Secondary School Curricula Issues: Impact on Postsecondary Students with Disabilities

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Will standards-based education negate the benefits of individualized education for children and youth with disabilities? The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act Amendments of 1997 (IDEA; Public Law 105-17) and the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001 legislated a number of new obligations for school reform. National consensus regarding standards-based reforms has been reached on three guiding principles inherent in federal law: (a) there will be challenging standards; (b) all students, including students with disabilities, should have the opportunity to achieve these standards; and (c) policymakers and educators should be held publicly accountable for every student's performance (Council for Exceptional Children, 1998; McDonnell, McLaughlin, & Morison, 1997; Wagner, 1998). However, issues arising in secondary special education suggest we may be heading in two opposing directions simultaneously. McDonnell et al. (1997) noted newer legislation presents a striking difference for students with disabilities because standards-based reform stresses accountability to apply uniform standards, whereas past legislation stressed compliance to apply individualized goals and instruction.

According to the American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF) and Center on Education Policy (CEP) report (AYPF & CEP, 2002), tremendous progress has been made regarding access and participation in standards-based curricula and assessments. However, 26% of states still report no change in students with disabilities participating in state testing, 12% of states did not provide data, and another 2% reported lower participation rates for 1999 (Thompson & Thurlow, 2001). The AYPF and CEP report also concedes standards-based "requirements that link promotion and graduation to performance on high-stakes testing could harm students with disabilities" (p. 5).

Nationally students with disabilities are still achieving at lower levels in math and science assessments (AYPF & CEP, 2002), as well as reading assessments (National Center for Educational Statistics, 2002). Cobb, Lehmann, Tochterman, and Bomotti (2000) describe the potential effects of current standards-based reforms as "extremely worrisome, since ... intentions appear to be heavily weighted on the side of improvements for higher ability students" (p. 16). Not only grades may be negatively affected. Another possible effect of reform could be an increased dropout rate for students with disabilities (National Center on Secondary Education and Transition, 2001) and a reduced rate of graduation (Defur, 2002). Although the U.S. Department of Education (Department of Education, 1999a) reported that fewer students with disabilities are dropping out, the number does remain approximately twice that of their peers without disabilities (AYPF & CEP; Balcazar & Keys, 1997; Graduation Rates, 1997).

Teacher concerns such as inadequate professional development, excessive paperwork, and attrition specifically resulting from these problems are likely to negatively impact the achievement of students with disabilities (AYPF & CEP, 2002). Forty-seven percent of special education teachers are reported by administrators to be insufficiently trained to use technology, and 39% have inadequate support to meet special technology needs to assist students with disabilities (AYPF & CEP). Teachers across the nation complain about paperwork taking time away from important teaching responsibilities (AYPF & CEP). The National Council on Disability recommends the IDEA include instructions for the U.S. Department of Education to review state regulations and assist states to implement the law where rules force unnecessary paperwork. Further, Robert Marzano (Scherer, 2001) recommends cutting standards by two thirds, as doing so will make it possible for teachers to cover essential knowledge in the allotted time.

Various national reform initiatives such as NCLB, the Goals 2000: Educate America Act of 1994, the School-to-Work Opportunity Act of 1994, and Improving America's Schools Act of 1994 assume challenging all students academically will result in better learning, teaching, and improved outcomes. …