While the settlement agreement itself is only 14 pages long, each side of the dispute provided volumes of documents to the court in support of its position. To help prepare their case, the plaintiffs – The Arc of NJ, Disability Rights New Jersey, the Education Law Center, and the Statewide Parent Advocacy Network – retained experts in special education research to assist in gathering data.
Lou Brown, Ph.D., Jim Conroy, Ph.D., and Steve Devlin, Ph.D., worked to obtain and analyze statewide data on student disability labels, school placement, inclusion, and other factors. The researchers found evidence of high rates of exclusion, particularly for certain disabilities, minorities, and genders. They looked not only at quantitative matters but also at real-world data on student experiences.
This carefully designed scientific investigation of the special education system doubtless contributed materially to the decision by the NJDOE to settle the lawsuit.
In September 2014, Brown, Conroy, and Devlin presented their findings in a white paper. Toward Ending the Segregation of Students with Disabilities in New Jersey presents the work of these researchers and lays out a series of recommendations for shifting New Jersey’s system of special education to a more inclusive one.
Here is some of what they found:
Researchers Conroy and Devlin from the Center for Outcome Analysis developed a Compliance Index to determine whether Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) are aligned with the New Jersey Department of Education’s (NJDOE) Model IEP. While not required, the use of the NJDOE’s Model IEP form offers a framework for the development of IEPs that would promote placement in the least restrictive environment (LRE). NJDOE provides an annotated version of the form, with prompts and questions to guide IEP teams, and references to the applicable sections of the special education code.
They looked at the IEPs of 142 students from 20 randomly selected school districts over a three-year period. They found that, in each of three years, only about half of the IEPs were aligned with the state’s model IEP. The compliance scores ranged widely – some IEPs were as low as 9.1%, while others were as high as 87.9%. Rates were not linked to gender or race, nor did they vary over time.
The researchers found that students in the most inclusive settings (80% or more of the school day) had lower levels of alignment with the state’s model IEP than students in less inclusive settings.
This strongly suggests that, particularly where students are placed in non-segregated classrooms, the IEP legal mandates and best practices are being overlooked the most. It is as though inclusive placement was the only goal, and after that, IDEA mandates and best practices were – on average – ignored.
Researcher Lou Brown dug deeper into the Compliance Index data to report on individual student experiences. He issued nine findings:
1) Movement to more integrated schools was rarely considered for those in segregated placements. In fact, only 39% of IEP teams even considered school placement options other than the one in which the child was placed.
2) Movement to more integrated classrooms and classes was rarely considered for those in segregated placements. Only 48% of IEP teams even explored other class options, and transition plans from segregated to integrated classrooms and class placements were rare. He also found that IEP teams rejected transitioning students to more integrated general education classes for “professionally questionable reasons,” such as low academic levels.
3) The potential benefits of placement in the general and special education class were compared in only about 70% of the IEPs reviewed, and for students who are placed in the most segregated programs (less than 20% in a general education setting), the rationale for removal from general education classes is provided in only half of all IEPs.
4) Actual beneficial and/or harmful effects of placement in segregated classrooms and classes and general education classes and classrooms were not determined. Brown found that, while the benefits and risks were considered in 65% of the IEPs reviewed, “professionally acceptable evaluative information was not presented.”
5) Supplementary aids and services were not provided in many instances. Brown found that roughly 72% of the IEPs indicate that aids and services were considered to implement student goals. Brown found that the rationales for excluding students from the general education class included failure to master the skills necessary to function in general education settings and functioning below grade level.
This is in total disregard of state and federal laws which were passed to ensure that such entrance criteria should not be operative.
6) Professionally acceptable modification and accommodations were not provided. In more than 10% of the IEPs reviewed, no accommodations were even listed, and those that did list accommodations and modifications appeared to include commercially available lists, not individually considered supports.
7) Academic and functional objectives were not measured acceptably, if at all. Data showed that roughly 46% of the IEP goals were, in fact, measurable, and those that were measurable often used standardized grade level achievement tests, set performance criteria as low as 70%, or stated vague goals that do not lend themselves to objective measures of progress.
8) Participation in school-sponsored, extracurricular, non-academic, and community activities was unacceptable. In addition, only 12% of IEPs set forth opportunities for community-based learning and internships as part of the school program.
9) Behavioral Intervention Plans were often inadequate. Data showed that only about 20% of IEPs provided for a student’s behavioral interventions. Brown also found that evidence of “professionally acceptable functional behavioral assessments” was absent.
The report also details secondary findings of disability bias based on gender and ethnicity and how these factors affect placement. Researchers Conroy and Devlin found that the labels of mental retardation (MR), emotionally disturbed (ED), and multiply disabled (MD) are more likely to be applied to black students than to white students.
The white paper concludes with a call to action, laying out specific steps to be taken by NJDOE, local school districts, the U.S. DOE, colleges and universities, legislatures, and parents to help improve inclusive opportunities for New Jersey’s students with disabilities.