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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Predictors, Profiles, and Policies: Analyzing Students in Special Education Across Three Studies

  • Author(s): Rhinehart, Laura Vancourt
  • Advisor(s): Bailey, Alison L
  • et al.

Special education was created to support students with disabilities in schools, yet many students are not identified with disabilities and placed in special education until after they have experienced several years of school struggle. As early as school entry in kindergarten, and before being placed in special education, many of these students could have benefited from intensive interventions that are generally offered as part of special education. Thus, the three studies in this dissertation focus on early indicators of school struggle so that schools will be able to better identify the at-risk students who could benefit from early and targeted interventions. Specifically, each study utilizes restricted data from the ECLS-K: 2011 to explore kindergarten predictors of who is placed in special education in 4th grade. While a number of studies have looked at early indicators of special education status several years later, the studies here add to the literature in that they examine how executive functioning skills and Response to Intervention programs impact the likelihood a student will be placed in special education. Overall, findings from these studies identify multiple predictors that impact the likelihood a student will be placed in special education and also describe subtypes of students in special education, both of which can inform early interventions.

Study 1 (“Students Identified with Learning Disabilities: Predictors, Profiles, and Policies”) identifies variables measured in kindergarten that predict learning disability (LD) identification by 4th grade. Results show the strongest kindergarten predictors include students’ math, working memory, and “approaches to learning” skills. Results also show a number of demographic characteristics (i.e., student age, race, and family income) impact the likelihood of a student being identified with LD. In addition, Study 1 finds and describes several subtypes of students who are in special education with LD. Next, Study 2 (“Who Is in Placed in Special Education with ADHD?”) explores how students receiving special education services for ADHD differ from general education students. Results show kindergarten students’ working memory, teacher reported attentional focus, and teacher-reported conflict distinguishes these students from students who are not placed in special education with ADHD in 4th grade. Again, a number of demographic characteristics (i.e., student ethnicity, family income, and home language) impact the likelihood a student will be identified with ADHD and placed in special education. An analysis of these students’ behaviors shows these students fall into different subtypes from those typically described in clinical psychology. Finally, Study 3 (“Who is Not Placed in Special Education?”) examines students with low reading and math achievement, with and without special education placement, and describes how they differ on a number of factors. Specifically, this study analyzes a group of academically struggling students and describes their likelihood of being placed in special education in 4th grade. Results show, for students with low academic achievement, the strongest kindergarten predictor of later special education placement is their “approaches to learning” skills, and low achieving students with higher levels of these skills are less likely to be in special education. Student ethnicity, age, and gender are also shown to impact the likelihood a low achieving student is placed in special education.

Taken together, these findings have important implications for early interventions for students at-risk of later special education placement. Discussions within the three studies center around the skills these early interventions could target. These kinds of interventions have the potential to not only raise the academic achievement of at-risk students, but they also have the potential to reduce disproportionate representation by race, ethnicity, and gender within special education placements. Ultimately, the findings within this dissertation can inform special education policies related to identification procedures for students with mild to moderate disabilities, like LD and ADHD.

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