In the districts I’ve worked with over the last two years, a common concern has emerged: The influx of students classified as receiving Special Education and Related Services has made it increasingly difficult to push inclusion efforts.
And the data agrees with the influx. In the United States, the number of students between the ages of 3-12 receiving services increased from 6.4 million in the school year 2010-11, to 7.3 million in 2021-2022. Just over a third of students receiving these services are noted as having “specific learning disabilities.”
Student classification is determined by various factors, including evaluations, anecdotes, student portfolios, and observation data, among others. The expertise of a multidisciplinary team is paramount in establishing the personalized education program required to provide a student with the necessary support for their success. And while these methods of classification have remained consistent over time, an increase in numbers is influenced by heightened awareness and understanding of various disabilities and learning differences, advancements in diagnostic tools, and societal shifts, such as greater recognition and acceptance of disabilities, leading to a stronger inclination to seek support for students who may benefit from services.
While decisions to classify are, hopefully, based on a comprehensive protocol as determined by a district, decisions to place students in the least restrictive environment or to declassify, seem to present a higher degree of ambiguity. Teachers are often the ones who have to take the initiative to reduce services or advocate for placing students in the most inclusive setting. I have had conversations with multiple teachers who expressed that they had to be the ones to propose least restrictive environments within their teams. So, this raises the question: What about all of the other students getting lost in the shuffle?
Based on my extensive discussions with educators nationwide, a prevailing pattern persists.
There is a steadfast belief that students who are classified need a substantial amount of support to access the general education curriculum, including the need for placement in a resource room or similar specialized setting.
Conversely, I have engaged in numerous dialogues with supervisors and administrators who have concerns about the placement of these students. Their observations indicate that many students are acquiring, or have already acquired, skills and abilities that can facilitate a transition into an inclusive setting within a general education classroom, in a least restrictive environment, or even transition out of Special Education programming.
So, how can districts move more towards inclusion given the disconnect between teacher and administrator perception?
To answer that (and it can be answered), we must understand the disconnect.
The disconnect lies in traditional testing practices that tend to be the most valued source of reasoning for placement. Student performance on these diagnostics and benchmarks create perceptions and understandings about their abilities. Performance exams, particularly those administered at the beginning of the year, set off alarms. Students who did poorly are red flagged, while those who exceeded expectations are identified as high achievers or stand outs. Differentiation and student support is based, in many instances, on these singular results. For example:
Homogenous reading and math centers are created, with very little movement throughout the year.
Students who are identified as needing extensive support, are often situated next to their “advanced” peers.
Small group instruction often includes the same students.
Traditional testing practices guide instructional decisions school-wide. As a result, students are losing ample opportunity to build stamina, practice self-monitoring techniques, and gain independent opportunities to demonstrate growth.
Subsequently, ongoing evaluation and monitoring of student progress is falling through the cracks and inclusion efforts seem to be mostly at the hands of teachers who believe in inclusion, and service providers who are giving their teams a heads up that “numbers have to decrease.”
To move towards organic inclusion practices, it is imperative to gather and employ real-time data that aligns with standards and objectives. In other words, the use of formative assessment is the most effective and concrete way to identify students who are ready for inclusion.
Formative assessment practices are designed to seamlessly integrate into instruction without sacrificing valuable class time. They offer trackable data that can be easily administered within the flow of teaching and efficiently used to inform instructional decisions, differentiate instruction, and determine appropriate student placement.
By grounding discussions with parents, supervisors, teachers, and students in this data, a comprehensive and evidence-based picture of student need is painted. Appropriate and effective support are employed, and movement towards inclusion is solidified in on-going evidence.
Relying solely on diagnostic tests or anecdotal evidence from teachers is insufficient and shifts in perception are tough to crack. A comprehensive approach to student placement requires formative assessment data that reflects students' ongoing progress and capabilities. The inclusion movement requires districts prioritizing and promoting a formative assessment initiative at the onset of the year. From there, formative assessment practices can become part of a solidified inclusion protocol.