A r c h i v e d I n f o r m a t i o n
To Assure the Free Appropriate Public Education of All Children with Disabilities - 1996
Special Education Program Standards Study of Class Size and Combining Students with Various Disabilities
Virginia Department of Education, FY 1991
The Policy Context
Virginia's Special Education Program Standards define the maximum caseloads special education teachers can carry and the conditions under which students with different disabilities can be instructed together. Virginia's special education delivery system is based on the categorical placement of students with disabilities who receive special education services for 50 percent or more of the day. As of 1992, when this study was initiated, special education class size and class mix standards in the State had not changed since the 1970s. Evidence of the need to evaluate these standards in light of changing practices included: 1) an increase in the number and types of waivers requested by local school divisions; 2) an increase in parent and advocate complaints about approved waivers; and 3) a consensus of key stakeholders that the standards might have become too rigid for determining appropriate programs for individual students.
The Research Questions
The study, conducted by The Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) in conjunction with researchers from the Virginia Polytechnic University and the University of Virginia, gathered information designed to enable the Superintendent of Schools and State Board of Education to determine those areas in which the special education standards are successful or need improvement. The project team examined two primary research questions:
- What are the effects on student achievement of varying class sizes and mixing students with different disabilities?
- How do the special education program standards inhibit or facilitate effective service delivery?
Investigators took a stakeholder-based approach to answering the research questions. Stakeholders were chosen to represent diverse constituencies with disparate views on the key issues and high stakes in the outcome of the program standards study. The composition of the stakeholder group was carefully balanced with the aim of promoting a common framework for understanding the issues involved in analyzing and developing policy. The larger stakeholder group of 73 members included local school board members; principals; directors of special education; general, vocational, and special education teachers; parents; students; and VDOE staff. This group provided input concerning all aspects of the study. Seventeen representatives of the larger group formed the stakeholder steering team, which was actively involved in designing the instruments, collecting data, and formulating recommendations.
Study activities were carried out in three phases. During Phase I (Spring 1992), determinations were made about which issues warranted full-scale study and the best methods for collecting statewide data from multiple sources. This phase included a literature review on the effects of varying class size and class mix, and site visits to three school divisions to gather in-depth information through interviews, document reviews, observations, and surveys. During Phase II (Fall 1992-Spring 1993), broad-based, statewide information was collected, primarily through administration of mail surveys to:
- all special education directors in the State (80 percent responded);
- 1,000 randomly selected special education teachers of students with high incidence disabilities--educable mental retardation, emotional disabilities, and learning disabilities (85 percent responded); and
- more than 3,000 other special educators serving students with low incidence, moderate and severe disabilities such as hearing and vision impairments, speech-language impairments, and preschoolers with disabilities (45 percent responded).
Opinions on the program standards for students with disabilities were also solicited from persons attending statewide public hearings. Twenty-five attendees at three hearings provided public testimony. In addition, 255 written comments were received during the public comment period.
During Phase III (Fall 1993-Spring 1994), recommended revisions to the program standards for students with disabilities were formulated. The recommendations were based on information gathered during Phases I and II, on studies of class size and funding policies in other States, and on prior studies of special education in Virginia. During this phase, the information was collected during monthly stakeholder steering team meetings; quarterly focus group meetings with the broader stakeholder groups; presentations to the Virginia Department of Education management and the Board of Education; and meetings on selected topics held with various advisory councils,faculty at institutions of higher education, and advocacy groups.
The major study findings are described below.
- Many administrators, as well as some teachers and parents, perceive the program standards as too rigid for determining appropriate programs for individual students.
- On the whole, students achieve at lower levels in larger classes, while other areas (social and affective indicators, as well as teaching methods) are unaffected by class size.
- Teachers and administrators agreed on some aspects of class size standards and disagreed on others. Both groups consistently recommended smaller resource classes. However, teachers judged size standards for most self-contained and departmentalized classes as high, while administrators regarded most as manageable.
- Neither student achievement nor social and affective indicators (e.g., motivation, self-concept, work habits, etc.) appear to be discernibly affected when students with educable mental retardation, emotional disturbances, and learning disabilities are instructed together. Teachers in mixed classrooms used significantly fewer methods of instruction, as well as more large group instruction, than those in classrooms where students with only one type of disability were taught.
- Unlike special education directors, teachers in all categories oppose the practice of mixing students with educable mental retardation, emotional disturbances, and learning disabilities.
- In general, class size and class mix standards for students with low incidence disabilities are seen as less problematic than those for students with emotional disturbances, educable mental retardation, and learning disabilities. However, there are a few exceptions, most notably caseload sizes for early childhood special education and speech-language impairment.
Another of the study's significant accomplishments, as documented by an external process evaluation by the Evaluation Center of the University of Virginia, was its successful implementation of a complex, participatory stakeholder-based design, that incorporated stakeholder input into the study process and formulation of findings.
The study resulted in nine recommendations that have been or will be used to develop new statewide standards for students with disabilities in Virginia. The major recommendations to the State Board of Education are described below.
- The caseload for students with educable mental retardation and speech or language impairments should be reduced. On the strength of this recommendation, the State Board of Education requested additional funds in their 1994 budget to support the State's share of costs for reducing class sizes for students with educable mental retardation and speech or language impairments. Study personnel further recommended that this budget request be approved by the General Assembly for implementation in the 1994-1995 school year.
- Current teacher caseloads should be preserved when students with disabilities are integrated in general education settings.
- New standards should not require that students with disabilities be grouped exclusively by disability category. Placement should be decided by a student's individualized education program (IEP) committee based on appraisal of each student's needs.
- New standards should permit exceptions to be made to State regulations for innovative programs that are locally planned with stakeholder and local school board involvement, provided such programs do not override students' IEPs or violate Federal regulations.
Additional recommendations call for conducting further studies in several areas, including investigating the impact of inclusion.
[Feasibility of Evaluation of the Oregon Comprehensive Plan for Supported Education]