Mildly Mentally Retarded And Learning-Disabled Students Differ In Math Performances, UB Study Shows Study Questions Wisdom of Combining Students In The Same Classrooms

Release Date: July 14, 1994 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Mildly mentally retarded and learning-disabled students are frequently labeled as "mildly disabled" and presented with similar curricula or mainstreamed into general classrooms. But researchers at the University at Buffalo have found that children in the two groups differ significantly in mathematics-performance levels.

That conclusion was based on a three-month study of 501 students, ranging in age from 8-14 years, conducted by Rene S. Parmar, Ph.D., and John F. Cawley, Ph.D., associate professor and professor, respectively, of learning and instruction at UB. The study was published in the May issue of the journal Exceptional Children.

The findings raise questions regarding the appropriateness of classrooms that combine students with learning disabilities and mental retardation as a homogeneous group labeled "students with mild disabilities," particularly when grouped by chronological age, researchers said. Teachers also should not expect a mainstreamed student to continue to progress at the same rate as normally achieving peers.

The researchers developed a test that covered four mathematical areas -- basic concepts, listening vocabulary, problem-solving/reasoning, and fractions -- to measure mastery of meanings or concepts. The school districts did not allow additional testing or the search of student files.

The researchers specifically did not test computation skills. "Our game is much more cognitive and problem-solving," Cawley said, adding that instructional time spent on computation drills does not enhance conceptual understanding.

They found the largest difference between the two groups of students on the basic-concepts section. Mentally retarded students in the oldest age group were unable to achieve scores as high as the youngest learning-disabled students. "That's a big discrepancy," Cawley noted.

The listening-vocabulary section, which required students to indicate knowledge of time, money, geometrical shapes and temperature measurement, also showed consistent performance-level differences between the two groups. Similarly, a five-year span existed between problem-solving scores and chronological ages for the members of the two groups, Cawley said.

In addition to mean-score differences, the growth rates of the two groups showed variation. Learning-disabled students demonstrated steady growth throughout the age levels. "Their progression was extensive in comparison to the kids with MR," Cawley said.

Developmental data imply the need to carefully consider curriculum and instructional decisions for students identified as mentally retarded and learning disabled at the elementary-school level.

In addition to Cawley and Parmar, James H. Miller, professor of special education and habilitative services at the University of New Orleans, was a co-author of the study.

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