PROVIDENCE -- Nearly three out of every 10 of Rhode Island's special-education students are being educated in separate classrooms, despite research and a federal law that say the students perform better in regular classes.
About 8,900 of the state's 31,000 special-education students, or 29 percent, spend most of their time in small, self-contained classrooms.
Research has shown that students with and without learning disabilities benefit from learning next to each other.
"There is no doubt in my mind that, as a general rule, kids who participate in the general-education curriculum perform better and have better outcomes when they come out of school," Anthony Antosh, director of Sherlock Center on Disabilities at Rhode Island College told the Providence Journal.
The issue came to light after the latest round of state testing. Special-education students in many schools failed to meet state standards.
In one instance, more than a quarter of Rhode Island high schools reported that their special-education students failed to meet proficiency last year in either math or English or both.
One reason for the blame, some educators say, is the decision to keep many special-education students in separate classrooms, despite a federal law mandating that special-needs students be placed in regular classrooms whenever possible.
Rhode Island has the highest percentage of students in special education in the country, 21 percent compared with the national average of 13.7 percent. It costs $22,893 a year to educate a special-education student in Rhode Island and $9,269 for a regular-education student.
Some state educators concede that most of the special-needs students in separate classrooms would benefit and perform better on state tests if they were placed in integrated classrooms with support from special-education teachers.
"We are finally at a critical juncture where people are starting to question the educational models we've all become comfortable with and are looking at the student performance data to highlight the need for change," said Kenneth Swanson, director of special populations for the state Department of Education. "We are in a different era now and our models have to change."
Parents of special-education students are divided on the issue.
Tina Egan of East Greenwich said her daughter Tessa, 10, who has Down syndrome, has thrived in an integrated classroom with the help of an assistant and modified homework assignments.
Raelene Hornby, of North Kingstown, said her daughter Lizzie Hartford, who is autistic and reads at a first-grade level, has spent time in both integrated and separate classes, with varying degrees of success.