Since the passage of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and the No Child Left Behind law (NCLB) there has been a significant increase in the number of students identified by schools as requiring special services. This upward trend has been, in many cases, beneficial, as students who were traditionally ignored by the educational system now have improved access to educational resources and opportunities. NCLB has forced schools to place a large emphasis on educating these students by providing additional teaching staff, financial resources, and both instructional and testing accommodations. With this rising trend in expanding special education services parents may be trying to push their students into special education programs in order to ensure that they receive access to these increasing resources. This could lead to students receiving services that do not really need them, which might place a significant financial strain on school districts. Furthermore, with the accommodations, documentation, and requirements of teaching these increased numbers of special needs students, teachers may be feeling pressure to simply give passing scores to students in order to avoid the increasingly burdensome hassle of teaching and assessing these students. With the scrutiny of special education, students’ performance under NCLB schools are in some cases even developing policies or forcing teachers to write Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) that dictate that students cannot fail. If these practices are widespread and teachers and schools are merely passing along students in order to avoid scrutiny, and parents are taking advantage of this, then schools are providing a tremendous disservice to their students and are not adequately educating them.

Trend or Issue?

The potential for abusing special education services is a serious issue facing schools, but it is a result of the recent trend of increasing numbers of students identified as special needs.

The Recent Trend

In recent years there has been a significant increase in the number of students served by special education programs. The National Education Association reports that over the last ten years, since the passage of the NCLB act, the number of special education students has increased by thirty percent nationwide (National Education Association, 2011). This trend is nationwide, but is especially noticeable in large urban school districts. In 2010 more than half of the 14,000 new students in the New York City Schools were identified as special needs students. The district anticipates that by next school year 60% of their new students would be special education students (Christ, 2010)

The increasing numbers of students served by special education programs represent a wide array of diagnosed disabilities. In New York state the number of students identified as autistic is increased by over 200% from 2002 to 2007 and is predicted to continue to increase by 17% each year (Lociano & Allen, 2008). Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) has increased drastically in recent years. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports that in 2003 7.8% of American students were diagnosed with ADHD, but by 2007 more than one in ten students in the United States was diagnosed with ADHD (Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 2012). This trend varies across demographic groups, as older students, Hispanic students, and students living in the eastern part of the United States had had higher rates of diagnosis (Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 2012).

Why is this a serious issue?

Increasing numbers of students served by special education is potentially turning in a real issue for school districts. For example, despite more than half of all new students in New York City requiring special education services in 2010, the district faced a $750 million budget deficit and was forced lay off more than 4,000 teachers (Christ, 2010). The budget issues, coupled with the requirements of IDEA have led to schools being forced to expend more of their dwindling resources on their special education students. This has especially been an issue in cases where districts have been forced to cut back on spending mandated by IDEA, and as a result they are woefully unprepared to provide the required services to these students. For example only 11% of special education teachers have been provided the training required to teach autistic students (Lociano & Allen, 2008). This is not an isolated incident. The National Education Association reported that only nine states fulfilled the special education requirements of IDEA in 2007 (National Education Association, 2007).

This video addresses some of the issues surrounding how our special education system could be
abused by students, educators, parents, and medical professionals (begin at 3:36)

In light of the shortcomings in meeting the special education requirements, there is the potential for school districts, teachers, and parents to give students unearned passing grades in an effort to hide the failures to adequately educate special needs students. School districts have an incentive to increase the numbers of diagnosed students. When New York City Schools announced its budget problems, accusations arose that the district was diagnosing more students in an effort to receive for federal funding. (Christ, 2010). However, this places scrutiny on teachers, who are under pressure to help these students to succeed at any cost. In some cases this can be in the form of a semi-official directive. A school in New Orleans was closed in August 2011 after allegations arose that school officials were doctoring special needs students’ tests and engaging in systematic grade inflation in order to hide their shortcomings under IDEA (Tidmore, 2011). Message boards and blogs across the Internet are filled with teachers’ accounts of being unofficially told to inflate special needs students’ grades. Some are even told that they are not allowed to assign failing grades to special needs students (LD Online, 2010). As this happens, parents of students who are not identified as special needs are perhaps incentivized to have their students diagnosed as a means of ensuring that their child graduates without the risk of failure. Increasingly parents are self-identifying their children as having a disability, especially ADHD (Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 2012).

With inflated diagnoses and grades, students who legitimately need special education services are being hurt. In some cases, as a result of doctored grades, students are being admitted into colleges and post-secondary programs that they really are not qualified for (Tidmore, 2011). This is a very serious issue for schools as their students are potentially being set up for failure at the next level instead of being adequately prepared for it.

Project Proposal


Center for Disease Control and Prevention. (2012, February 1). National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities. Retrieved May 21, 2012, from Rate of Parent-Reported ADHD Increasing: http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/features/adhd-parent-reporting.html
The CDC conducted a review of the data regarding how students are diagnosed with ADHD. They found that there has been a recent trend in parents self-reporting their children as having ADHD as opposed to going through a traditional medical diagnosis

Christ, L. (2010, May 28). NY1. Retrieved May 21, 2012, from NY1 Exclusive: Number Of Special Needs Students On The Rise: http://www.ny1.com/content/news_beats/education/119441/ny1-exclusive--number-of-special-needs-students-on-the-rise
This document is representative of the media coverage of the increasing numbers of special education students. The article addresses the trend in the New York City School district and reports that half of all new students enrolling in the NYC Schools are identified as special needs students.

LD Online. (2010). LD Online. Retrieved May 21, 2012, from Grading Special Education Students: http://www.ldonline.org/xarbb/topic/14897
The Learning Disabilities Online is an online community for teachers of students with learning disabilities. This specific source is a message board thread that ran well over one year of teachers around the country sharing their experiences of being pressured to change special education students’ grades.

Lociano, V., & Allen, B. (2008). Are Special Education Teachers Prepared to Teach the Increasing Number of Students Diagnosed With Autism? International Journal of Special Education , 23 (2), 120-127.
This academic study was conducted in New York State and sought to evaluate teachers’ readiness to teach increasing numbers of autistic students. The study found that teachers in New York are very unprepared and that school districts are not providing the opportunities or the funding for teachers to receive adequate training.

National Education Association. (2007, June). National Education Association. Retrieved May 21, 2012, from Only 9 States Get 'Satisfactory' on IDEA Report Cards : http://www.nea.org/home/18883.htm
The NEA evaluated how well states were in complete compliance with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. They found that only nine of the fifty states were in compliance. This is potentially significant because if schools are not meeting their legal obligations it could create a culture in which schools feel pressured to doctor special education students’ performance in an effort to avoid legal challenges.

National Education Association. (2011). National Education Association. Retrieved May 21, 2012, from IDEA/Special Education: http://www.nea.org/specialed
The NEA provides a basic overview of the numbers of students enrolled in special education programs nationwide, as well as the requirements for special education students under NCLB and IDEA. They note the rising trend in the number of special education students nationwide.

PBS. (2001, April). Frontline. Retrieved May 21, 2012, from Medicating Kids: A Report on Parents, Educators, and Doctors Trying to Make Sense of a Mysterious and Controversial Mental Diagnosis: ADHD : http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/medicating/
In 2001 PBS Frontline series addressed the increasing prevalence of ADHD in American society and especially focuses on the appropriateness of medicating students. The core of the issue they address is whether or not students are being diagnosed as a means to ensure classroom behavior by not only medicating students but also by placing them within the special education system. The website features varying viewpoints of researchers and educators from both sides of the issue.

Tidmore, C. (2011, August 8). The Louisiana Weekly. Retrieved May 21, 2012, from State Orders Closure of Abramson Charter School: http://www.louisianaweekly.com/state-orders-closure-of-abramson-charter-school/
This article reports on the closure of a charter school in New Orleans. One of the core issues that led to the school’s closure were complaints from teachers regarding the manipulation of special education students’ work by administrators and lead teachers both on classroom assignments and on formalized assessments.