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State variation in placement of children with handicaps in segregated environments.

ABSTRACT: Data Provided by states over the past 10 years demonstrate little change in the use of separate facilities for students with handicaps. However, state-to-state variation in reliance on the various educational placements is quite high, indicating far less stability in service patterns than the national data would suggest. F-] The least restrictive environment provision of P.L. 94-142 creates a Presumption in favor of educating children with handicaps in regular education environments. Placement in the least restrictive environment (LRE) has been discussed and contested in advocacy efforts, professional literature, the courts, countless due process hearings, and in the regulation development process for the 12 years since the law's signing. The statute and implementing regulations require that, first, educational services appropriate for each child be defined annually in an Individualized Education Program (IEP); and, then, an educational placement be selected from a continuum of alternatives so that the individually appropriate education can be delivered in the setting that is least removed from the regular education environment and that offers the greatest interaction with children who are not handicapped. To assist in implementing the least restrictive environment requirement, federal monitoring, discretionary grants, and technical assistance efforts have been designed to build the capacity of regular educational environments to serve children with disabilities.

Though there has been significant professional discussion related to LRE, there has been little empirical analysis of the extent to which various educational placements actually are used. Data presented in the U.S. Department of Education's Annual Reports to Congress on the implementation of the Education of the Handicapped Act (Office of Special Education Programs, 1988) indicate little variation over time in the national composite use of the various settings. For example, Figure 1, which presents data since 1976-77, reveals little change in the use of separate facilities for students with handicaps over the decade. This period shows an increase in the use of regular class placements which most likely reflects the increase in students with learning disabilities.

One interpretation of these data is that the relative use of the various environments reflects educationally related characteristics of individuals with different types and levels of disabilities. This interpretation would suggest that there is little potential for change or improvement. It would further suggest that the patterns of services across environments would be relatively similar across states. The present article investigates this possibility by examining state-to-state variability in use of alternative placements during the most recent year for which data are available, school year 1085-86. if state-to-state variability does exist, this would demonstrate potential for improvement in the national effort to educate children with handicaps in less restrictive environments. Clear information on the nature of this variability could aid in budget planning and priority setting, and could provide a baseline against which future improvements could be measured. A second purpose of this article is to provide an opportunity for professional review and discussion of a method of analyzing data on educational placements. The analyses discussed have not been included in the previous reports to the Congress and are distributed in this article so that their inclusion in future reports can be done with the benefit of the interpretation that follows the professional discussion this year.

The specific questions to which this article is addressed are: (1) To what extent are students placed in environments that remove them from the regular education environment? and (2) What is the state-to-state variability in the use of those placement categories. METHOD Data Sources Each year states submit data to the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) in the U. S. Department of Education on the number of children with handicaps who are served in each of six different educational placements: regular class, resource room, separate class, separate day school, separate residential school, and home/hospital. Figure 2 presents the definition of these environments used in data collection. These data are among the data requirements mandated in Section 618 of Part B of the Education of the Handicapped Act. States are required to report an unduplicated count of all children with handicaps, by type of placement and disability category, for students aged 3-5, 6-11, 12-17, and 18-21. Data Collection and Verification A set of data forms and instructions developed by OSEP are mailed to the states each year. States, in turn, are responsible for collecting and compiling data from school districts and other agencies that serve students with handicaps. Since all children, ages 3 through 2 1, who receive special education and related services are required to be included in this count, each agency within a state that serves students with handicaps must be involved in the state's data collection. Children in private placements where public funding is provided must also be counted.

Once states have provided data to OSEP, editing and verification of data occur. Editing is a straightforward process of checking row and column addition and examining forms for missing data. After these checks, data are examined for the presence of unusual data values. Typically, this involves year-to-year comparisons of each state's data to identify any unusual fluctuations which states are then asked to verify and explain. The data reported here did not undergo the year-to-year analysis since the 1985-86 school year was only the second year of data collection using these particular forms. The first year's data were not judged to be of sufficient quality to permit useful comparison with data reported here. Because states' reporting of placement data has been relatively consistent from year to year over the last decade, it is reasonable to assume they have a capacity to collect and report these data, even though the reporting forms have been altered somewhat. Cumulative Placement Rate In order to compare state placement patterns, a statistic, cumulative placement rate was computed in the following way: A state's number of special education students aged 6 through 17 years who were served in a selected educational placement and all more segregated placements was divided by the state's total population (Office of Special Education Programs, 1988) in this age group. Defined in this way, the cumulative placement rate statistic allows one to ask what percentage of school-aged students in a state are served in a particular educational placement and all more segregated placements.

For the present analyses the statistic was limited to the 6-through- 1 7 age group because of differences among states in the extent to which students under 6 and over 17 are included in mandatory education programs. The data are analyzed across all handicapping conditions. Because states exercise flexibility in defining handicapping conditions and sometimes use different or no categorical systems, it would be difficult to interpret variation in placement practices across states within handicapping conditions.

The states' flexibility in determining eligibility for special education also affects the overall number of children with handicaps who are served. Consequently, comparisons across states require reference to the total school-age population, not just to the special education child count. For example, computing placement rate as a function of the total special education child count rather than the state population during the most recent year for which data are available, school year 1085-86. If state-to-state variability does exist, this would demonstrate potential for improvement in the national effort to educate children with handicaps in less restrictive environments. Clear information on the nature of this variability could aid in budget planning and priority setting, and could provide a baseline against which future improvements could be measured. A second purpose of this article is to provide an opportunity for professional review and discussion of a method of analyzing data on educational placements. The analyses discussed have not been included in the previous reports to the Congress and are distributed in this article so that their inclusion in future reports can be done with the benefit of the interpretation that follows the professional discussion this year.

The specific questions to which this article is addressed are: (1) To what extent are students placed in environments that remove them from the regular education environment? and (2) What is the state-to-state variability in the use of those placement categories. METHOD Data Sources Each year states submit data to the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) in the U. S. Department of Education on the number of children with handicaps who are served in each of six different educational placements: regular class, resource room, separate class, separate day school, separate residential school, and home/hospital. Figure 2 presents the definition of these environments used in data collection. These data are among the data requirements mandated in Section 618 of Part B of the Education of the Handicapped Act. States are required to report an unduplicated count of all children with handicaps, by type of placement and disability category, for students aged 3-5, 6-11, 12-17, and 18-21. Data Collection and Verification A set of data forms and instructions developed by OSEP are mailed to the states each year. States, in turn, are responsible for collecting and compiling data from school districts and other agencies that serve students with handicaps. Since all children, ages 3 through 2 1, who receive special education and related services are required to be included in this count, each agency within a state that serves students with handicaps must be involved in the state's data collection. Children in private placements where public funding is provided must also be counted.

Once states have provided data to OSEP, editing and verification of data occur. Editing is a straightforward process of checking row and column addition and examining forms for missing data. After these checks, data are examined for the presence of unusual data values. Typically, this involves year-to-year comparisons of each state's data to identify any unusual fluctuations which states are then asked to verify and explain. The data reported here did not undergo the year-to-year analysis since the 1985-86 school year was only the second year of data collection using these particular forms. The first year's data were not judged to be of sufficient quality to permit useful comparison with data reported here. Because states' reporting of placement data has been relatively consistent from year to year over the last decade, it is reasonable to assume they have a capacity to collect and report these data, even though the reporting forms have been altered somewhat. Cumulative Placement Rate In order to compare state placement patterns, a statistic, cumulative placement rate was computed in the following way: A state's number of special education students aged 6 through 17 years who were served in a selected educational placement and all more segregated placements was divided by the state's total population (Office of Special Education Programs, 1988) in this age group. Defined in this way, the cumulative placement rate statistic allows one to ask what percentage of school-aged students in a state are served in a particular educational placement and all more segregated placements.

For the present analyses the statistic was limited to the 6-through- 1 7 age group because of differences among states in the extent to which students under 6 and over 17 are included in mandatory education programs. The data are analyzed across all handicapping conditions. Because states exercise flexibility in defining handicapping conditions and sometimes use different or no categorical systems, it would be difficult to interpret variation in placement practices across states within handicapping conditions.

The states' flexibility in determining eligibility for special education also affects the overall number of children with handicaps who are served. Consequently, comparisons across states require reference to the total school-age population, not just to the special education child count. For example, computing placement rate as a function of the total special education child count rather than the state population could make a state with a small overall special education child count that is serving few children with mild handicaps appear to be serving a large number of children in more segregated environments.

Use of cumulative placement rate appears to be particularly appropriate as a measure that begins at the most restrictive end of the continuum of placement alternatives. State-to-state differences in the rate of identification of children with handicaps primarily affect whether students with mild academic handicaps are counted in special education. This variability can be assumed to make state-to-state comparisons in use of regular class placements a function of both states' placement practices and their overall identification rates. By contrast, data collected on special education students can be assumed to be most comparable for more segregated environments. By examining the proportion of students served in more segregated settings, one can draw conclusions about use of less segregated environments. The present analysis excluded data on home and hospital placements because too little is known about how this placement category is used by the states. RESULTS Table I summarizes the data for the 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico for each of the six educational placements. Nearly 44% of the students with handicaps were served in resource rooms with another 26% served in regular classes. Consequently, over 70% of the students counted in special education spend a substantial amount of time in regular education classes. Another 24% of students with handicaps are educated in regular school buildings but are served primarily in segregated classes. Combining this with the regular class and resource room figures reveals that 94% of the children with handicaps are educated in regular school buildings. Over 225,000 students, or 6% of all students with handicaps, are educated in programs outside the regular school building. Expressed as a function of the resident population of the U.S., 6- to 17-year-old children are placed in separate facilities at a national rate of approximately 3,800 per one million of same-aged resident population. The placement of 6- to 17-year-old students in residential facilities occurs at a rate of approximately 970 per million of same-aged population. The combined rate of placement in segregated facilities is over 4,800 students per million of same-aged population.

The state-by-state variation in the placement rate of children and youth in segregated day and residential facilities is depicted in Figure 3. The length of each bar reflects the cumulative rate of placement in segregated programs, with the lower portion showing rate of placement in residential programs and the upper portion showing rate of placement in separate day schools. There is considerable state-to-state variation. For example, in the District of Columbia the rate is nearly 15,000 children per million, 25 times the rate in Oregon (about 600 children per million population).

One method for analyzing this variability is to estimate the potential for use of regular education settings by averaging the cumulative placement rates of the five states that place the fewest students in segregated settings. The average state places nearly five times as many students in segregated settings as facilities does suggest difficulty in achieving results consistent with the LRE provisions, a low placement rate in segregated settings is not necessarily a testimony to effectiveness of services. To demonstrate such effectiveness, states would also have to show that students receive the services necessary and achieve successfully.

Third, attributing meaning to the degree of variability across states is a matter more of values than empirical analysis. It is reasonable to assume that the needs of students will be similar across states, and that random variation would be rather small in the summary data on the large number of students served by a state. The extent of variability does suggest that factors in addition to the characteristics of students are determinants of individual educational placements, and that the decision-making power vested in the IEP process has not been sufficient to overcome these factors.

Of course, some of the variability across states may be the result of measurement error. While states have been reporting placement data since the 1976-77 school year, the current categories have been in use just 2 years. The current instructions represent an improvement over earlier versions in that they define the various placements operationally. The current definitions, which are linked to the percent of time students actually spend in a placement, should provide greater state-to-state consistency in the of the placement categories. Sampling of school districts is not permitted for these data, so sampling error is not present. However, the fact that each state administers the data collection has the potential producing some inconsistency in the interpretations of terms and instructions. Though OSEP has worked extensively with states in the past 2 years to imp comparability of data from state to state, continues to be of concern. Furthermore, states in the degree to which they verify the LEA-reported data. Differences from state to state in data collection procedures and terminology could affect a states placement rate for segregated facilities. However it is not at all likely that procedural or terminology differences could account for the variance reported here. Nevertheless, interpretation of placement rate data for any particular state should proceed with some caution until further work is done to determine that reported data accurately reflect each state's placement practices.

The present analysis raises a number of questions for further research. Further analysis of both state and local data is needed to identify specific factors that account for variability in cumulative placement rates. It would be helpful to know the extent to which placements outside regular school environments are made by non-education-agencies for purposes other than education (e.g., by the courts and social service agencies). It would also be helpful, particularly in the analysis of district-level data, to determine whether factors such as urbanicity, district history of services, district size, district wealth, and so on, are associated with cumulative placement rates.

The analysis reported here combined data for all handicapping conditions and used the 6-through-17 age range. Future analyses might examine variability in placement data within the handicapping conditions. Placement data might also be analyzed for each of the four age groupings within which data are reported (i.e., 3-5, 6-11, 12-17, and 18-21 years). it is possible that even for the 6-through-17 age group there may be substantial differences in placement patterns between children of elementary school age and youth at the secondary school level. In the next several years, there will be a great interest in the placement data for children in the 3-through-5-year age group as states move toward the service mandate established by P.L. 99-457.

OSEP and states need to strengthen efforts to improve the accuracy and state-to-state comparability of data. As part of this, OSEP will be compiling descriptions of methods states use to collect, verify, and analyze placement data. Furthermore, OSEP will attempt to work with several individual states to begin to examine within-state variability and to identify factors associated with this variance. REFERENCE Office of Special Education Programs, U.S. Department of Education. (1988). To assure the free appropriate public education of all handicapped children. Tenth annual report to Congress on the implementation of the Education of All Handicapped Act. Washington, DC: Author.
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Author:Danielson, Louis C.; Bellamy, G. Thomas
Publication:Exceptional Children
Date:Feb 1, 1989
Words:3158
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