04/17/2014 01:25 pm ET Updated Jun 16, 2014

Don't Believe the Hype: Students With Disabilities Should Benefit From the Common Core

Co-authored by Laura Schifter, Todd Grindal and Thomas Hehir

The introduction of the Common Core educational standards has elicited substantial handwringing. Concerns have ranged from questionable theories about the Common Core as a front for corporate data mining or a leftist attempt to poison the minds of America's youth to important debates about the federal role in education or the best ways to measure what children know and are able to do.

A recent article in The Atlantic suggested that the Common Core will be particularly tough on students with disabilities. The author argues that the Common Core will impose demands that are beyond the cognitive capacities of children and the pedagogical capacities of their teachers. Unfortunately, the author based these conclusions on anecdotes and misleading and false information.

Research consistently demonstrates that most students with disabilities can meet high academic standards when provided with effective inclusive instruction and appropriate accommodations and supports. It is not surprising therefore that most major disability rights organizations support the Common Core standards and the notion that students with disabilities have the capability and right to graduate high school prepared for college or career. (see here , here & here ). These standards have the potential to address the pervasive low expectations of students with disabilities that are exemplified by the sentiments in the article mentioned above. The requirement that students with disabilities be assessed relative to Common Core standards sends a clear message to teachers and school administrators that the education of students with disabilities is as important as the education of their non-disabled peers.

There was a time when students with disabilities were not part of educational accountability systems and we had no idea whether these students were learning to read or whether they could solve mathematical problems. In 1997, this began to change with the requirement in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act that students with disabilities be part of education accountability systems. The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) enhanced these provisions by requiring that schools report on and be accountable for the performance of students with disabilities. Since 1997, large longitudinal studies have documented major advances in educational attainment and inclusion for students with disabilities. For instance, between 1990 and 2005, youth with disabilities increased their postsecondary enrollment by 19.3 percentage points--double the increase in enrollment for non-disabled students during that same time period (8.6 percentage points). Though we have made progress, more needs to be done as individuals with disabilities still experience lower academic performance and higher levels of unemployment than their non-disabled peers.

The Common Core Standards, developed through a state-led initiative, are intended to ensure more students graduate high school, prepared for college or career. Inclusion of students with disabilities in the Common Core will continue their advances in educational attainment. The standards are also internationally benchmarked to enable students to compete in the global economy. These are ambitious goals but are appropriate to support our nation's future competitiveness and to develop productive and successful citizens. All students, including students with disabilities, should have the opportunity to be held to these expectations and to be fully prepared for college and careers. This is why the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC), an organization for special education teachers, offered support for the initiative noting, "CEC believes the new standards will move education in the United States in the right direction for all students and will provide them with the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in college and work."

The most disturbing assertion in the Atlantic article is that six percent of all students have significant cognitive disabilities. This is false and dangerously misleading. Nationally, in 2010, 13 percent of all students were students with disabilities who received special education services. States are required to report a child's disability classification. Therefore, in order for this assertion to be accurate, nearly half of all students with disabilities would have to be classified as having a significant cognitive disability--that is a disability that has a major impact on their intellectual ability. The vast majority of children with disabilities do not have such a disability. About 84 percent of students were labeled as having learning disabilities, speech impairment, emotional disability, developmental delay, sensory or physical disabilities, or ADHD. Only about 16 percent of students with disabilities or two percent of all students are categorized as having autism, multiple disabilities, intellectual disabilities, or a traumatic brain injury and only some of these students have significant cognitive disabilities.

It is true that no matter how skilled their teachers, some of these students, by virtue of their disability, may never be able to meet the same grade-level expectations as their peers. Current policies recognize this fact and already permit school districts to assess up to one percent of students with the most significant cognitive disabilities using alternate achievement standards, but the notion that nearly all students with autism, multiple disabilities, intellectual disabilities, or a traumatic brain injury could not, under any circumstances, meet the standards in the Common Core, strains the limits of credulity.

Imposing systematically lower expectations can make it difficult for students who are struggling academically to keep pace with their peers and meet the requirements for high school graduation. Previous policies lowering expectations for students with disabilities have had problematic consequences.

For a time, No Child Left Behind permitted districts to assess an additional 2 percent of students or approximately 20 percent of students with disabilities using less challenging assessments than their peers (known as the "2 percent rule"). This is in addition to the 1 percent of students taking alternate assessments. In examining data from the Houston Independent School District, we found that African American students with learning disabilities were up to six times more likely to be assessed on these easier tests than were similar Caucasian or Latino students with learning disabilities. Other researchers have found that some students scored proficient on the standard assessment in one year, but then included in the less-challenging assessment in the subsequent year. In California, researchers noted that the 2 percent rule led to artificial inflation of schools' ratings, and in some California districts, as many as 76 percent of students with disabilities were included in these easier tests. These studies suggest that creating policies permitting lower expectations for some students far exceed the intended use, obscure information on school performance, and disproportionately impact poor and minority students. Secretary Duncan has rightly tightened these exemptions continuing to allow only 1 percent of students or approximately 10 percent of students with disabilities to be exempted from standard assessments. It is important to note that existing policy allows for students to have accommodations such as Braille or extended time. This is no time to go backward for these students.

Massachusetts provides an informative example of the importance of inclusion of students with disabilities in accountability. In contrast to some states, Massachusetts has held students and schools to high standards for over 15 years with only one percent of students being assessed on alternate assessments. Having high expectations appears to contribute to Massachusetts consistently leading the nation on NAEP for performance of students with disabilities. Additionally, 69 percent of students with disabilities graduate within five years in Massachusetts, a state with a high-stakes exit exam. In the Commonwealth, some students labeled with disabilities, including intellectual disability and autism, are able to pass the high-stakes exit exam and graduate with a regular diploma.

Maintaining high expectations for students with disabilities may not be simple, but it is not impossible. Students with disabilities can achieve at high levels when held to the same high expectations as their peers. Innovative educators continue to show in schools and across school districts that with accommodations, supports and high expectations, students with disabilities can succeed. For instance, at the Henderson School in Boston, 30 percent of all students are students with disabilities and 43 percent are low-income students. The school has pushed inclusive policies and maintains high expectations for all their students. These policies have helped the school consistently outperform many schools in the state in both English and mathematics.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act clearly states in its findings: "Almost 30 years of research and experience have demonstrated that the education of children with disabilities can be made more effective by--having high expectations for such children and ensuring their access to the general education curriculum in the regular classroom, to the maximum extent possible."

Common Core standards are certainly not a panacea for all of the challenges facing educators in the U.S. Many details such as the use of appropriate accommodations during testing have yet to be worked out and many teachers remain unprepared to support students with disabilities in a general education classroom. Nevertheless, efforts to exclude students with disabilities from the whole evaluation enterprise simply reinforce stereotypes that students with disabilities cannot succeed. We encourage states to maintain high expectations for their students with disabilities and provide opportunities for all students to graduate high school prepared to compete in the job market.

All views and opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the authors.

Laura A. Schifter is an Instructor in Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) and a doctoral candidate in the Education Policy, Leadership, and Instructional Practice Program at HGSE. Her work focuses on education policy related to students with disabilities and in particular high school graduation policies. Schifter is a former Senior Education and Disability Advisor for George Miller on the Education and the Workforce Committee in the House of Representatives, and has conducted policy research for the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Schools.

Todd Grindal is an associate with Abt Associates where he studies the impact of public policies on young children and children with disabilities. Todd conducted his doctoral work at the Harvard Graduate School of Education where he was awarded a Julius B. Richmond Fellowship by the Harvard Center on the Developing Child in support of his dissertation research on the unionization of home childcare providers. Prior to beginning his doctoral studies, Todd worked for six years as a teacher and school administrator at the high school level in Florida, and at the elementary school and preschool levels in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area.

Thomas Hehir is the Silvana and Christopher Pascucci Professor of Practice in Learning Differences at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Dr. Hehir served as director of the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Special Education Programs from 1993 to 1999. As director, he was responsible for federal leadership in implementing the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Hehir played a leading role in developing the Clinton administration's proposal for the 1997 reauthorization of the IDEA, 90 percent of which was adopted by Congress.