, & Johnson, 2002). State and local school districts have identified what students should know and be able to do and have implemented assessments to ensure that students have attained the identified knowledge and skills. However, large numbers of students are not faring well on these assessments. For youth with disabilities, several factors beyond academic achievement affect their performance on these tests, including accurate identification of their disability, provision of needed accommodations, and availability of educational supports that make learning possible regardless of disability-related factors. The provision of accommodations is of particular importance in helping to ensure students' success within state standards and reform initiatives.
In the United States, dropout prevention programs have been implemented and evaluated for decades, but the empirical base of well-researched programs is scant, and well-done evaluations of dropout prevention programs specifically targeted towards students with disabilities are rare. Perhaps the most rigorously researched secondary level program for students with disabilities at risk of dropping out is the Check & Connect program (Christenson, 2002; Sinclair, Christenson, Evelo, & Hurley, 1999). Using randomized assignment to experimental and control groups, these researchers found significant positive effects of their program. Check & Connect includes the following core elements:
The empirical literature on dropout prevention programs for at-risk students (including, but not limited to, students with disabilities) is somewhat broader but still lacking in high-quality research designs. Lehr, Hansen, Sinclair, and Christenson (2003) analyzed dropout studies published between 1980 and 2001; 45 research studies were included in the final integrative review. Of these, less than 20% employed randomized assignment procedures, and not a single study was a true experiment. Nonetheless, the findings were quite consistent with well-researched components of the Check & Connect model and were also consistent with a number of other empirical sources of information. Two common components of successful secondary dropout prevention programs are work-based learning and personal development/self-esteem building (Farrell, 1990; Orr, 1987; Smink, 2002). Equally important, however, is tailoring or contextualizing these and other intervention components to the particular school environment (Lehr et al., 2003). Finally, early intervention also appears to be a powerful component in a school district's array of dropout prevention strategies. In an experimental study collecting longitudinal data for 22 years, Schweinhart and Weikart (1998) documented impressive outcomes of their High/Scope Perry preschool project, which involved three- and four-year-olds who were at risk of school failure.
SEAs/LEAs offer educators, families, and community representatives regular opportunities for ongoing skill development, education, and training in planning for positive postschool outcomes for all youth.
Training and professional development for educators and other stakeholders have been identified as critical components of school reform and improving student achievement and other outcomes. Research studies and analyses of best practices have identified the following essential components of training and development programs:
Many new teachers are entering the field without the specific knowledge, skills, and attitudes needed to support transition. Miller, Lombard, and Hazelkorn (2000) report that few special education teachers have received training on methods, materials, and strategies for developing meaningful Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) that include goals and objectives on transition or that specifically address students' transition needs through curriculum and instruction. Further, many special education teachers underutilize community work-experience programs and fail to coordinate referrals to adult service providers.
Beyond preservice training, high-quality continuing professional development is needed to ensure that teachers are up-to-date and fully able to support students in the transition from school to adulthood. Miller et al. (2000), in a national study, found that nearly 8 out of 10 teachers (79%) reported receiving five hours or less of inservice training regarding inclusion of students with disabilities in their districts' school-to-work programs. Further, nearly half (49%) indicated they had received no inservice training related to inclusionary practices for students with disabilities. These findings are consistent with the report published by the National Center for Education Statistics regarding the preparation and qualifications of public school teachers (Lewis et al., 1999). This report notes that fewer than 2 out of 10 teachers (19%) spent more than eight hours per year on professional development activities to address the needs of students with disabilities, despite the fact that teachers report that professional development of longer duration is more effective. The promotion of improved levels of collaboration between general education and special education is in response to another area of need. General education classroom teachers, work-study coordinators, career and technical education instructors, and high school counselors all play an important role in supporting the transition of students with disabilities. These general education personnel need training and other support to help them work effectively with students with disabilities. A recent study of personnel needs in special education (Carlson, Brauen, Klein, Schroll, & Willig, 2001) found that general educators' confidence in serving students with disabilities was dependent on their relationship with special education teachers: those who often received instruction-related suggestions from special educators felt significantly more confident.
SEAs/LEAs establish and implement high school graduation standards, options, and decisions that are based on meaningful measures of student achievement and learning.
Requirements that states set for graduation can include completing Carnegie Unit requirements (a certain number of class credits earned in specific areas), successfully passing a competency test, passing high school exit exams, and/or passing a series of benchmark exams (Guy, Shin, Lee, & Thurlow, 1999; Johnson & Thurlow, 2003; Thurlow, Ysseldyke, & Anderson, 1995). Currently, 27 states have opted to require that students pass state and/or local exit exams in order to receive a standard high school diploma (Johnson & Thurlow, 2003). This practice has been increasing since the mid-1990s (Guy et al., 1999; Thurlow et al., 1995). States may also require any combination of the above requirements. Variability in graduation requirements is complicated further by an increasingly diverse set of diploma options. In addition to the standard high school diploma, options now include special education diplomas, certificates of completion, occupational diplomas, and others.
Many states have gone to great lengths to improve the proportion of students with disabilities passing state exit exams and meeting other requirements for graduation. Strategies have included grade-level retention, specialized tutoring and instruction during the school day and after school, and weekend or summer tutoring programs. While these may be viewed as appropriate interventions and strategies, there is little research evidence supporting these practices. Available research indicates, for example, that repeating a grade does not improve the overall achievement of students with disabilities (Allington & McGill-Franzen, 1992; Holmes, 1989).
The implications of state graduation requirements must be thoroughly understood, considering the negative outcomes students experience when they fail to meet state standards for graduation. The availability of alternative diploma options can have a considerable impact on raising graduation rates. However, the ramifications of receiving different types of diplomas need to be considered. A student who receives a non-standard diploma may find their access to postsecondary education or jobs is limited. It is also important for parents and educators to know that if a student graduates from high school with a standard high school diploma, the student is no longer entitled to special education services unless a state or district has a policy allowing continued services under such circumstances. Most states do not have such policies.
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