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Expectations for Students with Cognitive Disabilities: Is the Cup Half Empty or Half Full? Can the Cup Flow Over?

NCEO Synthesis Report 55

Published by the National Center on Educational Outcomes

Prepared by:
Kevin S. McGrew
Institute for Applied Psychometrics (IAP)

Jeffrey Evans
Evans Consulting

December 2004

Any or all portions of this document may be reproduced and distributed without prior permission, provided the source is cited as:

McGrew, K. S., & Evans, J. (2003). Expectations for students with cognitive disabilities: Is the cup half empty or half full? Can the cup flow over? (Synthesis Report 55). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, National Center on Educational Outcomes. Retrieved [today's date], from the World Wide Web: http://education.umn.edu/NCEO/OnlinePubs/Synthesis55.html

Executive Summary

To make informed decisions about the best instruction and assessments for students with cognitive disabilities, several questions need to be answered. For instance, how many students with cognitive disabilities can be expected to achieve the same level of proficiency as other students? To what extent can we predict who these students are? Can we discern whether a student's failure to meet proficiency is due to the student's disabling condition or lack of appropriate instruction? Finally, what effects do teacher expectations have on student achievement?

This report addresses these questions, and includes an analysis of nationally representative cognitive and achievement data to illustrate the dangers in making blanket assumptions about appropriate achievement expectations for individuals based on their cognitive ability or diagnostic label. In addition, a review of research on the achievement patterns of students with cognitive disabilities and literature on the effects of teacher expectations is included.

The literature raises numerous issues that are directly relevant to today's educational context for students with disabilities in which both the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001 are requiring improved performance. Particularly for those students with cognitive disabilities, the information on expectancy effects should cause us much concern. Is it possible that expectancy effects have been holding students back in the past? Are we under the influence of silently shifting standards, especially for students with cognitive disabilities? It is anticipated that the information in this report will help guide decisions about appropriately high and realistic academic expectations for students with cognitive disabilities.

Introduction

Over the past 30 years the United States has slowly and steadily clarified the meaning of access to a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) for students with disabilities. Today's interpretation of FAPE certainly differs from that of 1975 when the Education for All Handicapped Children Act initially was passed into law (EHA, 1975), and even from 1990 when the reauthorization of EHA changed the name to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA, 1990). Case law (e.g., Board of Education of the Hendrick Hudson Central School District v. Rowley, 1982), subsequent amendments to IDEA, federal regulations, and guidance continue to create expectations about the extent to which students with disabilities are expected to benefit academically from their education. Unfortunately, there is still limited consensus among educators regarding appropriate achievement expectations for students with disabilities, particularly those with cognitive disabilities.

A concern about low expectations and the need for high expectations was reflected in the IDEA's 1977 Preamble: "Over 20 years of research has demonstrated that the education of children with disabilities can be made more effective by (A) having high expectations for such children and ensuring their access to the general education curriculum to the maximum extent possible . . ." (IDEA, 1997, § 601). IDEA 1997 clarified that all students with disabilities are to have access to instruction focused on the same skills and knowledge as all other students, and that their achievement is to be measured with the same district and statewide assessment programs as used for all students (and, adding an alternate assessment for those students unable to participate in the general assessment).

The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001 further clarified that schools are to be held accountable for the adequate yearly progress (AYP) of all groups of students. NCLB specifically requires the disaggregation of assessment data for specified subgroups, including students with disabilities. The intended purpose of NCLB is "to ensure that all children have a fair, equal, and significant opportunity to obtain a high quality education and reach, at a minimum, proficiency on challenging State academic achievement standards and state academic assessments" (NCLB, 2001, § 1001). In other words, the expected educational outcomes for students with disabilities, or for any other subgroup of students, are the same high expectations held for all students.

Although data show that some students with disabilities are reaching the state-determined level of proficiency, many students with disabilities are still far from performing at this level (Thurlow & Wiley, 2004). Students with disabilities participate in proficiency assessments in three primary ways: (1) participation in the general assessment without accommodations, (2) participation in the general assessment with accommodations, and (3) participation in an alternate assessment. Federal regulations released December 9, 2003 clarified that an alternate assessment could be based on alternate achievement standards for students with significant cognitive disabilities. Alternate assessments could also be based on grade-level achievement standards. Both types of alternate assessments are to be aligned to content standards appropriate for the student's grade level of enrollment.

For NCLB accountability purposes, only up to one percent of all students (approximately nine percent of students with disabilities) can be counted for AYP as proficient or advanced based on alternate achievement standards (with possible exceptions for states or districts if certain conditions are met). Thus, with the exception of students working toward alternate achievement standards, (described in the December 9, 2003 regulation as those with significant cognitive disabilities), all students with disabilities are to be held to the same grade-level achievement standards as their peers without disabilities.

Many educators have grown increasingly concerned about the performance of students with cognitive disabilities who are appropriately working toward grade-level achievement standards, but whose current performance is far from a proficient level on grade-level achievement standards as measured by current statewide assessments. Considerable controversy surrounds the issue of what can and should be expected for these students. Some people argue that the vast majority of students with disabilities, when given appropriate access to high quality curriculum and instruction, can meet or exceed the levels of proficiency currently specified. Many special education advocates believe that subscribing to the same high expectations and accountability for student progress will ultimately lead to improved instruction and learning for all students. Others argue that a student's disability will ultimately prevent the student from attaining grade-level achievement standards, even when provided appropriate instruction and accommodations. This latter group believes that it is unjust to punish schools when these students fail to perform at the proficient level.

The discrepant "expectations" arguments reflect very different perspectives regarding the nature of cognitive disabilities. These two perspectives have existed for many years. To make informed decisions about the best instruction and assessments for students with cognitive disabilities, several questions need to be answered. For instance, how many students with cognitive disabilities can be expected to achieve the same level of proficiency as other students? To what extent can we predict who these students are? Can we discern whether a student's failure to meet proficiency is due to the student's disabling condition or lack of appropriate instruction? Finally, what effects do teacher expectations have on student achievement?

This report was prepared to begin to address these issues. It includes an analysis of nationally representative cognitive and achievement data to illustrate the dangers in making blanket assumptions about appropriate achievement expectations for individuals based on their cognitive ability or diagnostic label. In addition, a review of research on the achievement patterns of students with cognitive disabilities and literature on the effects of teacher expectations is included. It is anticipated that the information in this report will help guide decisions about appropriately high and realistic academic expectations for students with cognitive disabilities.

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