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Academic behavior and grades of mainstreamed students with mild disabilities.

Since the implementation of Public Law 94-142 (1975), students with disabilities have participated with other students in various school programs. At first, mainstreaming occurred in noninstructional settings, such as the playground, assemblies, and lunch periods where students were integrated for social and emotional growth. Gradually, students with mild disabilities joined regular classes for music, art, and physical education. As school communities adjusted to the presence of special education students, students with mild disabilities have been mainstreamed into regular academic classes. In some instances, these students spend most of their time in a regular class and attend a special class or resource room one or more periods a day. In other instances, these students remain in special classes most of the school day and go to a regular class for one or more periods a day. With the increase in academic mainstreaming, the research focus has shifted from the socialization experience (Goodman, Gottlieb, & Harrison, 1972; Gottlieb & Budoff, 1973; Madden & Slavin, 1983) to examining the academic functioning and success of mainstreamed students (Kaufman, Agard, & Semmel, 1985; Truesdell, 1985; Zigmond & Kerr, 1985). The purpose of this article is to continue in this vein and also report the relationship between classroom academic behavior and academic achievement of mainstreamed students with mild disabilities.

Bloom (1974) estimated that 20% of student variance in achievement is accounted for by active participation in the learning process. Participation in class discussion requires (a) knowledge and competence in a repertoire of social interaction skills (Erickson, 1982), (b) an understanding of when to talk to whom and what to talk about (Green & Harker, 1982), and (c) an ability to attend selectively to information sources to define tasks and discover how to accomplish them (Doyle, 1983).

Participation in and completion of tasks may be more difficult for students with mild disabilities who typically show deficits in discriminating significant cues and problem-solving ability. Such students often act impulsively, fail to consider alternative solutions (Schumaker, Pederson, Hazel, & Meyen, 1983), spend significantly less time in task-oriented behavior, attend less to teachers when they give instructions (Bryan, 1974; McKinney, Mason, Pederson, & Clifford, 1975), and require more attention from their teachers than do average students (McKinney, McClure, & Feagans, 1982; Thompson, White, & Morgan, 1982). Because students who are mainstreamed may have one or more of these characteristics, they could have difficulty functioning in regular academic classes.

In a 3-year ethnographic study of mainstreaming, regular teachers described the success of mainstreamed students in terms of their classroom academic behavior: attendance, homework, attention, participation, preparation for class, basic skills, and scores on tests (Truesdell, 1985). That is, regular teachers reported mainstreamed students' classroom behavior in the same way that they recounted the behavior of their regular students. Futhermore, they were less concerned with mainstreamed students' social ability and peer relationships (Hersh & Walker, 1983; Kerr & Zigmond, 1985; Truesdell, 1985). Komblau found considerable agreement among teachers across grade levels for the school-appropriate behavior they identified for "teachable " students (cited in Macmillan, Keogh, & Jones, 1986). In interviews with 36 teachers, pre-kindergarten through high school, Truesdell (1985) found that teachers perceived successful students as those who followed directions, completed tasks, were prepared for class, and paid attention.

Whereas teachers may view mainstreamed students as behaving appropriately in their classrooms, they may not expect mainstreamed students with disabilities to perform academic tasks as well as students without disabilities. Studies of mainstreaming found that despite mainstreamed students' doing poorly on teacher-made tests in the regular classes and failing to do homework regularly (Truesdell, 1985), nearly three quarters of high school students with learning disabilities passed their mainstream classes, perhaps as a result of teachers' inflating the grades of these students (Zigmond, Levine, & Laurie, 1985). In North Carolina, classroom teachers used different standards for grading report cards of mainstreamed students with mild disabilities and those of students without disabilities; these teachers emphasized effort, attitude, and attendance for the mainstreamed students and class performance for the other students (Calhoun & Beattie, 1984; Carpenter & Grantham, 1985).

Studies that compared the behavior and achievement of mainstreamed and regular high school students found that attendance and organizational skills related most strongly to achievement (Brown, Kerr, Zigmond, & Harris, 1984). Elementary mainstreamed students with mild mental retardation were on task 72% of the time, compared with 83% for regular students. Both groups had about the same number of cognitive interactions with the regular teacher (Kaufman et al., 1985). Studies at the elementary level of the Adaptive Learning Environment Model found that students with mild disabilities functioned well in classrooms with structure and choice (Wang, 1979).

Some students with mild disabilities lack proficiency in attending to tasks and other academic behaviors which could make for a difficult academic experience for both the students and the regular teacher who ultimately assesses student progress. While regular teachers describe mainstreamed students' success in terms of their classroom academic behavior, they may assign report card grades on the basis of their effort and attitude. This study, therefore, examined the relationship between the academic behavior and final grades of students with mild disabilities and also compared their reading ability to that of their peers without disabilities. This study goes beyond and expands earlier work by comparing the basic skill ability and final grades of both groups of students.


One elementary school and two junior high schools with substantial academic mainstreaming for students with mild disabilities were identified by the Superintendent for Special Education in Queens, New York. These schools served a culturally, linguistically, and ethnically diverse population. Participants were 14 elementary and 19 junior high students in self-contained special education classes for students with mild disabilities who were mainstreamed for at least one academic subject every day and for whom parent permission was obtained. Table I reports the sample in terms of grade level, sex, ethnic background, and disability.

Although evaluation data were not available to the researchers, students' disabilities were determined by the Committee for Special Education, according to New York State Regulations, Part 200, which state in part that (a) students with learning disabilities have an imperfect ability to use spoken or written language and exhibit a discrepancy of 50 percent or more between expected and actual achievement and (b) students with emotional disturbances have an unexplained inability to learn and to maintain interpersonal relationships, and they exhibit inappropriate behavior or feelings, a pervasive unhappiness, or fears associated with personal or school problems.
 Characteristics of Mainstreamed Students with
 Mild Disabilities, by School Level
 Elementary Junior High
Variable (n = 14) (n = 19)
 Male 10 8
 Female 4 11
Ethnic background
 Black 3 5
 Hispanic 4 2
 Other 1 1
 White 6 11
Special education
 Emotionally disturbed 12 4
 Learning disabled 2 15
Mainstream class
 Reading/English[a] 14 5
 Math - 4
 Social studies - 5
 Science - 5
 [a] The English classes into which students
were mainstreamed in the junior high schools were
primarily basic skills reading and writing classes.

In the elementary school, all academic mainstreaming occurred in reading. The school used a modified Joplin plan that reorganized all students across classes and grades for reading instruction during the first hr of the school day. Each teacher was assigned one or two reading levels; and all students reading at a particular level, regardless of their actual grade placement, reported to the teacher responsible for instruction at that reading level. Selected special education students were mainstreamed into reading classes based on their reading ability, as determined by their special education teacher and the Committee on Special Education. Special education teachers cited general ability (64%) and reading ability (71%) most frequently as the criteria they used to select students for mainstream reading instruction.

In the junior high schools, students were mainstreamed in their areas of strength into individual subject classes, often in the low track classes for low-achieving students. Special education teachers indicated that they recommended students for mainstreaming in particular subject areas, based on the students' general ability (83%) and interest (94%). Teachers also indicated that student conduct was an important consideration (83%).

As a comparison group, five students were selected at random in each of the regular academic classes into which the sample of students with disabilities were mainstreamed. Standardized reading test scores, final grades, and attendance data were collected for both groups from school records.

The dependent variable in this study was the final grade earned in the mainstream class, with grades at or above 65 as passing. Ratings of student behaviors, including attendance, participation in class discussion, homework, accuracy of written work, paying attention in class, and scores on tests and quizzes, were the independent variables. Reading ability of the mainstreamed and regular elementary students were also compared.

The regular teachers of the mainstream classes completed a brief questionnaire in May 1986, indicating the academic behavior of the mainstreamed students in the sample. The questionnaire used a 5-point Likert-type scale, in which teachers rated the subjects from excellent (1) to poor (5). Special education teachers also completed questionnaires, in which they indicated, from a list, the criteria they used to select each subject for mainstreaming. They also indicated whether they tutored students in the subject of the mainstream class. The questionnaires were distributed by the coordinator for mainstreaming in each school.

At the end of the academic year, data from school records included attendance of the mainstreamed students (total number of days absent in the school year), final report card grades in the mainstream subject, and standardized reading test scores administered in April 1986 for mainstreamed students and their regular class peers at both school levels. Data also included the standardized reading test scores administered in April 1985 for the two student groups at the elementary school. Reading achievement in 1985 was indicated on student records by a grade equivalency score measured by the California Achievement Test. In 1986, the Degrees of Reading Power (DRP) test was used to measure reading achievement. Scores were reported in DRP units, indicating the readability of text at the student's instructional level. The New York State Board of Regents had changed to the DRP because it reflected a language-based theory of reading and provided a more relevant database for instructional planning. Tests were administered at the grade level to which mainstreamed and regular students were assigned.


The final grades of the mainstreamed students and the regular students were compared, using the Mann Whitney U Test. The relationship of final grades to teacher ratings of academic behavior of the mainstreamed students was calculated using the Spearman Rank Order Correlation Coefficient. Differences between the reading ability of the mainstreamed and regular elementary students were evaluated using the analysis of covariance (ANCOVA).


At the elementary school level, significant differences between the standardized reading test scores of mainstreamed and regular students were found. In the ANCOVA test for differences in the means of the residuals, where residuals are differences between the 1986 scores and a regression quantity based on the 1985 scores as covariate, the differences were not significant. The nonsignificant residual indicates that variations in 1986 reading scores are probably attributable to prior reading achievement as indicated by the 1985 reading scores (Table 2).

When the final grades of the students with disabilities were compared with those of the regular students in the elementary mainstream classes, regular students achieved significantly higher grades (U=35, p < .05) than their MH peers. In the elementary schools, regular students (in percents) received the following report card grades: A, 25.4%; B, 32.7%; C, 36.4%; D, 4%; and F, 2%. Mainstreamed students received these grades: A, 14.3%; B, 14.3%; C, 57%; and D, 14.3%. No elementary school student with disabilities, however, failed the mainstream reading class.

In the junior high schools, no significant difference between the grades earned by the mainstreamed and regular students was found.

Although mainstreamed students earned lower grades in the elementary school, only one student with disabilities across all three schools actually received a failing grade in the mainstream class. Furthermore, the mainstreamed students passed their regular classes without any special or extra assistance from their special education teachers, who indicated that they seldom helped mainstreamed students with the content of the regular class.

When classroom behaviors were correlated with final grades, all relationships were found to be significant except school attendance at both levels, homework at the elementary level, and accuracy of written work at the junior high school level (see Table 3). The significant correlations ranged from .58 to .87 and .42 to .64 at the elementary and junior high school levels, respectively.


The strong positive relationships between classroom academic behavior and final grades are consistent with earlier work, in which regular teachers described the progress of their mainstreamed students in terms of academic behaviors (Truesdell, 1985). Teachers seemed to use student participation and activity in class as indicators of progress in learning the subject matter. The mainstreamed students in this earlier study exhibited appropriate academic behavior in the mainstream class. The lack of a significant relationship between final grades and homework at the elementary level and accuracy of written work at the junior high level may be more indicative of the relative importance placed on these academic behaviors at the different school levels than on the behavior of mainstreamed students. Absenteeism for the combined group varied widely among the mainstreamed population 5c = 12.6, SD = 17) but apparently was not related to final grades. The five students with disabilities who were absent more than 20 days achieved C or better in their mainstream subject, and the six students with disabilities who were absent 11 -20 days also achieved grades of C or better.

The comparison of final grades of regular and mainstreamed students indicates that, in the junior high schools, the students with mild disabilities were as successful academically as the regular students with whom they were placed and earned grades similar to their regular class peers. Mainstreaming in the junior high school placed students in subject area classes of their strengths and interests.

In the elementary school, students with mild disabilities earned grades lower than their regular class peers. In all but two instances, their grades were lower than the average grades of the five regular peers selected at random for comparison. This finding is consistent with the standarized reading comparison. The mainstreamed students were found to be significantly lower in reading ability than the regular students in the mainstream reading classes; therefore, it is not surprising that their final grades would similarly differ.

What is difficult to explain is why students with mild disabilities were mainstreamed into reading classes in which their classmates were reading at a level significantly higher than they were. Placements of students with disabilities into mainstream settings were guided primarily by the special education teachers' estimates of the students' reading ability. Teachers' estimates may have been inaccurate because the special education teachers had little knowledge of the reading ability of regular students with whom the students with disabilities were to be mainstreamed. Furthermore, in arriving at the decision to mainstream, teachers may have used data from the students' individualized educational programs (IEPS). Reading achievement data on IEPS were frequently based on results of the Wide Range Achievement Test (WRAT) (Jastak & Jastak, 1978), which assesses reading skill in letter recognition, letter naming, and pronunciation of words in isolation. These skill domains do not correspond to the full scope of reading instruction, especially in the upper elementary grades, where comprehension is emphasized. Furthermore, there may be some technical problems with the WRAT; Salvia and Ysseldyke (1985) have reported that the norms are inadequate and its reported reliability is unsupported by data.

The nature of the mainstream placement of students with mild disabilities in regular academic classes seems to influence these students' academic success. Although final grades of the students in the junior high schools did not differ significantly, many students with disabilities were mainstreamed into the lower track classes where lower expectations for student performance are found than in regular track classes (McDermott & Aron, 1978). The elementary school students with mild disabilities were less successful academically relative to their regular peers primarily because they were placed in reading classes with regular students functioning at levels above their current ability. At both school levels, academic achievement of mainstreamed students with mild disabilities relative to that of students without disabilities may be a function of the match of the ability or skills level of the two student groups.

This study relied on teacher reports of students' classroom behavior. Research is needed to determine whether observed classroom behaviors discriminate successful and unsuccessful students with mild disabilities in regular classes. In a study of high school mainstreamed students, Zigmond and Kerr (1985) found that organizational skills and attendance explained only 39% of the variance between successful and unsuccessful mainstreamed students. They proposed that basic skills and higher cognitive processes may also contribute to differences between successful and unsuccessful mainstreamed students.

Successful mainstreaming experiences may depend on a combination of students' abilities and placement into classes that are of interest to them and in which they start with an adequate skill or knowledge base. If teachers award final grades of mainstreamed students on a standard different from that of regular students, it will be impossible to determine success accurately using final grades as a criterion. A more comprehensive measure of student success and performance over time will be needed for a more accurate estimate of success.



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LEE ANN TRUESDELL is an Associate Professor and the Coordinator of the Special Education Program and THEODORE ABRAMSON is a Professor in the Department of Elementary and Early Childhood Education at Queens College, City University of New York, Queens, New York.

Manuscript received May 1989; revision accepted September 1990.

Exceptional Children, Vol. 58, No. 5, pp. 392-398. [C] 1992 The Council for Exceptional Children.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Council for Exceptional Children
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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Author:Truesdell, Lee Ann; Abramson, Theodore
Publication:Exceptional Children
Date:Mar 1, 1992
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