Study: Inclusion benefits special-needs students

A new study from researchers at Indiana University provides strong evidence that students with special needs do better academically when they are placed in general-education classrooms, not separated in self-contained special education classes.

The study tracks the test scores of a cohort of Indiana students with disabilities from third through eighth grades. It finds that students in “high inclusion” placements – in general-education classrooms at least 80 percent of the time every year – scored better than similar peers.

Lead authors of the study are Sandi Cole of the Center on Lifelong Learning at IU’s Institute on Disability and Community and Hardy Murphy of the center and the IU School of Education at IUPUI.

“We can now make a pretty definitive statement that placement matters,” Cole said. “If we know that placement matters, let’s talk about how we make it happen.”

Advocates have pushed for over 20 years for more inclusion, in which special-needs students learn side-by-side with nondisabled peers, often with special education teachers and aides working in the classrooms. Federal policy says that special-needs students should learn in the “least restrictive environment” that’s appropriate.

But critics have argued that it’s hard to do inclusion well and that it may not be effective. Evidence for the benefits has been inconclusive. One problem is a suspicion that the students placed in general classrooms are likely to be the ones who will do well in inclusive settings.

The IU study addresses that issue with an approach called propensity matching, in which third-grade students are matched on IREAD-3 scores, ISTEP math and language scores, attendance and primary disability. Using that quasi-experimental method, students in high-inclusion placements can be compared with “virtual twins” in low- and mixed-inclusion settings.

Mixed inclusion meant students were in a general education classroom 80 percent or more of the time for at least one year between third and eighth grade. Low inclusion meant they were not in a general education classroom 80 percent or more of the time in any year.

Excluded from the study were students whose primary disability is a communication disorder, who are nearly always taught in general education classrooms; and students with the most severe disabilities, who take an alternative to the ISTEP assessment. Other than that, the study included all Indiana students identified for special education as third-graders in the year the study period began.

Under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, states are required to evaluate schools, not only on the performance of all students but on the performance of “subgroups,” including students with disabilities. But school grades for subgroups rarely get much attention, even though over 340 Indiana schools are identified for improvement because of low scores for special-needs students.

“Often there is this fatalistic view that we can’t do anything for this group of kids because they’re never going to meet the standards,” Cole said.

The study suggests students with special needs are more likely to meet standards if they are placed in general education classrooms. The authors are submitting the study for publication in an academic journal but released findings now because of their potential value to educators and policymakers.

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