A survey of the academic engagement of students with visual impairments in general education classes.
Reports of post-high school outcomes, including postsecondary education and employment, have revealed differences between the performance of students with visual impairments (that is, those who are blind or have low vision) and those who are sighted. While approximately 57% of students with visual impairments enroll in postsecondary school, only 12% of them finished their program of study in the 3 to 5 years following high school (Wagner, D'Amico, Marder, Newman, & Blackorby, 1992). Employment statistics are also troubling, indicating that a high number of adults with visual impairments are unemployed or underemployed (Wolffe, 1999). In 1997, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that 31% of individuals aged 21 to 64 who were blind and 41% of those with low vision were employed. Supporting statistical information from the National Longitudinal Transition Study (NLTS) indicated that although 69% of the general population was engaged in competitive employment 3-5 years after high school, only 29.4% of those with visual impairments were competitively employed (Wagner et al., 1992). Shaw, Gold, and Wolffe (2007) reported that 29% of their Canadian participants with visual impairments aged 15 to 30 were currently employed, and that people with low vision were more likely to be employed for pay than those who are blind. This information provides educators, administrators, policy makers, and the general public with outcome measures indicating that the success of this population, while possible, is not assured, and suggests that there is value in the additional examination of practices at the elementary and high school levels.
Such an examination reveals that children with visual impairments as a group perform lower on standardized tests than do those who are sighted. Data from the National Center for Low-Incidence Disabilities (2004) indicated that 15.2% fewer students with visual impairments score at state-defined levels of proficiency or higher in reading, and nearly 20% of them score lower in math. These numbers from 2002 test data indicate alarming differences between the performance of students with visual impairments and sighted students.
Students with visual impairments have been included in general education classrooms since before the 1975 implementation of P.L. 94-142, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act. The NLTS reported that students with visual impairments spent, on average, 86.8% of their day in general education classes (Wagner, Blackorby, & Hebbler, 1993). Although these students have been physically included in general education classrooms, their academic success has not been guaranteed, with as many as 49.9% of them reported as having failed at least one course in general education (Wagner et al., 1993).
Educators of students with visual impairments have long argued that the physical inclusion of these students in general education classes is insufficient for the students' academic success (Harrell & Curry, 1987). Rather, they have noted that the appropriate emphasis should be on meeting students' assessed needs, including the need to participate fully in the general education curriculum (Curry & Hatlen, 1988; Lewis, 2002).
One way to evaluate students' participation in the general education curriculum is to measure the students' levels of academic engagement, or the time in which students are actively participating in teacher-assigned learning activities (Martella, Nelson, & Marchand-Martella, 2003). Studies have demonstrated that students who are more engaged in classroom activities demonstrate higher achievement (Brophy & Good, 1986; Cancelli, Harris, Friedman, & Yoshida, 1993; Frederick, 1977). In one of the first of these comparative engagement studies, Frederick (1977) reported that high-achieving students were engaged 75% of the time, whereas low-achieving students were engaged only 51% of the time. This finding has been supported in subsequent research comparing the engagement of various educational groups (Bulgren & Carta, 1993; Cooper & Speece, 1990; Greenwood, Carta, Kamps, & Arreaga-Mayer, 1990; Sindelar, Smith, Harriman, Hale, & Wilson, 1989). That the relationship between academic engagement and students' achievement is well established can be discerned by the relatively few comparative studies of the engagement of student groups that have been conducted since the 1990s.
A wide variety of tools and strategies has been used to measure the amount and quality of students' engagement. These tools range from self-report measures submitted by students to checklists completed by instructional staff members and parents to observations recorded by researchers. Academic engagement has been directly measured by counting the number of intervals during which students demonstrate academic, task management, and competing responses. Students who are engaged typically demonstrate a high number of intervals with academic responses, fewer task-management responses, and even fewer competing responses. On checklists, such as the Student Participation Questionnaire (SPQ), students who are perceived to be more engaged in academic situations are ranked high on the Effort, Motivation, Initiative, and Self-determination subscales and low on the Inattentive and Disruptive Behavior scales.
The body of research comparing the academic engagement rates of students without disabilities performing at various levels of achievement and students with a variety of exceptionalities has also grown over the past 30 years. Studies have investigated the academic engagement and achievement levels of students with learning disabilities (Kastner, Gottlieb, Gottlieb, & Kastner, 1995; Parker, Gottlieb, Gottlieb, Davis, & Kunzweiller, 1989); attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (Junod, DuPaul, Jitendra, Volpe, & Cleary, 2006); significant support needs (Hollowood, Salisbury, Rainforth, & Palombaro, 1994; Logan & Malone, 1998); autism spectrum disorders (Conroy, Asmus, Ladwig, Sellers, & Valcante, 2004); and mixed groups of students with disabilities, including behavioral disabilities (Alves & Gottlieb, 1986; Slate & Saudargas, 1987; Thompson, White, & Morgan, 1982; Wallace, Anderson, Bartholomay, & Hupp, 2002). Limited research in this area with students with sensory impairments, particularly those with visual impairments, has also been conducted. Fernandez-Vivo (2002) evaluated students' engagement in physical education, and Oh, Ozturk, and Kozub (2004) compared the social engagement and physical activity of students with visual impairments at a residential school for students who are visually impaired. The question of whether students with visual impairments are engaging and participating in general education classrooms in ways that are similar to their sighted classmates remains unanswered.
Barriers to academic engagement for students with visual impairments
The very nature of visual impairments can influence the participation of students who are blind or have low vision. Students with visual impairments often miss the subtle, untaught information that provides the basis for understanding key concepts on which general education is based. The resulting gaps in concept development can later affect their ability to infer, predict, comprehend, and create during learning activities. The amount of time required for the types of learning activities that are necessary to fill these gaps can be significant and often involves providing instruction in specialized environments.
In addition, students whose understanding of concepts is weak may require a longer time to respond to teacher-led instruction, which is frequently designed to elicit responses from multiple students. Multiple opportunities to respond have been shown to promote students' participation, thus decreasing academic gaps and off-task behaviors (Deno, 1998; Gunter & Denny, 1998; Sutherland & Wehby, 2001; Wehby, Symons, Canale, & Go, 1998). During the instruction of new materials, it is recommended that teachers who adhere to established guidelines to maximize engagement should provide four to six opportunities per minute for students to respond. When students are working with learned content during independent practice activities, the recommended number of opportunities to respond needs to increase to 8-12 responses per minute with 90% accuracy (Council for Exceptional Children, 1987; Frudden & Healy, 1986; Mastropieri & Scruggs, 1987; Sutherland, Alder, & Gunter, 2003). Even students with visual impairments whose knowledge of concepts is strong would have difficulty keeping pace with this rate of instruction, unless it is entirely verbal.
Full participation of students with visual impairments in general education classes is also affected by the need to access print materials using alternative methods. The reading speeds of students who use braille tend to be slower than those of students who use print (Nolan & Kederis 1969; Trent & Truan, 1997; Wormsley, 1996) and those of students with low vision who use magnification devices (Cowen & Shepler, 2000) and large print (Corn et al., 2002; Gompel, van Bon, & Schreuder, 2004). Even when electronic devices are used, valuable academic learning time can be lost while locating the correct section of an audiotape or turning on a computer or notetaker, opening the correct application, and getting ready to take notes or prepare written materials.
The educational environment, too, can create a barrier for students with visual impairments. It is not surprising that general education classrooms are designed with sighted students in mind. Educational materials are presented in a variety of visual formats: posters, charts, diagrams, videos, models, demonstrations, and print materials. The student who is visually impaired often has difficulty benefiting from these materials.
Although many materials can be modified into an accessible format, it is more difficult to modify the visual demands that relate to social and academic interactions. Teachers frequently maintain order in the classroom through nonverbal means, including eye contact and gestures. Students often follow discussions and gauge when to speak during conversations by using visual cues. Visual information and nonverbal communication encourage interactions and assist in the engagement of students. When students cannot access visual information and nonverbal communication, the task of engaging these students becomes more challenging.
The lack of self-determination may be another barrier to the academic engagement of students with visual impairments. Teachers of students with visual impairments have reported that these students frequently have difficulty with skills that promote independence and self-advocacy (Agran, Hong, & Blankenship, 2007). Although there are many reasons for the limited levels of self-determination of these students, including a decreased knowledge of concepts, inappropriate social skills, and learned helplessness, it seems logical that for students to be actively engaged, they need to display adequate self-determination skills.
Given the lower achievement levels of students with visual impairments, coupled with the visual demands of most educational environments that present natural barriers to full access and participation, we posited that general educators would describe the academic engagement of students with visual impairments as being low. Since visual access to the educational environment and to learning materials within it is likely to be different for students who use braille and those who use print materials (either regular or large print), a comparison of the academic engagement of these two groups seemed reasonable.
The study was approved by the Human Subjects Committee at Florida State University, which reviewed the process to ensure that informed consent was obtained from the participants. The commitment to protect the subjects participating in the study was honored throughout the data collection, analysis, and reporting of results.
To determine the perceptions of general educators of the participation of students with visual impairments, we used a modified version of the SPQ, developed by Finn, Pannozzo, and Voelkl (1995). The SPQ is intended to assess students' participation by collecting information on individual students on five subscales: Effort, Initiative, Motivation, Attentive Behavior, and Nondisruptive Behavior.
To address the specialized needs of students with visual impairments, Bardin (2006) added a Self-determination subscale to the SPQ. Items in this subscale asked the general educator to rate how often the student with visual impairment obtained materials independently, organized his or her own workspace, explained his or her needs appropriately to teachers and peers, requested assistance appropriately, initiated play or social interactions with peers, and used adaptive equipment independently. Selected items mirrored those presented in the evaluation component of Loumiet and Levack's (1993) curriculum addressing the social competence of students with visual impairments.
The six subscales of the Modified SPQ were formatted as an electronic survey and posted to a secure web site, SurveyMonkey.com. After agreeing to participate, each individual was asked eight demographic questions and then directed to six successive pages on which the items for each subscale were presented. For each subscale, the participant was asked to consider the student's behavior over the past 2 to 3 months and presented with the following reminder: "Please do not take the student's disability into consideration when responding. That is, please use the standard that you would expect of most of the students in your class as a guide when rating this student." All items began with the phrase, "How often does this student ...?" Response options for each item were never, rarely, half the time, most of the time, and always.
Participants were recruited by announcing the availability of the survey on an electronic discussion group, sponsored by the Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired, that is accessed by many teachers of students with visual impairments. Additional announcements of the availability of the survey were made by e-mail messages broadcast in selected states by the instructional materials centers, the state consultant, or the state residential school. Individuals who saw the announcement were asked to share it with a general education teacher in whose class a student with a visual impairment was placed for academic instruction. Because of the recruitment method and electronic survey format, the participants provided informed consent at the opening of the survey.
Of the 79 general educators who answered the survey, 78 completed it. The data from one participant, who indicated that the student with a visual impairment who was enrolled in her 8th-grade foreign language class was a nonreader and non-English speaker, was discarded. Responses by the remaining 77 who completed the survey were received from general educators in 13 states and 1 Canadian province. Two-thirds of the respondents were from North Carolina and Georgia. The teachers reported the participation of students ranging from preschool to the 12th grade, with the teachers of 7 students in preschool or kindergarten, 40 students in elementary school, 13 students in middle school, and 14 students in high school (3 respondents did not answer the question regarding the age of their students). The participating general education teachers reported teaching the entire gamut of academic areas.
The majority of these general educators reported that they were teaching classes primarily attended by students who performed at grade level (74%, n = 57) or were gifted (8%, n = 6). Only 10% of the participants reported teaching a class in which most of the students had been identified as having special needs (n = 8) or who were being remediated (8%, n = 6). Ninety percent of the classes taught by these teachers had 11 to 30 students enrolled, with just over half (51.3%) enrolling 20 to 30 students. The remaining classes (8%, n = 6) were smaller, in which 10 or fewer students were enrolled; only slightly more than 2% (n = 2) of the teachers reported being assigned more than 30 students.
Each participant was asked to describe the student with visual impairment who was assigned to her or his classroom by mode of reading: braille, print, dual media, or nonreader. Additional information about the visual acuity of the students, the font size that was preferred by the students with low vision, or the use of optical devices or large print was not requested.
Data were exported from SurveyMonkey.com into an Excel spreadsheet and coded for use in the SPSS statistical software program for analysis. Corrections were made to four items: prefers to do easy problems rather than hard ones (Effort subscale), gets discouraged and stops trying when encountering obstacles in schoolwork (Effort subscale), is critical of peers who do well in school (Motivation subscale), and criticizes the importance of subject matter (Motivation subscale). This correction allowed these items to be compared to the other items by putting the same value on positive and negative responses. In these four items, the answer "always" indicates negative engagement. In the other items, an answer of "always" was indicative of positive engagement. To allow for meaningful comparisons among the scales, the "always" answer for these four items was valued at 0 instead of 4. The remaining answers were coded as follows "most of the time" = 1 ; "half of the time" = 2; "rarely" = 3; and "never" = 4. For all the other survey items, "always" = 4.
The Mann-Whitney U Test was used to compare the ratings given to students who were print and braille readers. This test is the appropriate nonparametric statistic to use when testing if two samples of observations are drawn from a single population. The alpha value was set a priori at .05.
The participants reported that half the students (52.1%, n = 37) were working at grade level, 21.1% (n = 15) were performing above grade level, and 26.7% (n = 19) were performing below grade level. As can be seen from Table 1, the participants reported that the students with visual impairments in their classes were engaged between half and most of the time. The mean scores on the subscales fell between 1.27 (Inattentive Behavior) and 2.89 (Self-determination). The mean value on the Motivation subscale was 2.08, the mean value on the Inattentive subscale was 1.27, and the mean value on the Disruptive Behavior subscale was 1.50. These low scores indicate that students with visual impairments were reported to have low motivation and few inattentive and disruptive behaviors.
PERFORMANCE OF BRAILLE AND PRINT READERS
The participants identified their students as reading braille (n = 36), print (n = 35), dual media--print and braille (n = 3), or as nonreaders (n = 5). Three of the 5 students who were identified as nonreaders were in prekindergarten classes. To compare the two groups of students who were identified as either braille or print readers, we did not include the results for the dual media readers and nonreaders in the analysis. For ease in describing the findings, we refer to the distinction between braille and print readers, with the assumption that the braille readers were functionally blind and the print readers had low vision.
Of the 36 braille readers, 11 were identified as performing above grade level, 16 as performing at grade level, and 9 as performing below grade level. Only 4 of the 35 print readers were described as performing above grade level, while 21 were identified as performing at grade level, and 10 were identified as performing below grade level (see Table 2). Clearly, these general educators perceived that more braille readers than print readers in their classes were performing above grade level, although a chi-square test revealed that this difference was not significant. The percentages of students with visual impairments who were performing below grade level was approximately the same for both the braille (25%) readers and the print readers (28%).
When we compared the participants' ratings of the print and braille readers using the Mann-Whitney U Test, we found no significant differences on any of the Modified SPQ subscales. The participants rated students who used print and braille similarly. Students with visual impairments, regardless of reading mode, demonstrated similar levels of engagement.
Although no information is available by which to compare sighted and visually impaired students in the same classes, it is apparent that, for this group of students with visual impairments, these levels of participation could not be described as high, since only one of the subscale mean scores fell in the "more than half the time" or "always" categories. Mean scores for the Effort, Initiative, and Self-determination subscales reflect the behavior of students who, although engaged, were not impressing their teachers with their commitment to learning.
The one subscale with a mean rating in the "more than half the time" category evaluated students' level of attention as a factor related to high academic achievement. The participants reported that the students with visual impairments demonstrated little inattentive behavior. This finding was supported by the perception that these students engaged in low to moderate amounts of disruptive behavior (mean score = 1.50). The fact that the mean score for the Motivation subscale was 2.08 is troubling and raises questions about why these students, 21% of whom were working above grade level, demonstrated only moderate levels of motivation. To some degree, it appears as though the best that can be said of the students with visual impairments in this sample, both those who were blind and those with low vision, is that their general educators perceived them to be only moderately engaged in the academic curriculum.
This finding is of interest, since in previous studies, sighted students who were identified as high achieving have been found to be engaged more than 75% of the instructional time, while their low-achieving peers were engaged only 51% of the time (Frederick, 1977). In this study, 21% of the students were reported by their teachers to be working above grade level, and another 52% were identified as performing at grade level. One explanation for this difference is that the Modified SPQ is not an appropriate measure of the engagement levels of students with visual impairments. To determine the usefulness of this tool for this purpose, it would be necessary to record students' specific engagement behaviors in general education classes and correlate those observational findings with the SPQ ratings provided by general educators. Accurate achievement data on the observed students would also be necessary. If designed carefully in accordance with similar studies, this research would have the added benefit of providing comparative data on classmates who were previously identified by their teachers as high, average, and low achieving (see, for example, Parker et al., 1989; Thompson et al., 1982).
An alternate explanation for this discrepancy is that the general educators were more generous in their overall estimates of the performance levels of their students with visual impairments (below, at, or above grade level), but rated students more precisely when prompted to use the standard that they would expect of most of the students in their classes as a guide when rating the students with visual impairments on the individual items of the Modified SPQ. That some general educators have lower expectations for students with visual impairments is often discussed among professionals, but has not been researched. "Realistic feedback" has been identified as one of the unmet needs of students with visual impairments in their preparation for adult roles (Wolffe, 1999). Further research on the expectations of general educators of students with visual impairments in their classes will be important to understand this phenomenon.
The braille readers in this study were reported to be engaged at levels similar to those of the students with low vision who used print. This finding requires further explorative studies to gain a better understanding of whether this result is typical and, if so, what can be done to facilitate higher engagement levels of both groups of students. Recent research has focused on the complex interrelationship of factors that influence students' engagement, including relationships with peers (Zimmer-Gembeck, Chipuer, Hanisch, Creed, & McGregor, 2006), the quality of the teacher-student relationship (Hughes, Luo, Kwok, & Loyd, 2007), and students' effortful control (Valiente, Lemery-Chalfant, Swanson, & Reiser, 2008). The impact of these factors on the engagement of students with visual impairments is of interest, particularly given previous findings that students with visual impairments often struggle with self-determination (effortful control) (Agran et al., 2007) and peer relationships (Sacks, Wolffe, & Tierney, 1998; Wolffe & Sacks, 1997).
IMPLICATIONS FOR PRACTICE
The findings reported here are important to practitioners. That both print and braille readers with visual impairments were not rated as highly engaged suggests that teachers of students with visual impairments may need to assist general educators with strategies for ensuring that these students can participate in the full range of educational activities that are offered throughout the school day and with the educational materials that are used, and are offered sufficient opportunities to respond. Although support of this kind is often offered to general educators to whom students are assigned, it may not be as thoroughly addressed for students with visual impairments who read print.
To facilitate this support, teachers of students with visual impairments may want to use the Modified SPQ as a tool to identify the academic engagement levels of their students and to pinpoint in which subscale areas students demonstrate strengths and weaknesses. Armed with this information, they can develop appropriate interventions for students with visual impairments to increase the students' academic motivation, effort, initiative, and self-determination. Although such interventions may be as simple as providing realistic feedback to students on their performance compared to their peers, it may be that the needed interventions will be complex and require the involvement of parents and professionals over an extended period of time.
It is not known why the general educators who participated in this survey volunteered their time to provide the information that they did about the academic engagement of the students with visual impairments who were assigned to their classes. Because this group was self-selected, the students whom they described cannot be assumed to be representative of the population of students with visual impairments. The fact that half the students were braille readers and that nearly one-third of them were reported to be working above grade level is a further indication that a sampling bias may exist. In addition, the limited geographic representation of the participants prevents the generalization of these findings.
Special education researchers are turning their focus from access to the general education environment and becoming increasingly interested in the access of students with special needs to the curriculum (Soukup, Wehmeyer, Bashinski, & Bovaird, 2007). Although a focus on appropriate accommodations and modifications is not new to the field of visual impairment, there is still limited data-based information on the effectiveness of the curricular and environmental changes that are implemented for students who are blind or have low vision. Research on the academic engagement of students with visual impairments in general education classes can help to fill this gap, as well as to identify strategies to increase their meaningful participation in the curriculum.
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Julie A. Bardin, Ph.D., assistant professor and coordinator, Visual Impairment Training Program, North Carolina Central University, 712 Cecil Street, Durham, NC 27707; e-mail: <jbardin@ nccu.edu>. Sandra Lewis, Ed.D., associate professor, Program in Visual Impairment, Florida State University, 205 Stone Building, Tallahassee, FL 32306; e-mail: <email@example.com>.
Table 1 Mean scores on the modified Student Participation Questionnaire. Subscale Mean score Effort 2.77 Initiative 2.74 Inattentive behavior 1.27 Motivation 2.08 Disruptive behavior 1.50 Self-determination 2.89 Note: The subscale for Effort, Initiative, Motivation, and Self-determination: never = 0, rarely = 1, half the time = 2, Most of the time = 3, Always = 4. Table 2 Teachers' estimate of students' grade-level performance, by mode of reading. Braille Print reader Performance reader with low vision Totals Above grade level 11 4 15 At grade level 16 21 37 Below grade level 9 10 19 Totals 36 35 71