WASHINGTON – Maryland schools are graduating a higher percentage of disabled students than the national average, which hit a record high in 1997-98, according to a new report from the U.S. Department of Education.
The report, released Wednesday, said that 61 percent of Maryland high school seniors with disabilities got their diplomas in 1997-98, up from 52.8 percent in 1993-94. Nationally, the percentage grew from 51.7 percent to 55.4 percent during the same period.
U.S. Education Secretary Richard Riley praised the “tremendous progress” in graduation rates for disabled students, but said “many challenges remain.”
The report was released on the 25th anniversary of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which requires states to provide “free appropriate public education” to students with disabilities.
Since its approval in 1975, the report said, the act has pushed schools to identify students with disabilities early on, involve parents, focus on improved training of teachers and include students in general curriculum classes.
Riley and Judith E. Heumann, assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services, said one important element in the increasing graduation rates has been the inclusion of special education students in regular classes.
“All means all. And we all need to understand that,” Riley said.
Maryland Department of Education officials agreed that inclusion has helped boost the number of graduating students with disabilities in Maryland.
“Kids are not leaving regular classes…to get the services. The services come to the child,” said Jerry White, program manager for the state’s division of special education and early intervention services.
“More and more in Maryland you find collaborative teaching — special education instructors going into general education classrooms to provide support and not pulling them (special education students) out of class,” he said. “If they are actually in there learning from their peers, the opportunity increases the amount of knowledge they will walk away with.”
But Jackie Golden, program manager of the National Parent Network on Disabilities, said Maryland is not doing as well in special education as the numbers claim. The Baltimore mom said the state is “behind in inclusion for students with disabilities.”
She questioned the high graduation rates for students with disabilities and said that too many students are still “segregated” into special classes and steered toward high school certificates — a document showing that a student finished high school but did not complete the requirements for a diploma.
And she said that inclusion has not been successful as it could be, because there has not been sufficient preparation and guidance for teachers.
“There is not enough support and training to help teachers figure out how to include children,” Golden said. “The federal government and state government have let down students with disabilities in many arenas.”
But White said the state has been “working closely with universities and colleges that produce our teachers.” And he said the federal government has provided Maryland with money to train more teachers.
Heumann acknowledged that more training is needed. “Dollars without appropriate training is not going to resolve this issue,” she said.
In addition to training, White said IDEA has allowed Maryland to look at other states for guidance on educating special students.
“States meet, they talk. We learn a lot from each other,” White said. “IDEA has enhanced that opportunity.”