Enrichment Education

Students with disabilities fare better when integrated into gen-ed classrooms

“We cannot, as a society, afford to continue to support policies and practices that result in academic failure, limited post-secondary options and continued separation and marginalization based on disabilities.”

Story at a glance

  • Historically, students with disabilities have been separated into special education classrooms, limiting their time in general education classes.

  • A new study suggests this practice may be detrimental to these students, as those in more-inclusive settings tended to fare better on standardized reading and math tests.

  • The results follow similar findings highlighting the benefits of integration among peers early in their educational career.

Although students with disabilities have traditionally been separated from peers into different classrooms, new research suggests a more inclusive educational setting could be beneficial for these students. 

A team at Indiana University found high school students with disabilities who spent 80 percent of their time or more in general education classes scored higher on state reading and math tests than their counterparts in less inclusive settings. 

The students in general classes were also better prepared for postsecondary education and employment opportunities. Results were published in The Journal of Special Education.

“Changing and elevating our expectations of what students with disabilities are capable of lies at the heart of people with disabilities contributing to and benefiting from being a part of our community experience, beyond K-12 education,” said co-author Hardy Murphy, a clinical professor at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis, in a statement. 

“Including students with disabilities in their school communities with their general education peers is an important place to begin this transformation. These results show that it is as much a moral and ethical question as it is an educational one.”

Intervention and comparison groups were based on propensity score matching, while school and student demographic and outcome data were analyzed between 2013 and 2018, following students from eighth grade through high school graduation. 

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Findings also revealed the students in more inclusive settings engaged in a more rigorous course of study, based on diploma type.

High-inclusion educational settings were defined as those where students with disabilities spent 80 percent or more time in general education classes, while less than 80 percent of time spent in these classes constituted low-inclusion. 

Researchers assessed English/language arts scores based on a cohort of 23,796 students, and math achievements on a sample of 23,940 students.

In tenth grade, those in high-inclusion settings scored an average of 24.3 points higher on English/language arts tests and 18.4 points higher in math compared with students in low-inclusion settings.

The current study is a follow-up to 2020 research assessing placement and academic outcomes for children with primary disabilities from third through eighth grade. 

Disabilities included cognitive, learning and emotional disabilities; autism spectrum disorder; blindness; and deafness. Regardless of disability category, these students also benefited from more inclusive educational settings.

“It is clear from these two studies that place matters,” said lead author Sandi Cole, director of the Indiana Institute on Disability and Community in a press release

“We cannot, as a society, afford to continue to support policies and practices that result in academic failure, limited post-secondary options and continued separation and marginalization based on disabilities,” authors wrote. 

“We can, however, accept the ambitious agenda to transform educational systems to create inclusive school environments, maximize student participation and increase the achievement of students with disabilities.”

Proponents of separating children into special education classes based on disabilities argue these students can benefit from individualized educational support, while special education services have also been linked with high school completion and college enrollment for students who require the services.

However, the misclassification of certain students as needing these services, particularly Black students, can also lead to significant harm, according to a report from the Brookings Institution, underscoring the importance of appropriately identifying those who could benefit from special education.

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