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National Center for Special Education Research


Secondary School Experiences and Academic Performance of Students With Mental Retardation
NCSER 2009-3020
July 2009

Summing Up

This fact sheet provides a national picture of the secondary school experiences and academic achievements of students with mental retardation who received special education services under the auspices of school districts at the time they were initially sampled for the study. In addition to the information provided for the overall group of students with mental retardation, this fact sheet uses parent-reported ratings of their child's cognitive function skills to stratify this information by high, moderate, and low levels of cognitive functioning.

Secondary school students with mental retardation took a range of courses in a given semester, including academic, vocational, and other nonacademic courses, such as study skills. Although courses were taken in both general and special education settings, the overall group of students with mental retardation were significantly more likely to take courses in special education settings than in general education settings. A breakdown by level of functioning revealed that moderate- and low-functioning students were significantly more likely to take at least one class in special education settings compared with high-functioning students with mental retardation.

In general education academic courses, students with mental retardation often experienced a curriculum that was modified to some degree. Compared with their classmates in general education academic classes, students with mental retardation also experienced differences in the frequency of whole-class instruction and of receiving individual instruction from an adult who was not the teacher. Significant differences also were reported in student participation in general education classroom activities. In particular, students with mental retardation were significantly less likely than their classmates to respond orally to questions or present to the class or group.

When considering differences in the experiences in the general education setting across the parent-reported levels of cognitive functioning, low-functioning students with mental retardation numbered less than 30 and could not be analyzed. However, significant differences were found among moderate- and high-functioning students with mental retardation, with moderate-functioning students being more likely than high-functioning students to take courses in special education settings. Curriculum modification in some form did occur for the majority of moderate-functioning and high-functioning students, though there was no significant difference between the two groups. Furthermore, instructional groupings and participation in general education settings were not significantly different between moderate- and high-functioning students.

In addition to academic subjects in general education settings, students with mental retardation took general education vocational classes. Findings indicated that the majority of students with mental retardation in general education vocational classes experienced the same instructional practices as the class as a whole. Comparisons by level of cognitive functioning revealed no significant difference in instructional experience between moderate- and high-functioning students.

The vast majority of students with mental retardation took at least one course in a special education setting in a given semester. Some form of modification to the general education curriculum was provided for nearly all students, with the majority of moderate- and low-functioning students receiving a "specialized curriculum." Additionally, instructional groupings varied between low-functioning students and those who were moderate- or high-functioning, as noted by the significant differences in whole-class instruction and individual instruction from a teacher or other adult.

Furthermore, their instructional experiences appeared to be different in courses taken in a special than in a general education setting. For instance, small-group instruction was significantly more likely to be used in special than general education settings, as was individual instruction from a teacher. In terms of out-of-classroom activities, students with mental retardation were significantly more likely to take part in community-based activities and go on field trips in their special education than in general education courses. Student participation also differed between the two settings; students with mental retardation (the majority of which were high- or moderate-functioning students) were more likely to respond orally to questions in special education classes.

Almost all secondary students with mental retardation were reported to receive some type of accommodation, modification, support, or related service. Additional time to complete tests and assignments were ranked highest by teachers as a form of accommodations received for high- and moderate-functioning students, whereas low-functioning students had alternative tests or assessments as the most common form of accommodation. Many students with mental retardation had their progress monitored by special education teachers or were supported by a teacher's aide, instructional assistant, or other personal aide. Additionally, more than two-thirds of students with mental retardation received a range of related services to support a wide range of needs and functional issues. The most widely used related services for low- and moderate-functioning students were adaptive physical education and special transportation. Speech and language therapy also was a commonly provided service to students at all levels of cognitive functioning. One-third of secondary students with mental retardation had a case manager provided from or through their school to help coordinate and oversee services.

With regard to academic achievement, the majority of students with mental retardation at all cognitive functioning levels received course grades of C or below, with one-quarter receiving poor or failing grades. Performance on standardized academic assessments revealed that, across all subtests, all but 1 percent of students with mental retardation scored below the norm, and all assessment subtests had mean standard scores more than two standard deviations below the norm. For students unable to complete direct assessments, the majority of whom were moderate- and low-functioning students, functional assessments revealed that more than 95 percent of students with mental retardation had functional behavior scores below the mean across all subtests, with an overall mean standard score more than five standard deviations below the norm. Despite these generally low academic performances, almost one-third of students with mental retardation received grades of C or higher, and for certain subtests on the direct assessments, more than 10 percent scored within one standard deviation of the mean.

This is the fourth in a series of NLTS2 fact sheets that focus on the experiences and outcomes of youth in a specific disability category. Previous briefs focused on students with ADHD, learning disabilities, and autism. These and other products from NLTS2 are available at http://www.nlts2.org.

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