Case Studies of Five Secondary-Aged Youth Declassified from Special Education

Article excerpt

The process of identifying students with disabilities eligible for special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act has proven difficult for local multidisciplinary teams and so, it appears, is the process of declassifying youth from special education. Because declassification from special education in secondary school is a relatively rare event and little is known about the process, this investigation used in-depth case studies to explore the circumstances fostering declassification and factors related to outcomes for five declassified youth. A variety of circumstances led to the declassification of the case study youth. Some youth did not believe they ever had disabilities and saw declassification as a process for correcting an initial error in eligibility. In other cases, declassification was apparently fostered by movement across educational levels or changes in eligibility criteria. In one instance, the student was responsible for initiating declassification on her own behalf. Outcomes for most of the youth in the study were quite positive in terms of high school completion, participation in post-secondary education, and social adjustment. There were exceptions, however. The variation in outcomes for declassified youth appeared to relate to individual and family characteristics as well as the circumstances surrounding declassification.

Decisions about eligibility for special education services inevitably lead to dichotomies (e.g., those who are eligible and those who are not eligible). For example, to receive services to address mental retardation, a student must have an IQ score of 70 or lower and deficits in adaptive behavior. A student with an IQ score in the low or mid 70s is as ineligible for services for mental retardation as a student with an IQ score of 125. Braden and Algina (1989) compared the process of determining who has a disability to pointing "... to an exact spot in a sunset where red changes to orange (p. 5)." Disability is widely accepted as being a social construct, meaning that members of the society determine at what point physical, mental, or emotional characteristics fall outside the norm (Arokiasamy, Rubin, & Roessler, 1987; Hahn, 1985; Skrtic, 1991; Speece & Harry, 1997; Wright, 1983).

Furthermore, the meaning of disability may vary across cultural groups within the United States. Research suggests that parents from some racial and ethnic minority groups have a broader view of what is within the normal range of ability. Harry (1992) found that Puerto Rican families did not share educator's construct of disability. They reserved the terms retardation, for example, for characterizing individuals with serious impairments in daily mental functioning and did not view difficulties in learning as a disability.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1997 (IDEA) (Section 300.5) defines students with disabilities as those children who, because of their impairments, need special education and related services. The process of deciding who has a disability, as defined under State and Federal special education regulations, has proven difficult for local multidisciplinary teams. Research suggests that socioeconomic factors, demographic factors, and the nature of teacher referrals may all contribute to eligibility decisions (Barona & Faykus, 1992; O'Reilly, Northcraft, & Sabers, 1989; Algozzine & Ysseldyke, 1981). For example, when given identical descriptions of individual children, teachers were more likely to refer boys for special education evaluation than girls (Gregory, 1977).

Students of interest in this study are those who were eligible for special education services at one time but either due to improved educational performance, changes in eligibility criteria, or enhanced general education services were later found ineligible for services. Through declassification from special education, these students returned to full-time general education programs that did not include special education support or services.

Over the past 25 years, several follow-up and follow-along studies have estimated the rate at which special education students were declassified. Based on differences in the ages of students, their disabilities, and the design of the studies, declassification rates have varied. Koppitz (1971) reported a declassification rate of 4.8% a year in a study of students with learning disabilities. In a study of students with disabilities in grades K-6, Walker, Singer, Palfrey, Orza, Wenger, & Butler (1988) calculated a rate of 8.6% a year. Data collected from states by the U.S. Department of Education (1996) showed 4% of students with disabilities ages 14 and older returning to general education annually. Similar figures were reported in two studies of students with disabilities in grades K-12, 7.3% and 7%, the former conducted in one intermediate unit, the latter across the state of Michigan (Halgren & Clarizio, 1993; Carlson & Parshall, 1996).

Because declassification from special education in secondary school is relatively rare and little is known about it, qualitative methods were deemed appropriate for the investigation. The study used case studies of five declassified youth to address the following research questions.

1. What circumstances fostered the process of declassification in the selected cases?

2. What variables seemed to account for variation in educational and post-school outcomes for declassified youth?


These five case studies were part of a larger investigation of declassification from special education, which analyzed qualitative information from the case studies presented here and quantitative data from the National Longitudinal Transition Study (NLTS). The NLTS included a nationally representative sample of more than 8,000 youth with disabilities who were 13 to 21 years old in the 1985-86 school year.

For the case studies, seven young adults who were declassified from special education in secondary school and their parents were chosen from among those who previously participated in the NETS. SRI International, the contractor that conducted the NETS, extracted the names and addresses of youth who met the sample criteria (were declassified, were in the study's youngest age cohort, and originally lived in the eastern United States), made initial contact with the sampled youth and their parents to inform them about the current study, and requested their participation. SRI mailed letters to 75 prospective case study participants requesting their cooperation in the study. Parents and students were each offered $100 to participate in an interview. The families were asked to return a postage-paid response card addressed to the case study investigators if they were willing to participate. Thirteen families returned postcards after the first mailing. Seven were selected for the case study sample. The seven youth were chosen purposively to reflect variation in disability, academic achievement, and type of community. Background data used to select the youths for the case studies were taken from the NLTS Wave 2 data tape. Table 1 presents demographic information for the participating youth.

Table 1. Demographic Information on Participating Youth

              Age(1)     Race       Sex        Disability Label

LaDonna        25       Black      Female     Mental Retardation
Kevin          25       White      Male       Emotional Disturbance
Reagan         25       White      Female     Learning Disability
Scott          25       White      Male       Speech Impairment
Rosiland       25       Black      Female     Hearing Impairment

(1) Age as of Fall/Winter 1997 when interviews were conducted

Youth were asked to sign letters, addressed to their secondary school district(s), requesting that copies of their individualized education plans (IEPs), eligibility meeting notes, and high school transcripts be sent to the investigators. Two of the seven youth were eventually dropped from the study due to difficulty in obtaining school records. Of the five youth included in the study, all had high school transcripts, four had notes from special education eligibility determinations, and four had IEPs. Most importantly, each had a means of verifying that they were declassified from special education.

The first author conducted in-person interviews with the declassified youth and their parents. Interviews were held at locations selected by the participants. They lasted between 60 minutes and 135 minutes. A semi-structured interview guide was used; it was designed specifically for this study. Parents and youth were asked to describe and react to the youth's high school experiences, and youth's experiences since leaving school (i.e., employment, post-secondary education and training, living arrangements, and social adjustment). Parents and youth were also asked about the youth's disabilities and the way they affected them in school, work, and community life. The case studies synthesized information from the interviews, school records, and from the NETS Wave 2 data base.

The conceptual model in Figure 1 guided data collection and analysis. The model draws from previous research and theory to hypothesize about factors affecting declassification from special education and declassification as a factor affecting in-school and post-school outcomes.


Individual and family characteristics, such as the severity of a student's disability or family wealth, may affect declassification directly. For example, it is clear from previous research that students with severe cognitive disabilities are rarely declassified. Further, more affluent families may seek private counseling or tutoring that improves student performance and facilitates declassification. Individual and family characteristics may also affect declassification indirectly by altering the school context and school services. For example, parents who are better educated may be more likely to advocate for special education services that facilitate declassification. Individual and family characteristics are not only predictive of declassification, but also of in-school and post-school outcomes.

Similarly, school characteristics and services may affect declassification and outcomes. Larger schools may be more likely than smaller schools to declassify youth simply because they have more experience with the declassification process. In a less direct fashion, larger schools may increase the likelihood of declassification because they offer a wider range of student support services. By increasing the level of academic support available through general education or other educational programs, schools may reduce the need for special education programs. In this way, declassification may be directly influenced by secondary programs and services.

Declassification may be viewed as a short-term outcome or as an intervening variable affecting secondary school programs and services and in-school and post-school outcomes. It is not clear from previous research whether declassification has a positive or negative influence on educational and young adult outcomes.

Limitations of the Study

The study had a number of limitations. Several case study participants (parents and youth) did not remember the circumstances surrounding their declassification. Since the youth were declassified as many as ten years ago, this is not surprising, but it is unfortunate. Furthermore, in several cases, it was difficult to obtain school records documenting youth's declassification. A follow-along study would contribute more information about the process of declassification, and the rationale for the decision to declassify special education students.


In this section, each youth's story is told through a case study narrative that incorporates information from interviews, records, and NETS survey results. The narratives begin with background information about the youth and then follow a chronological route through their educational and post-school experiences.


LaDonna is a 25-year-old African-American woman with short black hair. She is of average height and is slightly overweight. She has a casual, no-nonsense appearance.

Beginning in early elementary school, LaDonna received special education to address a developmental disability. According to early psychological evaluations, LaDonna had a full-scale IQ of 75. LaDonna's mother recalled that, "She used to get excited." "They said at school that she had a temper."

In middle school, LaDonna received academic instruction in a separate class setting with about eleven other students but participated in non-academic general education classes. LaDonna is not sure why she received special education. "... [B]ack in elementary, ... they had special classes, but I didn't think I really needed to be in them ... "I don't know why they put me in them." "I came in second in a spelling bee, even though I was in special classes." LaDonna's IEP goals in seventh grade included improved social studies skills, knowledge of the human body, awareness of nature, vocabulary skills, and word attack skills; improved listening comprehension; three digit multiplication; and counting change up to $100.

In 1986, when she was 14, LaDonna was reevaluated by a school psychologist who found she had a full-scale IQ of 81. A few months later, LaDonna was declassified from special education. Records indicated that she "tested out of DH [Developmental handicap]." She recalled her declassification in this way. "They gave me this test I had to pass to get out of special classes." "The teachers were really good." "They would encourage me to take my time, to read things over." "I didn't have a hard time or nothing."

LaDonna remembered high school fondly. "When I was in high school, I was on the track team, I was on the volleyball team, and the basketball team--I was very athletic." "I had a lot of friends." "I was really into school." "I used to look forward to going to school." LaDonna indicated that most of her friends were also in special education classes.

Records showed that LaDonna passed health and science in her first year of high school, but failed her other classes. The following two years, she did not pass any of her classes. Neither LaDonna nor her mother seemed to realize that LaDonna had earned only 1.5 of the 18 credits needed for a diploma.

When she was in her third year of high school, LaDonna became pregnant with her first child. LaDonna was sick much of the time during her pregnancy, and her school attendance became sporadic. She missed over 90 days of school that year.

LaDonna dropped out of high school after her baby was born. She continued to live with her mother and began collecting AFDC. She received welfare for two years and continues to receive medical insurance for her children, but no longer receives income support.

After the birth of her second child, LaDonna took classes to prepare for her GED. "I was going to school to get my GED at a career center." "I passed all the courses, and they gave me the paperwork, but I haven't gotten it [a GED] yet." LaDonna said she would like to go back to get her GED, but has no definite plans to do so. "[My Grandma] tried to talk me into going because I had done so good in school, she wanted me to at least get my GED--to get my diploma."

LaDonna had a few low-paying jobs shortly after she left school. She worked at a toy factory for three years where she earned $5.75 per hour and received benefits. The factory closed, however, and she was unemployed for a year before getting a job at a nursing home.

At the time of the interview, LaDonna had five children and lived in the mid-sized, industrial city where she grew up. She worked 24 hours per week in the kitchen of another nursing home. She did not receive benefits and earned $5.15 per hour. "When I first started off, it was real hard." "I had to do a whole bunch of things at one time--do the dishes, make up the trays, make up special trays for diabetics." She became used to the work and seemed to enjoy her job. "The people in the nursing home, they treat you real nice." "They can't do nothing for themselves, so I help them out." LaDonna occasionally worked as a hairdresser to supplement her income: "I've been doing hair ever since I was in school ..." "I put braids in, do permanents, curling it, cutting it--I've been doing that for years."

LaDonna's two oldest children were boys; they lived much of the time with their father while the three girls lived with LaDonna. The girls' father lived out of state and the girls visited him in the summer. LaDonna's rent was $225 a month and, with help from the girls' father, she earned enough to support her family.

Although LaDonna reported missing high school, she felt as though she was doing well. "I'm okay." "I think my reading skills--sometimes I don't understand a certain word, and I have to think real hard, then I get it." With the extensive support of her family, LaDonna managed to maintain her apartment, pay her bills, and care for her children.


Kevin is a 25-year-old White man with short blond hair. He has an honest, straight-forward manner. Although he expressed concern about his thinning hair and weight gain, these are unnoticeable to a casual observer. His short hair and posture reflect his military training.

Kevin's behavior problems began when he was in early elementary school. His mother recalled that "Kevin was kind of withdrawn." "He kept to himself." "He keeps things inside, would never cry no matter what, no matter what the punishment." "He was very heavy, short and fat; they called him `Stub'." "His, what I call, disruptive behavior began early on, maybe in first or second grade." "And the teachers would call me and say that he was kicked out of class." "He couldn't sit still." He couldn't keep quiet." He moved his feet." "He kicked the desk." "He made noises with his pencil." "They called it disruptive." Kevin's doctor prescribed Ritalin to treat what was diagnosed as hyperactivity. The medication calmed Kevin for about eight hours a day but, according to his mother, `when he would come down off that Ritalin he would be almost like a maniac." "He was wild." "There was just no controlling him."

In eighth grade, Kevin was referred for special education evaluation. At the time, he was failing math, science, and reading. The school psychologist found Kevin very difficult to test because he was constantly talking and asking questions about the assessment. At the time of the initial assessment, Kevin was functioning in the average range of verbal and full scale IQ. Kevin's evaluation showed strong feelings of hostility, aggressiveness, and impulsivity. He was insecure in social situations, lacked respect for authority, and believed other students saw him as "dumb and unattractive."

Kevin was placed in a program for students with emotional disturbances. His JEP initially called for consultation services--the least intensive, most integrated level of service. Within two years, he was placed in a self-contained special education class. Kevin indicated that, on several occasions, school personnel promised to mainstream him but repeatedly reneged on that promise. "Every time I thought I was going to get out, they would pull another trick to keep me in."

Kevin's behavior reportedly improved in high school and, in tenth grade, he was declassified from special education. He was doing well in his classes and was not seen as needing additional assistance. Kevin had a number of close friends in high school and was on the cross country team in his senior year. Kevin claimed he rarely studied. Nonetheless, he passed all of the functional tests required for graduation and received a diploma in 1989 with a 74 average.

After high school, Kevin enlisted in the Air Force. His primary goal in enlisting was to earn educational benefits to finance a college education. Kevin described basic training in this way. "It was a lot of mental games and physical stuff." "I thought I was physically fit when I went in, but the mental games really mess with your head." Kevin was assigned to a missile maintenance base in Wyoming. He found his days in the service "very long." Despite initial difficulties, Kevin received several awards and promotions during his four years of service and enjoyed an active social life.

Kevin left the Air Force with a 20% disability due to a back injury and, consequently, received $500 per month from the Veterans Administration for 48 months. In addition, up to $12,000 were paid to the university for tuition reimbursement as part of Kevin's veterans' benefits.

Immediately following his enlistment, Kevin enrolled in a community college in Wyoming. He later moved back home, enrolled at a local community college, and held several short-term jobs. Last year, Kevin transferred to a large state university. He rented a room from his aunt and uncle who live within commuting distance of his university.

A 1995 assessment by the Veterans Administration found that Kevin's spelling was at the eighth grade level. His aptitude was strongest in mechanical reasoning, verbal reasoning, and numerical ability. He exhibited lower ability in spatial reasoning, word knowledge, and language usage. His manual speed and dexterity were quite poor. At the time of the interview, Kevin was struggling with academics and motivation. "... [W]e're going so fast ..." "They ask us in class if you have questions, but I don't want to ask because I'll feel like an idiot." He continued to have trouble concentrating and taking tests. "I have a hard time putting work into studying because I want to do other things."

Kevin's special education placement was an area of open conflict with his mother. "Kevin insists to this day that I did not fight hard enough to keep him out, but they would tell me that this is what needs to be done." Both Kevin and his mother believe that the special education program held him back. "I don't think that being in special ed helped me." "I mean, you can't take basic classes and make it in the world."

While Kevin firmly believed that he never had an emotional disturbance, he wondered if he had a learning disability. "I have a hard time with abstract stuff but anything I do with my hands--it just falls into place." He found inattention a continuing problem. "I watch TV." "When it comes to reading for school, it's hard." Despite his academic difficulties, Kevin was socially well-adjusted, financially independent, and quite determined to succeed.


Reagan is a thin, 25-year-old White woman with short brown hair, wide-set eyes, and a beautiful smile. She has had serious health problems her entire life. She had several heart catheterizations as a toddler and had open heart surgery at age five. As a young child, Reagan had surgery to lengthen her palette. Prior to the surgery, she spoke with a lisp and received speech therapy to improve her articulation. Reagan also had tubes inserted in her ears to address chronic ear infections, surgery to correct a hole in her left eardrum, and wore a hearing aide for a short time in elementary school. Reagan's final surgery helped with an irregularity in her shoulders called Sprengel's deformity. Her shoulders continue to slope slightly downward.

Reagan's mother recalled her initial concerns about Reagan's educational peformance. "When we were stationed in California, she was going to a Catholic school kindergarten, and we noticed she was having difficulty with abstract thinking." "When we talked to the teachers, no one really would validate our feelings." "So I guess it wasn't until we came here that they did some testing ... and put her in an LD resource classroom."

Later tests showed Reagan was functioning in the low average range of intelligence. Particular weaknesses included short-term memory, general information, vocabulary, and attention to detail. She was described as lacking self-confidence in her school work. The psychologist did not make a strong recommendation either for continuation or cessation of services, but services were continued. The intensity of Reagan's special education services gradually declined and, by ninth grade, Reagan received only monitoring services. She could use the resource room as needed, but rarely did so.

Reagan attended an academically competitive public high school. She was perceived as extremely well-behaved and anxious to please. She completed assignments on time, was rarely absent, and paid attention in class. Her father spent many hours studying with Reagan and helping her with assignments. He had high expectations for her and pushed her to achieve.

Reagan reported that she felt socially isolated in high school. "I really didn't like high school." "Kids were kind of cruel." "When I was in middle school and had to wear a brace from my shoulder surgery, a few kids here and there would make fun of me--they would say I was faking it." "I liked the teachers." "I didn't have as many friends as I do now." Reagan had one good friend, but did not date or belong to a large circle of friends. Most of her positive social contacts came from playing in the band. Reagan took a part-time job as a veterinarian's assistant in high school. She later worked at McDonald's, but lost her job because she accepted foreign currency from a customer.

In tenth grade, Reagan initiated cessation of special education services. She did not feel she required additional support and was receiving adequate grades in her classes. The eligibility committee agreed to her request. Reagan finished high school with a 2.6 GPA and passed the Virginia minimum competency test.

After high school, Reagan enrolled in a community college and took a part-time job as a cake decorator at a local grocery store. She did well and continued to work there for several years. Reagan did not fare as well at the community college, failing several classes. "I would get home from work exhausted and wouldn't want to study ..." "I kept trying to tell my parents that I didn't want to go to school."

Reagan later enrolled in a dental assisting program. After successfully completing the 2-week program, she was placed in on-the-job training for seven months. When the training was complete, a local dentist hired her for $6.50 per hour. She stayed there for three years, eventually earning $8 per hour.

In 1996, Reagan began exploring further training and certification as a dental assistant in North Carolina. Twice she failed to pass the entrance test for the program: "I think it was because there was a lot of information about anatomy and physiology, and dental material, and radiology." "But I got a lot of extra books and I will study harder this time." "I think I will pass it this time."

Reagan decided to move to North Carolina, find a position as a dental assistant, and retake the exam after further preparation. Her first position in North Carolina was with a dentist she did not like, so she quit. Reagan lost her next job when the dentist discovered she was not a certified assistant. She found another position about half an hour's drive from her apartment. She did well, but found her boss overly serious and resented having less responsibility than in her previous jobs. In winter of 1996, Reagan took a new job as a dental assistant but was fired after two weeks; her employer claimed she was too slow. Shortly after the interview for this study, Reagan was packaging tortillas in a factory and was taking business classes at a local community college. She was having second thoughts about enrolling in the dental assisting program.

Over time, Reagan developed an active social life. She belonged to a gym, went to dance clubs, and attended church. "I really like it here, I'm making lots of friends." "... I get along real well with people, so it doesn't take long."

Reagan received some financial support from her parents, but she was taking increasing control of her own finances. She recognized that she needed to improve her general knowledge and she still had difficulty remembering what she read. Reagan was very proud of her accomplishments: "So now I'm out here working as hard as I can to be everything I can be on my own, without my parents."


Scott is a 25-year-old White man with short, brown hair. He has an average build and an athletic appearance. Both Scott and his parents described him as shy, but he exhibited an intelligent, friendly, relaxed manner.

Beginning in fourth grade, Scott was pulled out of his general education class two or three times per week to receive speech therapy for an articulation problem. Scott stopped receiving speech therapy when he went from elementary school to middle school. He assumed that he was doing better and no longer required services.

In eighth grade, Scott took a series of achievement tests for high school placement. He scored particularly low on the English test and was placed in a remedial English class that supplemented his general ninth-grade English class. It was not clear from school records or discussions with district staff whether this was a special education class or a remedial English class.

Scott did not particularly like or dislike high school. "I always seemed to just do enough work to get by--I was kind of lazy." "... I never really stood out." "I would just go with the flow." He graduated in 1989 with a 2.5 grade point average. He ranked forty-eighth in a class of 162.

Baseball was a big part of Scott's life in high school. "It seems like school and sports are separate." "I'm more confident and outgoing in baseball." "It really was a positive experience." Scott also worked at a local supermarket for 20 to 25 hours per week while in school.

After high school, Scott attended a local university. "... [M]y friends were in a lot of the honors classes, and all those kids were going to college, so I was like, well, I guess I'll go to college." He kept his job at the supermarket and continued to live at home. Scott worked 35 to 40 hours per week and took out some student loans to pay for tuition. Once or twice he did not have enough money to pay his tuition, so he took fewer classes or took the quarter off. It took him just over five years to finish his Bachelors degree.

Scott attributed any poor grades he received in college to a lack of motivation. "I remember I failed one math class because I fell behind in the homework." "There was no one to tell you to do your stuff, so you don't do it and you fall behind." Scott did not make many new friends in college, which he attributed to the school's large size. However, several of his high school friends went to the same university and they remained close.

Scott majored in marketing in college. "I was interested in it, but looking back on it now, I see that a lot of marketing involved sales, and I don't enjoy that because I don't have an outgoing personality." "I'm more customer relations than hard sales."

In his junior year, Scott was married. He and his wife had a daughter the following year. At the time of the interview, they lived in a nicely furnished apartment close to the university he and his wife attended. Scott's father considered his wife a good influence and described their marriage in this way. "I think Scott is one of those people who was made to be married." "His daughter, you almost can't get her away from him." "She is real attached to him." "As far as responsibility goes, I don't think Scott has a whole lot of choice." "I'm not really sure what his natural instincts would be for paying bills, but his wife's instincts are `they are getting paid!'." "I think, in a lot of those things, she's really controlling his actions." "What his actions would be if he was single and on his own, I don't know." "Gina is a very strong person, and I think that's very good for Scott." "Scott is pretty easy going, so they are a good pair."

While he was in college, Scott received a promotion from cashier to service manager. He enjoyed working with the customers and made $5.50 to $6.00 per hour. He later transferred to the receiving department and got a raise in salary to $9.25 per hour. When an opening arose in the supermarket's administrative office, the receiving manager recommended Scott. At the time of the interview, he was purchasing all the general merchandise for the supermarket chain. He was a salaried employee earning $23,900 per year. Scott felt that he had the potential to move up with this company. He was in an entry level professional position but was hoping for a promotion within six months.

Scott did not believe his speech impediment affected him in his adult life. "My R's only seem to bother me when I think about it too much." However, he attributed his shyness to his speech impairment; he believed that he was hesitant to speak out in school because of difficulties with articulation. Scott's parents indicated that they sometimes had difficulty understanding him on the telephone or if he spoke too quickly.

Scott attributed much of his success to his wife. "It's a good balance." "She's helped me to be more outspoken and outgoing, and I help her calm down and relax a little." Together they were working towards buying a house.


Rosiland is a 25-year-old African-American woman with long hair and long, painted finger nails. She has a pleasant manner and displays her interest in fashion and jewelry through her well-orchestrated appearance.

Rosiland's mother described her childhood in this way. "She was very hyperactive." "She started walking when she turned 7 months old." "She was potty trained when she was 9 months." "At the age of 4 she went to kindergarten." "They wanted to retain her because they said she was immature." "At this time we did not know that she had any kind of defect." "They gave her the random speech and hearing and eyes and all this at school." "We didn't know anything was wrong other than her just being hyper." "Come to find out, they did an experiment with the hearing and found out that she could not hear out of her right ear." "That blew our whole family away." However, Rosiland was not found eligible for special education services until middle school. At that time, she began receiving speech therapy to help with her pitch and was required to sit in the front of the class.

Rosiland's speech therapy ended when she started high school. When asked about Rosiland's declassification, her mother said it was "... because they did not have those classes in high school." Rosiland and her mother were sure she did not receive direct services in high school but records indicated that speech services continued until eleventh grade. Teachers may have been offered consultation services or Rosiland's progress may have been monitored by special education staff.

Rosiland had an active social life and enjoyed many school activities, including softball, cheerleading, and chorus. She participated in an early release employment program and worked at the Epcot Center. She also worked at Walmart, so her work hours totaled 20 to 25 hours per week.

When Rosiland was in twelfth grade, she was in a car accident and was hospitalized with a high temperature and vomiting. After the accident, Rosiland was unable to go to school due to headaches and neck pain. Her eligibility for special education was reinstated without a thorough eligibility determination, and she began to receive homebound services. "I went back to school for just a few days before I graduated." "But I did graduate." "I went to graduation and walked with my class." Rosiland finished high school with a 1.8 grade point average and was ranked 290 in a class of 329 students.

After high school, Rosiland took a full-time job at the Epcot Center about an hour from home. The position provided benefits, and she supplemented her income with part-time retail work. She continued to live with her mother. However, during her breaks at the Epcot Center, Rosiland would fall asleep and have trouble waking up. She began having severe headaches and would slip into deep, coma-like sleeps. "I sleep for hours and hours." "It makes me real tired and weak." "Even when I wake up, I feel like I've been working all my life and just set down to take a break." She was referred to a neurologist who determined that she had a seizure disorder. The doctor believed that the disorder resulted from the head injury Rosiland sustained in her car accident.

For several years, Rosiland's employment and activities were sporadic. Rosiland worked at a local middle school as an aide in the special education program. However, she was forced to leave the job after about a month because of her seizure disorder. "Being as I have this problem, it's kind of hard for me to keep a job." "I can go and work and do well for so long, and then have another one."

As an aide, she earned $563 per month, and the job offered excellent health benefits. She planned to take a second job to supplement her income. The position with the school district allowed Rosiland to have her own apartment for the first time. When she lost that position, she moved back home with her mother.

Rosiland received disability income from the State of Florida because she could not work after her accident. She applied for social security but was denied benefits. Several months ago, she reapplied and is awaiting a determination on her case. Rosiland's physician has prescribed several different types of medication since her accident. Some of them are very expensive and Rosiland does not have health insurance.

As an adult, Rosiland's hearing impairment affected her in minor ways. She had a telephone with a flashing light, and often she did not realize when people on her right side were speaking to her. "I joke about it a lot." "But I will tell a person in a minute, it's not no shame to me." "There's just some times when I would really like to hear things."

At the time of the interview, Rosiland was spending her days sleeping, watching soap operas, and shopping. Her seizure disorder interfered with much of her life. "If I get up in the morning time, I have to get back home around twelve or one o-clock because ... I have to come home and sleep for a while." "... It's very hard for me to read now." "It makes me more tired." Rosiland's mother was very supportive of her. "I told her that regardless of what problem you have, you should never put yourself down ... "I think the values that we instilled in her and the love of all my family has made her a sweet kid."


This discussion draws information from the case studies and the literature to address the study questions posed earlier. What circumstances fostered the process of declassification in the selected cases? What variables seemed to account for variation in educational and post-school outcomes for declassified youth?

Circumstances Fostering Declassification

A variety of circumstances led to the declassification of the case study youth. Reagan was responsible for initiating declassification on her own behalf. The school gradually reduced the intensity of special education support provided. When Reagan felt she no longer needed to use the extra help available in the resource room, she asked to be declassified and her multidisciplinary team agreed.

Two of the youth did not believe that they ever had disabilities and saw declassification as a process for correcting an initial error in eligibility. LaDonna, who received services for a development disability, was not sure why she received special education. Kevin did not believe he had an emotional disturbance. To this day, Kevin resents his special education placement and blames his mother for allowing it.

Several examples from the case studies supported findings from previous research that suggest declassification is fostered by movement across educational levels. Thurlow and Ysseldyke(1988) and Walker et al. (1988) found that students were more likely to be declassified if they were making the transition from preschool to kindergarten, or from elementary school to secondary school. Scott's speech services stopped when he left elementary school. In middle school, Rosiland was found eligible for services based on her hearing impairment; she stopped receiving speech therapy when she started high school. Her mother claimed speech services were not offered in the high school.

Previous research also suggested that state policy or practice may affect the likelihood that students with disabilities will be declassified (Kavale & Forness, 1992; MacMillan, 1988). Following several court cases in the 1970s and 1980s that challenged the use of IQ tests for identifying minority students as having mental retardation, many states altered their definition of mental retardation. As a result of this definitional change, the states reduced the overall prevalence of mental retardation in the population. States adopting revised eligibility criteria immediately made thousands of students ineligible for services. It was unclear if a definitional change was the basis for LaDonna's declassification; school records showed that she was declassified shortly after a reevaluation in which she obtained a full-scale IQ score of 81.

Factors Accounting for Variation in Outcomes

Outcomes for most of the youth included in the study were quite positive in terms of high school completion, participation in post-secondary education, and social adjustment. There were exceptions, however. After leaving special education, LaDonna earned only 1.5 of the 18 credits needed for a high school diploma before dropping out. She was chronically absent from school and failed class after class. She is employed part-time in a low-wage position and relies on family members to provide needed support for herself and her five children. LaDonna's cognitive limitations may have affected her ability to succeed in school without special education support. Moving from a self-contained special education class to a full-time general education program without any apparent support may have exacerbated her difficulties. Furthermore, it appeared that LaDonna's family did not monitor her attendance or grades.

Kevin's emotional disturbance and attention deficit appeared to improve with age. Kevin was bright and ambitious. He saw his special education enrollment as a barrier to success and committed himself to returning to general education classes. Kevin completed high school and enlisted in the Air Force. The military may have provided the structure Kevin needed to compensate for his disabilities. At the time of the interview, he was finding university-life more difficult to manage.

Reagan completed high school and went on to pursue postsecondary education. She tried to compensate for her learning disability by working especially hard. Her father spent long hours helping her with school work. While Reagan's postsecondary schooling and employment experience was not without difficulties, her family's financial stability allowed her to try different postsecondary education options and different employment opportunities.

Scott's speech impairment was limited to problems with articulation. Throughout elementary and secondary school, he received academic instruction in general education classes and did well in school. After leaving special education, Scott benefitted from positive peer influences and a supportive family. He lived at home while attending college; earnings from his job went directly to tuition costs.

Rosiland's case study was unique in that she was declassified and then reclassified after her car accident. Despite her hearing impairment and seizure disorder, Rosiland was able to complete high school. However, the seizure disorder she acquired as a young adult presented considerable barriers to employment and independent living. She has received extensive emotional and economic support from her family.

A variety of factors seemed to contribute to variation in outcomes for declassified youth. These included level of cognitive functioning; family expectations and support, including financial resources; peer influences; personal ambition; and the circumstances surrounding declassification.

Implications and Recommendations

Twenty years after implementation of IDEA, it is time to revisit the criteria used to determine who is eligible for special education services. Studies of declassified youth are valuable in that they focus on those students closest to the margin of eligibility. Clearly, declassification was appropriate for several of the youth in this study. The results, however, beg the question of how best to distinguish between those who require services and those who can succeed without them. Using current assessment tools, can educators distinguish between students like LaDonna, who clearly require extra attention, and students like Scott, who fare better than the average student, let alone the average special education student?

The fact that two of the five youths did not believe they ever had disabilities, LaDonna and Kevin, suggests a lapse in communication between the local school districts and the families and may reflect cultural differences in the notion of disability. Kevin, LaDonna, and their parents may have benefitted from more detailed information about the nature of their abilities and disabilities, special education eligibility criteria, and the eligibility process. This type of information may have benefitted the youths both in high school and in post-secondary roles. Instead, these two families continued to question the beliefs and intentions of school personnel with regard to special education services.

Several provisions in the 1997 amendments to IDEA may reshape the discussion of special education eligibility. First, once federal funding reaches $4.9 billion, states will receive support based not on the number of students identified but based on population and poverty. While federal contributions to special education are very small, it will be interesting to see if state education agencies make similar changes to their funds distribution, reducing the incentive to identify students with mild disabilities as eligible under IDEA. Second, the amendments require that teams convened to develop a child's individualized education program include at least one general education teacher. This may bring to the team an important perspective on the likelihood that individual students can function in general education classes without special education support.

Perhaps these policy changes will contribute to a much-needed discussion of what constitutes a disability within our educational system. As a social construct, the concept of disability is subject to change as norms evolve, programmatic incentives change, and the availability of resources fluctuates. The incidence of declassification and the success of those declassified can serve as a valuable indicator of change in the concept of educational disability. At present, special educators may be apprehensive to declassify students who are doing well and may no longer require specialized services. That may change once financial incentives for eligibility diminish and expectations for general education performance are more clearly articulated.


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Elaine Carlson Ann Reavey College of William and Mary


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