Statistical Analysis Report:
Profiles of Students with Disabilities as Identified in NELS:88
(NCES 97-254) Ordering information
- The National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988 (NELS:88), conducted by the
(NCES), began with a base-year survey of
8th-grade students in 1988, followed up at 2-year intervals in 1990, 1992, and 1994.
Because of its broad scope and longitudinal design, NELS:88 provides an important source
of data by which to examine the status and experiences of students as they progress from
middle school through the high school years.
- The NELS:88 base-year sample consisted of all U.S. public and private schools containing
eighth grades. Excluded from this sample, however, were special education schools,
ungraded classrooms, and students determined by local staff to be incapable of
participation in the survey for reasons of language or of mental or physical disability. As a
result, as many as one-half of the children with disabilities who are served under the
Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) were likely excluded from the
NELS:88 base-year sample. Further information about how the counts of students with
disabilities in the NELS sample compare to counts of students with disabilities under the
IDEA and in national longitudinal studies can be found in Appendix A (see also OSEP
1994; Wagner et al. 1993).
- The primary purposes of this report are to identify those students in NELS:88 who had or
may have had a disabling condition or received services related to such a condition, and to
examine their characteristics and their educational experiences and outcomes, as they
progressed from the eighth grade in 1988 into and out of high school in 1992. Another
purpose is to examine the alternative perceptions of disability status that are available
from the four different respondent groups in NELS:88 (parents, teachers, students, and
school officials) and to assess the extent to which these various perceptions affect
descriptions of the characteristics, experiences, and outcomes of students with disabilities.
Using NELS:88 to Define Disability Status
- NELS:88 provides four different sources of information related to disability
statusparents, teachers, students, and school officials. Each of these sources responded to
different items relating to students disability status. For example, teacher perceptions of
students disability status was linked to students classroom performance, whereas parental
identification was linked to whether or not a student had ever received disability-related
services. As a result, all of these data sources produce different estimates of the disabled
population of students in grades 8-12.
- The degree of overlap among students who identify themselves or are identified by parents,
teachers, or school officials as disabled is often quite lowthat is, the populations of
students identified as disabled by these different sources appear to be somewhat separate
and distinct groups of students. Nonetheless, the patterns of difference between the
various disabled and nondisabled student groups that can be identified using NELS:88 data
appear rather similar to one another in many respects.
Background Characteristics of Students with Disabilities
- Students identified by teachers or parents as disabled in NELS:88 were more often male,
had lower scores on locus of control psychological measures, and were slightly older than
students not so identified. Students identified as disabled by teachers were more likely to
come from households headed by single females, to have lower individual socioeconomic
status (SES) and lower self-esteem, and to have parents with lower levels of education
than nondisabled students.
Similar percentages of parent-identified disabled students and students in the nondisabled
population were members of minority groups (23.7 and 26.9 percent, respectively).
Among students identified as learning disabled by parents and teachers, teacher-identified
students were more likely to be black than were parent-identified students (16.6 percent
versus 7.9 percent, respectively). Black students were actually underrepresented among
those students classified by parents as learning disabled.
Students who identified themselves as disabled were more likely than their nondisabled
counterparts to be male (60.8 percent versus 49.7 percent). Self-identified disabled
students also scored lower on locus of control psychological measures than did nondisabled
students. However, students who identified themselves as disabled were proportionally
represented in terms of race and had similar SES status as those students who did not
identify themselves as disabled.
The School Experiences of Students with Disabilities
- Compared to students not identified as disabled in NELS:88, students identified by
teachers and parents as disabled took more remedial mathematics and English courses, had
earned fewer units in core curriculum areas, had more often repeated a grade prior to the
eighth grade, and were more likely to have participated in dropout prevention programs.
However, these students evidenced relatively low levels of participation in special
education programs for the educationally or physically handicapped (between 2.0 and
11.2 percent). In addition, students identified by teachers as disabled participated in
extracurricular activities to a lesser extent than nondisabled students.
Students who identified themselves as disabled reported higher levels of participation in
remedial English and mathematics programs than did their nondisabled counterparts
(32.1 percent versus 18.7 percent and 42.9 percent versus 20.3 percent, respectively).
These students also reported that they and their parents participated in school-related
activities as frequently as parent-identified disabled students.
Educational Outcomes of Students with Disabilities
- Students identified by teachers and parents as disabled in NELS:88 earned lower high
school grades in core courses, scored lower on mathematics and reading proficiency tests,
and were more likely to drop out of school than their nondisabled counterparts. In
addition, these students reported lower educational expectations, for themselves and for
them by their parents, and were less prepared for higher education than their nondisabled
counterparts by virtue of not having taken the ACT or the SAT.
Among the different disability categories, students identified by their parents as having
emotional problems recorded the lowest grades and the highest levels of school dropout.
Teacher- and parent-identified students with multiple disabilities and learning disabilities
recorded the lowest mathematics and reading proficiency levels.
Self-identified students with disabilities reported comparable grades to nondisabled
students with the exception of English, but reported higher dropout rates and lower
mathematics and reading proficiency levels.
- Students identified in NELS:88 as disabled tended to have greater difficulties in school and realized fewer of the positive outcomes of schooling. These students were more often retained in grade, enrolled in remedial classes, and placed in dropout prevention programs. Perhaps as a result, they earned fewer credits in core curriculum areas, had lower educational
expectations, and had higher dropout rates than nondisabled students on average. The
severity of these sorts of education-related problems for disabled students did appear to
vary by type of disabling condition. For example, students with emotional problems were
shown to have among the highest dropout rates, while students with health problems
compared most favorably with nondisabled students with respect to several types of
outcomes. For these reasons, when the school experiences and outcomes of disabled
students are examined, it continues to be important to collect information and carry out
analyses separately for various specific disability categories.
Relatively small percentages of students with disabilities as identified in NELS:88 perceived
themselves or were identified by school officials as having received special education services during high school. The low reported participation rates in programs for the educationally or
physically handicapped and in special education programs may raise questions concerning
the adequacy with which students with special needs are identified and served in our
nations high schools, and the extent to which these students are being served in more
inclusive environments that might affect their awareness of being in a special program.
It should be noted, however, that not all children with disabilities need special school
services; for example, a child with a purely physical disability who receives the proper
medical services for that disability may not require special services. In addition, NELS:88
sampling procedures and instrumentation effectively may have removed from consideration many students who would typically receive services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and may have led to the identification of students at risk of educational failure generally as disabled students.
- Teachers in NELS:88 were perceptive judges of which students were failing to perform well in the classroom, but linking the identification of disability status to classroom performance may blur the distinction between students with disabilities and students at risk. In NELS:88, teachers identified students as disabled only if their condition affected their school work. As a result, students whose disabilities did not affect their work would likely not have been
classified by teachers as disabled, and students whose disability status might have been
questionable but whose work in school was poor may have been classified by teachers as
disabled. Despite this vagueness in disability definitions, teacher reports of student
disability status often overlapped the reports made by different NELS:88 respondents.
And, the students identified by teachers as disabled (in contrast to those identified by
parents) also were found to have more of the sorts of personal characteristics, educational
experiences, and records of achievement one might associate with students in need of
special services (e.g., lower SES, higher participation in dropout prevention programs,
lower gains in reading proficiency). In the future, however, it will be important for survey
research efforts to separate perceptions of student disability status from their classroom
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