For Students With Disabilities, Overcoming Low Expectations Can Be Half the Battle

They're capable of the work. School leaders and teachers just don't always believe it.

MONROVIA, Calif. — Mark Nelson was ready to take a final during his sophomore year at Monrovia High School in Southern California in 2011. He knew it would be easy; he said tests in his special education classes almost always were. But after handing out the exams, Nelson’s teacher made a shocking announcement to the class of students with disabilities: She would give them all the answers.

The teacher read each multiple choice question aloud, Nelson recalled, and told them what option to select. She presented it to the class as though she was doing them a favor.

Nelson, who has dyslexia, a processing disorder and verbal apraxia, which means he sometimes says words in the wrong order when he speaks, was aghast. As part of his special education accommodations, he was allowed to use a teacher-created study guide while taking tests. He rarely studied but still got As. He was frustrated enough by how little he was learning that he and his family were on the brink of suing the school district.

Now his teacher had so little faith in his ability to learn that she was offering to help him cheat.

“If you’re giving kids the answers, you’re not helping them at all,” he said. “You’re hurting their future.” 

Special education is a notoriously weak point in the nation’s education system, despite the fact that 6.6 million, or roughly 13 percent, of all public school students receive such services. Too often, by the time these students reach high school, problems that began in the early grades have reached a point of no return; too many children are pushed out into the real world ill-prepared for what lies ahead.

Experts estimate that, if they receive proper support along the way, up to 90 percent of students with disabilities are capable of graduating high school with a traditional diploma, fully prepared to tackle college or a career. But only 65 percent of special education students actually graduate on time, compared to 83 percent of all students. Only a third of students with disabilities who enroll in four-year colleges graduate within eight years, according to a 2011 federal study.

If you’re giving kids the answers, you’re not helping them at all. You’re hurting their future.

At some schools, students like Nelson are underestimated and stuck in classes that are too easy for them and that don’t prepare them for higher education. Others face the opposite problem: they’re left to struggle in classes that are too difficult for them without the support they need to succeed. The two scenarios are so common they have created a crisis for the millions of special education children the American education system serves.

“We’re really letting down a huge, huge number of kids,” said Gretchen Andeel, co-founder of the Fundamental Learning Center in Wichita. “If we can get them remediated and get them the right services and the right support through high school then they’re going to set the world on fire.”

These schools aren’t only failing their students. They’re violating a federal law. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that school districts identify students in need of special education services and provide them a “free and appropriate education.” That law was reinforced this spring when the Supreme Court ruled that districts must provide “more than de minimis” education to special education students.

Mark Nelson ultimately became proof that special education students who get the support they need can be successful after high school. He still lives in Monrovia, California, just east of Los Angeles, but with his pickup truck and ever-present cowboy hat he looks like he’d be at home in Texas. At 22, Nelson has a stable job as a salesperson at REI and is one semester away from finishing an associate degree in biological math and science. He’s thinking about getting his bachelor’s next.

But it wasn’t an easy path.

Photo courtesy Mark Nelson
Mark Nelson attended Summit View High School for his junior and senior years after settling a lawsuit with Monrovia Unified School District that alleged he was not being provided an adequate education.

Even before starting high school in 2009, Nelson knew he wanted to go to college. In his freshman year, however, he realized that he wasn’t academically ready for higher education and that he wasn’t learning enough — fast enough — to get him there. He had fallen behind his peers after enrolling in special education in second grade. He had spent fourth grade learning to structure sentences, when his peers were writing full paragraphs, and middle school writing paragraphs, when his peers were tackling essays.

Yet, throughout his first eight years of schooling, he’d felt like he had adequate help and was at least advancing. When he got to high school, it was more like treading water. He was almost exclusively placed in separate classes for special education students. “When they separate you into different classrooms it can just debilitate you,” he said, adding that the content was “dummied down.” Special education high school students used books more appropriate for middle school and never had to write essays of more than a few hundred words. Even things that were designed to help him, he said, such as being allowed to use study guides on tests, hurt him in the long run.

“I was being put in classes that were way too easy for me. I could have graduated … with a 4.0 if I wanted to.”

During his sophomore year, Nelson and his parents hired an advocate who began attending meetings with them. Eventually, they decided no one was paying attention to their complaints so they sued. A week before the case was set to go to court, the district agreed to settle and pay for Nelson to finish up his high school career at a private school 20 miles away for students with learning disabilities. To Nelson’s delight, once he started there, his grades dropped as he was finally challenged in school.

“I knew I was being better prepared for what the world was truly going to require of me,” he said.

Monrovia Superintendent Katherine Thorossian was not at the district while Nelson was in school and was unable to speak to the specifics of his case. (Monrovia also now has a different special education director, and a few of Nelson’s teachers are no longer working in the district.)

We’re really letting down a huge, huge number of kids. If we can get them remediated and get them the right services and the right support through high school then they’re going to set the world on fire.

Thorossian said she was disappointed to learn that Nelson and his parents had been unable to work out their issues with the school system during yearly meetings to finalize his Individualized Education Program, or IEP. The regularly updated IEP is intended to detail a student’s ability level, set goals and outline any accommodations they will need for classes and exams.

“Those IEPs really are designed to make sure that there is a true partnership between the school and the home and that everybody agrees upon a plan of action, which is why everybody signs it at the end,” Thorossian said. “Something obviously went awry.”

She also said that she has not heard of any other cases of students being given teacher-made study guides for exams or answers for tests, neither of which would be appropriate. She added that based on his disability, Nelson should have been taught the same curriculum as general education students — something that the district strives to do for all special education students.

“They are general education students first,” she said. “We want students to be challenged.”

While Thorossian believes Nelson’s case was an anomaly for her district, aspects of his experience are replayed over and over in schools across the country. Interviews with more than 40 parents and students and 50 experts and advocates from 34 states painted a picture of low expectations and constant battles to make sure students get the support they need. College-bound students with disabilities were put in low-level classes, students sat in segregated classes despite the wishes of their parents and assignments didn’t match the ability levels of students — some were way too hard, and others far too easy.

Melissa Lyttle for HuffPost
Mark Nelson poses for a photo at Citrus College.

Janae Cantu, who has dyslexia, recalls that as a sixth-grade student in Oklahoma, she started to notice that she was consistently learning in a separate classroom with a small group of students, and her assignments were drastically different from her peers’. 

“What kind of drives me up the wall was why was I not doing the same stuff the other kids were doing?” said Cantu, who recently graduated from the University of the Ozarks in Arkansas. “I understand getting assistance and things explained to me differently, but why weren’t we doing the same stuff?”

“I’m not incapable of understanding it, you just have to present it to me in a different way,” she added.

In Chouteau High School, as a college-bound student, Cantu spent most of her day in general education classes, but because of her dyslexia diagnosis, for one period each day during freshman year, the school assigned her to a special education class where she completed activities like building cars out of cereal boxes and racing them.

“It wasn’t helping me in reading or spelling or anything like that,” Cantu said. “It wasn’t really something that taught me skills to apply to my school work.”

Glen Bibelheimer, Chouteau’s principal, said that while he cannot speak to the specifics of Cantu’s experience, the school tries to ensure all students are “career ready and college ready.”

“It’s not just one class that’s going to do it or not do it,” Bibelheimer said. The class Cantu described counts toward graduation requirements and is offered for students with disabilities in partnership with the University of Oklahoma. The goal of the class is to introduce students to technology. In addition to designing and racing cars, students learn how to use graphic design software under the instruction of a special education teacher.

General education students take a different computer class to meet the graduation requirement, although students with disabilities may also be placed in that class depending on several factors, like availability, student interest and counselor or parent input. Students can also drop a class during the first ten days if they are unhappy with it, Bibelheimer said.

Students with disabilities may be preemptively placed in the special education class as freshmen because school officials are just getting to know their ability levels, Bibelheimer added. “As we meet a student as a freshman at the door, not all of [their ability] is apparent as of yet,” Bibelheimer said. “When we figure out who these students are and what they can do, that’s when we try to meet them where they are.” 

Special education students across the country reported low expectations in school, regardless of their actual ability level or future plans. The vast majority of those interviewed said that the problem often isn’t the fault of individual teachers, but a failure of the system. Districts have no financial incentive to go above and beyond for them. Poor education for special education students typically starts in elementary school, most often with a student not being given the services to which they are entitled or not being properly diagnosed. 

By the time those students reach high school, they may be several grade levels behind their peers, with the clock ticking. “The older a child gets the harder it is to make up for lost time,” said Pam Lindemann, founder of IEP Advocate in Florida, which helps families navigate special education. “It’s just a reality thing. You have a limited time to make things change.”

One Minnesota parent, Sarah, felt that urgency when her son, Brad, got to high school. (Their last name is being withheld at their request that Brad not be publicly identified as having a disability.) Brad was first enrolled in special education in second grade. Like Nelson, he has dyslexia, along with dysgraphia, which makes writing difficult for him. But unlike Nelson, he was constantly placed in general education classes that were too difficult because teachers didn’t realize how much trouble he had with reading and writing and that he was falling behind. They assumed that he didn’t want to do the work, not that he couldn’t do it without support, his family believes.

“They don’t understand,” Sarah said. “In Brad’s case, he’s a super-smart kid who’s covering up for his deficits and they don’t care. They don’t get it. His test scores don’t show it.”

Photo courtesy Sarah
A Minnesota parent, Sarah, sent this writing sample of her son’s ninth-grade work to her superintendent in a letter that argued her son’s disabilities were not being taken seriously by his teachers.

Brad did well on multiple-choice standardized tests because he had memorized enough words to grasp the meaning of short questions and text excerpts. The set of words he knew by sight helped him choose correct answers. “His system fails when he has to determine random words or subjects,” his mom wrote in a letter to the superintendent in April 2014. On the longer assignments he had to write for class, his work looked more like that of an elementary school student than a high schooler, with what his mom called “minimalist handwriting.”

After getting several Ds in the first few semesters, Brad failed two courses during his second semester of sophomore year of high school. Sarah filed a complaint with the state and went through mediation, which earned Brad the chance to use assistive technology, allowed him to make up some of his failed classes and paid for private tutoring and an outside evaluation.

That evaluation confirmed Sarah’s beliefs: Brad’s reading comprehension scores were above average for his grade level, but his scores in fluency and accuracy were extremely low. He scored in the fifth percentile for reading unknown multisyllable words. It meant that Brad could get the gist of a text, but was unable to decode individual words he had never seen before. He was missing a foundational reading skill.

As part of the mediation, the school district paid for Brad to get outside tutoring to learn reading strategies, lessons he began the summer before his senior year in 2016.

Sarah still worries that he lost out on 10 years of practice in reading and writing, and he still barely passed his senior year math classes. She suspects he either has undiagnosed numeracy problems or that his dyslexia and dysgraphia affect him in the subject. Either way, he didn’t get the help in math that he eventually received in English, so he saw a tutor this summer to make up for it.

When Brad was in elementary school, he said he wanted to go to MIT and become an engineer. He graduated high school this year with a 1.9 GPA and was rejected by the University of Wisconsin-Stout and the University of North Dakota. He’s attending community college this fall and is doing well so far, but Sarah said that even the process of enrolling there was difficult — years of struggling at school and not being understood have left him with self-doubt and anxiety.

Brad said that overall he had a good high school experience; he made great friends and enjoyed most of his classes. But it could have been better.

“Do I think the school did enough? Not really,” he said. “Did I think they did an okay job? Yeah, it was okay. But I don’t think a school should be going for okay. I think they should be going for good, or maybe better than that, at least.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education, in partnership with the Huffington Post. Read the whole series, “Willing, able and forgotten: How high schools fail special ed students,” here. Sign up for our newsletter.