Helping Middle School Students with Learning Disabilities Pass the Federally Mandated Science Tests: Science Instruction, Study Skills, and Test-Taking Strategies

Article excerpt

Since the passage of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in 2002, and the amendments to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in 2004, the majority of students with learning disabilities take science courses as part of the general-education middle school class. In addition, they will be required to take the high-stakes science tests in accordance with NCLB at least one time during the middle school years, mandated to start in 2007-2008. The purposes of this article are to review the typical characteristics of learning disabilities (LD) that make science instruction a challenge and then to describe instructional modifications, study skills, and test-taking strategies to help students with LD succeed in science class and pass the related tests.

Characteristics of middle school students with learning disabilities

Numerous behaviors associated with learning disabilities may interfere with learning science at the middle school level. Students with LD may have trouble with some aspect of language understanding (Mercer and Pullen 2005), causing confusion with vocabulary and sentence structure in material presented orally or in writing. They also may have processing problems--receiving, relating, or responding to information (Lerner 2006), making it difficult to interpret science lessons presented orally or to understand pictures, charts, and other visual displays. Students with LD may have trouble remembering what they see or hear and may not use strategies to help with memorizing unless specifically prompted to do so (Mercer and Pullen 2005).

Students with LD have deficits in basic skills of reading, writing, and/or mathematics (Lerner 2006), which can interfere with science instruction and related assessments. The majority of students with LD have very low reading levels compared to their peers (Mercer and Pullen 2005), including problems with sight word recognition, reading speed, comprehension of long selections, and understanding textbook organization (Smith 2004). In addition, textbook charts, illustrations, and experiments can distract and confuse students with low-level reading skills.

Writing skills are particularly challenging for students with LD; typical problems include slow rate of writing, technical errors, very basic vocabulary and sentence structure, and poor organization and sequence (Smith 2004). For students with learning disabilities in writing, it is often difficult to complete lab reports, data sheets, and textbook questions.

Mathematics deficits can interfere with applications in science class (Mercer and Pullen 2005). Students with LD typically have difficulties with word problems, mathematics problems with multiple steps, lining up problems accurately, speed of calculations, and signs and symbols (Smith 2004), which can negatively affect performance on science assignments and tests. Students trying to write chemical formulas, for example, might be confused by subscripts and coefficients, chemical symbols, and related rules.

Because of decision-making, problem-solving, and generalization difficulties, students with LD are often passive learners (Mercer and Pullen 2005), while science lessons require active engagement. Experiments involve active learning: analyzing, drawing conclusions, and making inferences based on the results.

Finally, organizational problems are typical of most students with learning disabilities, leading to difficulties keeping up with assignments, projects, and homework (Smith 2004). Long-term projects in middle school science class, such as researching, building models, writing related reports, and presenting to the class are challenging assignments for students with LD. Furthermore, attention problems that some students with LD exhibit (Bender 2004) interfere with completion of science projects.

Science instructional modifications for students with learning disabilities

Reading instruction

Reading comprehension lessons help prepare students with learning disabilities to use complex science textbooks (Sabornie and deBettencourt 2004). …