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


Few would argue that the concept of intelligence (IQ), and tests that measure the construct, have played a long and significant role in education, and special education in particular. The use of practical IQ tests is typically traced to the beginning of the century when Alfred Binet developed a battery of tasks to help identify children with learning difficulties (Neisser et al., 1996). Binet's goal was to develop a means by which to identify struggling students who would then receive remediation via "mental orthopedics." Clearly, Binet did not believe that his measure of intelligence quantified an innate or "fixed" ability. Binet was an optimist who believed that the ability "glasses" of children with lower ability were half full, and that their vessels could be filled further.

In stark contrast to Binet's optimistic position was that of English psychologist Sir Cyril Burt (1911). Burt's work was based on the then popular view that intelligence was a genetically based fixed entity. Burt's ideas influenced the design of educational systems that segregated children in different educational tracks based on ability. According to Burt, "capacity must obviously limit content. It is impossible for a pint jug to hold more than a pint of milk; and it is equally impossible for a child's educational attainments to rise higher than his educable capacity permits." Clearly Binet and Burt viewed the proverbial half-filled glass differently.

A final view, based on the 1994 feel-good movie Forrest Gump, can be considered the "cup overflowing" perspective. Briefly, this movie portrayed the fictitious life history of Forrest Gump, an individual who was classified in the mental retardation range early in school. The exchange between the school principal and Forrest's mother clearly illustrated an educational approach grounded in the Burt philosophy:

School principal: "Your boy's... different, Miz Gump. His IQ's 75."

Ms. Gump: "Well, we're all different, Mr. Hancock. He might be a bit on the slow side. He's not going to a special school to retread tires!"

Ms. Gump's response, and the subsequent string of life achievements of her son Forrest (e.g., star football player in college, world class ping pong player, Vietnam war hero, CEO of successful shrimp company) reflects the "cup flowing over" perspective on IQ test scores. That is, Forrest's achievements were beyond his measured IQ (which was below the average sized "jug" according to Burt).

When faced with students whose classroom performances or achievement test scores surpass their measured (or implicitly estimated) IQ scores by significant amounts, laypersons and professionals (e.g., educators and psychologists) frequently demonstrate an implicit subscription to a Burt philosophy that a person can achieve only up to his or her level of intelligence when they characterize Gump-like students as "overachievers." Ms. Gump's implicit intelligence conception, which was subsequently manifested in Forrest's accomplishments, would suggest that there is more to school learning than the size of a child's "IQ cup or jug"—other variables contribute to achievement.

Half-full or half-empty? Filled to-the-brim or the cup flowing over? Which intelligence-learning metaphor is correct? Burt versus Binet/Gump? Who should be believed during the current standards-driven educational reform fueled by the mantra that "no child shall be left behind" (NCLB), and that all children should reach grade level standards. More importantly, which philosophy should guide educational expectations for students whose primary special education classification is tied closely to IQ scores below the normal range (i.e., students with mental retardation or cognitive disabilities)? Should educational expectations for students with cognitive disabilities be grounded in a Burt philosophy (i.e., expect academic performance and achievement no higher than the student's estimated cognitive ability), or should expectations be based on the more optimistic Gump philosophy (i.e., it is possible for students with cognitive disabilities to achieve higher than their IQ test score and at grade level)? Is the Gump philosophy (i.e., a child's IQ cup can overflow) nothing more than a Pollyannaish belief based in fiction?

The primary purpose of this paper is to address the formation of appropriate expectations for students with cognitive disabilities by exploring the known empirical relations between intelligence and school achievement. In addition, a review of the research literature on how expectation effects, which are often based on perceptions of student ability and implicit theories of intelligence, can influence student performance.

Diversity within Disability Distributions

Probably no environment elicits individual differences sooner in life than formal education. In classrooms teachers strive to arrange conditions to elicit optimal performance among a diverse class of unique learners. However, due to the only true "law" in psychology (the law of individual differences), optimal learning conditions and techniques are not universal across learners.

This holds true for all learners—those with and without disabilities. It is important that students with disabilities not be saddled with group-based stereotyped low academic expectations. Just as the diversity of learning rates for students without disabilities is acknowledged, so it should be for students with disabilities. According to the 1997 National Research Council report Educating One & All: Students with Disabilities and Standards-Based Reform, "it is hard to talk about asking students in special education to the meet the same standards and outcomes as everyone else without paying attention to their varied characteristics [italics added]" (Olson, 2004, p. 10).

The federally funded Special Education Elementary Longitudinal (SEELS) study, the first ever nationally representative longitudinal investigation of elementary students with disabilities (ages 6 to 12), recently provided empirical support for the diversity of achievement levels of students with disabilities. According to the SEELS project director, José Blackorby, the data indicate that "you can find kids with disabilities who are scoring right near the top—above the 80th percentile—and you you'll find some in the middl… and then a lot more kids in the lowest quartile. So it's heavily weighted toward the low end but there's quite a bit of diversity" (Olson, 2004, p. 10). Although students with disabilities, as a group, tend to achieve in the lower half of the distribution of achievement, "individuals with disabilities can be found across the full range of academic performance" (Olson, 2004, p. 10). What accounts for the diversity of learning among students with disabilities, and for that matter, among all students?

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