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Perspectives on eligibility for placement in special education programs.

Perspectives on Eligibility for and Placement in Special Education Programs

Methods for assigning children to special education classes involve the identification and referral of a child for special education, the determination of eligibility for special education services, and ultimately the decision that special education, specifically the special education class or other services available in a school district, would be the appropriate educational setting. These steps in special education, referral, eligibility determination, and placement, although specified clearly by both opponents and proponents of the use of individual intelligence tests in schools (for examples, Ashurst & Meyers, 1973; Mercer, 1973) often become blurred when the IQ test is described as the sole basis for making both a diagnostic judgment about a child's eligibility for special education and a placement decision.

In the debate over the use of IQ tests for assessing the intellectual functioning of children who are referred for special education consideration, many have contended that the only appropriate evidence for the validity of the test is not its criterion validity (whether the test is a valid measure of intellectual functioning), but evidence on the relationship between the test score and a child's future performance, or how well he or she profits from special education programs. As an advocacy or political argument such a standard has power because its proponents can ignore the voluminous evidence on the criterion validity of ability tests and center attention on whether IQ tests have anything to contribute to selecting from among those children eligible for special education those who can benefit most from special education services.

Blurring the distinction between assessing an individual's position on a continuum of intellectual functioning and recommending the placement of a child in special education raises other fundamental questions as well. Who is the "most eligible" for special education--the child who will profit most from special education and whose achievement will improve most after a period of time, or the child who will continue to make achievement gains but at a less dramatic rate? After determining eligibility for special education services, does a school psychologist have a professional responsibility to deny services to children who will experience the greatest benefit--presumably because findings from an assessment of intellectual process suggest that the child's achievement potential can be modified--and return them to regular classes where they are sure to continue to fail? Or should special education services be available to all failing, eligible children and, after placement, should school psychologists and teachers be required to collaborate to design appropriate instruction for each child, and to report annually on the extent of learning gains over time?



The National Academy of Science reports on Ability Testing (Wigdor & Garner, 1982), Ability Testing of Handicapped People (Sherman & Robinson, 1982), and Placing Children in Special Education (Heller, Holtzman, & Messick, 1982), provide empirically based perspectives by which school psychologists and special educators might find their way out of the political debate over the proper use of tests toward a clearer future. In this future, measures of ability as procedures for assessing eligibility for special education services as well as other, new and to be developed, measures and processes for predicting special education outcomes or for selecting special education interventions will be required for a complete picture of a child's eligibility for and potential to profit from special education services.

Role of Psychological Tests in Assessments

The two volumes of Ability Testing (Wigdor & Garner, 1982) provide the research basis (volume II) and the conclusions (volume I) of a lengthy inquiry into the status of psychological tests for accurate assessment of intellectual abilities and the use of these measures in a variety of situations. Volume I defines ability tests as "tests that measure the upper limit of what a person can do" (p. 25), which is often different from typical performance. School psychologists are familiar with this phenomenon in that many children who are referred for special education are often discovered to have underlying scholastic ability that is much higher than the level of ability reflected in their classroom performance. Ability Testing reminds us that an ability test is only a sample of what an individual knows and has learned to do at the time the test is given and that no test can reveal the prior history of a child in reaching the level of performance he or she achieves on the test.

The degree to which a test is an accurate measure of the ability in question is related to its criterion, content, and construct validity and the accuracy of its measurement or its reliability (American Psychological Association, 1985). But although the common group and individual ability tests provide valid and reliable "estimates" of the upper limits of an individual's ability to perform the items in the tests, there are other factors such as motivation, anxiety, prior test experience, and comfort in the test situation that psychologists take into account in determining whether or not to accept the earned score on the test as a reasonably accurate estimate. The individually administered ability test offers the experienced school psychologist the opportunity to observe a child closely during the test administration and to make a professional judgment as to whether the score is adversely affected by the effects of motivation, anxiety, and unfamiliarity with test materials.

Bias in Test Scores

The Ability Testing volumes provide extensive additional material for the evidence on systematic bias in ability test scores attributable to sex differences, socioeconomic status, and cultural background. Definitions of bias are provided as well as an overview of the evidence regarding whether the same test scores of boys and girls, children from high and low socioeconomic groups, or those from different cultural backgrounds predict future academic performance equally well. In general, the evidence indicates, in the case of an individual IQ test used for the purpose of determining eligibility for special education, that the tests do not provide a biased estimate of a child's ability level and that they are reasonably accurate estimates of current and future academic performance.

Other Factors Affecting Test Scores

When motivational or background factors, poor rapport with the psychologist, or anxiety are observed, school psychologist are likely to infer that the performance on the test is not an accurate estimate and that the test is not measuring the upper limit of the child's ability. If the test score earned in such a case is in the range for children considered eligible for classes for the mildly retarded, school psychologists would be acting properly to state that the child is not eligible for special education because the test is not measuring the true or upper limit of his or her ability at that point in time. For many other children referred for determining eligibility for special education, the IQ score often shows that the child's intellectual ability is higher than the range of the mentally retarded and therefore, clearly not eligible for special education programs. In the hands of a competent school psychologist, then, the individual intelligence test provides important evidence for estimating intellectual potential.

However, even though the administration of individual IQ tests generates valid and valuable data in the eligibility and referral process, IQ test scores alone cannot forecast whether a particular educational intervention, like special education, will benefit one child more than another. Other assessment procedures are needed. When new types of psychological assessment to predict future performance in special education curricula are developed, they will also have to meet standards for criterion, content and construct validity, and reliability, as well as show the contribution they make to predicting outcomes in one or more special education interventions.

Placement Considerations

The second volume in the National Academy of Science series, Ability Testing of Handicapped People (Sherman & Robinson, 1982), reviews issues pertinent to admissions and vocational testing of the handicapped, alternate forms of tests, and evidence for their validity. Placing Children in Special Education (Heller et al., 1982) is the third major project conducted by the National Academy of Science on the general problems of ability testing tna specifically addresses assessment for special education.

Placing Children in Special Education (Heller et al., 1982) offers five summary chapters dealing with the major controversies about referral, assessment, placement, instruction, and evaluation of special education programs. A chapter summarizing the data on disproportion of various groups in special education introduces the book and shows that special education placement data suggest disproportions of males to females and Blacks to Whites, but not other minority students to Whites. There is a discussion of possible sources of the disproportions, such as legal and administrative requirements, characteristics of the students, quality of the instruction received, possible biases in the assessment process, characteristics of the home and family environment, and historical and cultural issues.

The chapter concludes that observed disproportions probably reflect all of these causes, singly and in combination, in some school districts some of the time. And while citing the multiplicity of causes, the authors also indicate that the primary concern should be one of determining valid educational needs of students, and placing children whose needs can be met most favorably in such programs. Foremost in the matter of disproportions, either by underrepresentation or overrepresentation, should be concerns for the validity of referral, assessment, and placement procedures and the quality of instruction offered--whether in the regular or special education classroom.

The historical overview of the placement process summarizes the origins of special education in the U.S. including the central role played by standardized testing for the identification of mentally retarded students and the relationship of testing to placement in special education programs. Since much of the controversy has arisen regarding assessment and placement of mentally retarded students, emphasis is placed on this group, rather than on other handicapped populations such as language handicapped or seriously emotionally disturbed students or those children with serious learning problems. The chapter points out that although the IQ test figures prominently in the identification of children prior to placement, the disproportion of minority children in special education is less than what it would be if IQ scores were the sole basis for a placement decision. Elements other than the results of individual psychological testing such as the referral and placement process have to be operating to obtain the proportional data that are reflected in observed differences between the proportions of boys and minorities assigned to special education programs.

The chapter on issues and methods of assessment presents a summary of matters pertaining to racial and cultural bias in testing, including a review of item bias and differential prediction studies. This is followed by a discussion of alternate approaches to the assessment of cognitive functioning, as well as comprehensive assessment including measures of adaptive behavior.

The overriding thrust in reconsideration of assessment practices for these authors is that assessment for special education should include measures by which instructional programs can be selected and/or designed. If the purpose of special education is to improve the education of the child, then information on individual differences that potentially relate to instruction must be sought as part of the assessment process. Although this is an appealing and indisputably important objective, assessment for the purposes of making a diagnostic evaluation and assessment for designing an instructional program may require different types of assessment methodologies.

While psychologists may have at their disposal valid and reliable tools for diagnosing some aspects of the causes of the learning failure of children referred for evaluation, there are few, if any, developed and validated methods and procedures for assessing individual differences to instructional approaches. The challenges faced by the users of ability tests with respect to fairness and appropriateness are as applicable to assessment for instructional decisions as to assessment for diagnostic or eligibility purposes.

Effective Instruction

The chapter on effective instruction illustrates some of the problems that must be met and resolved to develop and apply assessment methodology for instructional purposes. One of the major ones is that the empirical evidence does not support a defined set of instructional strategies that are appropriate solely for mildly retarded children. Lacking evidence that mildly retarded children cannot be characterized by particularly instructional needs, the authors proceed to argue that categorical labeling cannot be supported. The evidence suggests, however, that the instructional approaches most successful with mildly retarded children are no different from those that work with learning disabled students or those designed for programs supported by compensatory education funds.

The authors contend that if instructional treatments are the same for all of these children who are failing in school, then regular instruction might replace special education as the best educational treatment. In such a case, rather than label the children with a diagnostic descriptor, the labels might categorize the types of instructional services from which children with particular learning needs might benefit. The research on educational programs for mildly retarded children, consequently, may be seriously confounded because mildly retarded subjects are treated as if they represented a homogeneous learning groupd and because research which favors acquisition of academic skills may present a biased picture of the outcomes of special education.

Guidelines for Assessment and Instruction

The major portion of the book concludes with principles of responsibility that are recommended guidelines for approaches to special education assessment and instruction. For each, a research agenda to guide the education of handicapped children is clearly in order. Briefly described, the principles enunciated are

1. Before referring children for special education assessment teachers in regular classrooms should engage in multiple educational interventions and note the effects of such interventions on children experiencing failure. School boards and administrators should ensure that necessary instructional resources are available.

2. Assessment specialists should demonstrate that the measures employed validly assess the functional needs of the child for which there are effective instructional interventions.

3. Placement teams should demonstrate that a differential label is related to a distinctive prescription for educational practices and that the prescribed practices are likely to lead to improved outcomes.

4. Special education and evaluation staffs should demonstrate that high quality effective special instruction is being provided.

5. Special education staff should demonstrate at least annually that a child should remain in the special education class.

6. District, state, and national level administrators should monitor on a regular basis the pattern of special education placements and the types of instructional services offered.

The final section of Placing children in Special Education includes position papers that provided background material for the conclusions of the National Academy of Science panel. These papers are "Biological and Social Factors Contributing to Mild Mental Retardation," "Classifying Mentally Retarded Students: A Review of Placement Practices in Special Education," "Testing in Educational Placement: Issues and Evidence," "Effects of Special Education Placement on Mentally Retarded Children," and "Patterns in Special Education Placement as Revealed by the OCR Surveys."


The articles presented in this special section of Exceptional Children provide several perspectives that should contribute to development of an agenda for improving referral, assessment, and placement in special education and for ensuring positive educational and developmental outcomes. Placing Children in Special Education provides a wealth of evidence on the issues reflected in current practices and research on assessment and education of, particularly, the mildly retarded. This volume and its companion works are recommended reading for anyone involved in special education. The articles that follow in this special section amplify many of these contemporary matters. Whether the individual practitioner or trainer agrees with these conclusions based on evidence from research and practice or with the proposals for new directions in assessment and special education, the material is worthy of serious consideration in the development and accountability of school psychological and special educational services.


American Psychological Association. (1985). Standards for Educational and Psychological Tests. Washington, DC: Author.

Ashurst, D. I., & Meyers, C. E. (1973). Social system and clinical model in school identification of the educable retarded. In G. Tarjan, R. K. Eyman, & C. E. Meyers (Eds.), Sociobehavioral studies in mental retardation. Washington, DC: American Association on Mental Deficiency.

Heller, K. A., Holtzman, W. H., & Messick, S. (1982). Placing children in special education. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Mercer, J. R. (1973). Labeling the mentally retarded. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Sherman, S. W., & Robinson, N. M., (Eds.). (1982). Ability testing of handicapped people: Dilemma for government, science and the public. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Wigdor, A. K., & Garner, W. R., (Eds.). (1982). Ability testing: Uses, consequences and controversies (Part I and Part II). Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

NADINE M. LAMBERT is Professor of Education, University of California, Berkeley.
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Title Annotation:includes bibliography; exceptional children
Publication:Exceptional Children
Date:Jan 1, 1988
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