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Journal of Intellectual & Developmental Disability, December 2007; 32(4): 248262

Presumed competence reflected in the educational programs of

students with IDD before and after the Beyond Access professional
development intervention


Institute on Disability/UCED, University of New Hampshire, Durham, USA

Background Judgements about students competence influence the goals of their individualised education programs (IEPs),
the location of service delivery, and their placement in general education (GE) as opposed to special education (SE) classes.
The purpose of this study was to describe how presumed competence to learn the GE curriculum was reflected in the IEPs
of students with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD), and in the reported percentage of time that these
students spent in GE classes prior to and following the Beyond Access professional development intervention.
Method Five educational teams of students with IDD participated in a professional development intervention that
emphasised students presumed competence to learn grade-level GE curriculum. Students pre- and post-intervention IEPs
were qualitatively analysed and team member reports of percentage time spent in GE classes were averaged.
Results Five categories of presumed competence were identified. Following intervention, emphasis on learning the GE
curriculum, a shift in location of service delivery from outside to within the GE classroom, and increased time spent in GE
classes were reported.
Conclusions The Beyond Access intervention shows promise for enhancing views of the competence of students with IDD to
learn the GE curriculum and for increasing their inclusion in GE classrooms.

Keywords: Competence, inclusion, general education, professional development, intervention, intellectual and developmental

Introduction a means of communication and other effective

instructional supports.
[Jamie had the] opportunity to participate in a
The following review establishes a context for the
challenging and supportive academic environment
current study by describing: (i) challenges to tradi-
in which [he was] understood to be an active
tional constructs of competence for people with
participant and a competent and literate learner.
intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD); (ii)
[He] was provided with a text-based system of
the influence of assumptions on students individua-
communication, presuming that he could and
lised education programs (IEPs) and learning out-
would become literate in reading and writing,
comes; (iii) evidence that teachers can learn to
[and with] rigorous, age-appropriate, academic
presume that their students with IDD are competent;
curricula and literacy experiences, presuming that
(iv) how presumed competence can affect educational
he could and would achieve academically.
program design; (v) emerging views on ideas asso-
(Broderick & Kasa-Hendrickson, 2001, p. 23)
ciated with presumed competence; and (vi) an
Jamies story exemplifies the influence of assump- operational definition of presumed competence and
tions about competence on the membership, partici- the criterion of the least dangerous assumption.
pation, communication, and learning of a student with
autism who had been judged to have an intellectual
(i) Challenges to traditional constructs of competence and
disability when he was very young. The error of that
intellectual disability
judgement became evident when Jamie was presumed
competent, included in general education (GE) Traditionally, competence has been defined by
classes, taught the GE curriculum, and provided with peoples intelligence how smart they are and how

Correspondence: Cheryl M. Jorgensen, PhD, Assistant Research Professor and Project Director, University of New Hampshire, Institute on Disability/UCED,
10 West Edge Drive, Durham, NH 03824, USA. E-mail: cheryl.jorgensen@unh.edu
ISSN 1366-8250 print/ISSN 1469-9532 online # 2007 Australasian Society for the Study of Intellectual Disability Inc.
DOI: 10.1080/13668250701704238
Presumed competence: Before and after Beyond Access 249

they use their intelligence in other words, what Another challenge to traditionally held beliefs about
they can do. Intelligence has been assumed, by the capabilities of people with IDD is the 2004
some, to be a fixed characteristic of an individual reauthorization of the US Special Education law
that does not change over time. According to this which requires that all students with disabilities have
view, intelligence refers to a general mental ability, access to, participate in, and make progress in the
and involves the ability to reason, plan, solve GE curriculum; and that they pursue that curricu-
problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex lum, to the maximum extent appropriate, in (and
ideas, learn quickly, and learn from experience. with a clear preference for) the GE classroom
Within the human service and education systems, (Individuals with Disabilities Education Improve-
the competence of children and adults with IDD has ment Act, 2004; Wehmeyer, 2003). This legal
traditionally been measured by their performance on requirement is supported by a growing body of
standardised intelligence (IQ) and adaptive beha- research showing that students with IDD are more
viour scales. engaged, develop better communication, social, and
IQ-based measures of competence, such as the literacy skills, and perform better on standardised
Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children (Wechsler, measures of reading and maths skills when they are
2003) and the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Adults included in GE classes (Baker, Wang, & Walberg,
(Wechsler, 1997), have been criticised because they 1994/1995; Blackorby, Chorost, Garza, & Guzman,
may document an individuals poor performance on 2003; Downing, Morrison, & Berecin-Rascon,
items that characterise the disability itself. They may 1996; Erickson, Koppenhaver, Yoder, & Nance,
also reflect the absence of high quality instruction 1997; McGregor & Vogelsberg, 1998; Ryndak,
and educational opportunities, and may be suscep- Morrison, & Sommerstein, 1999; Wehmeyer,
tible to threats to test validity (Donnellan & Leary, Lattin, Lapp-Rincker, & Agran, 2003). Wehmeyer
1995; Gould, 1981; Smith, 1985). and Agran (2006) propose that: The place where
students with significant intellectual disabilities have
Adaptive behaviour, as a measure of what people
access to the general curriculum is the general
with IDD can do, is defined as the sum of the
education classroom (p. 20).
conceptual, social, and practical skills that people have
There persists, however, a limited consensus
learned, and the way they apply these skills to function
among educators and policymakers regarding appro-
in their everyday lives. The use of adaptive behaviour
priate achievement expectations for students with
measures such as the Vineland Adaptive Behavior
disabilities, particularly those with cognitive disabil-
Scales (Sparrow, Balla, & Cicchetti, 2005) for people
ities (McGrew & Evans, 2004, p. 1). So although
with IDD has been criticised because they do not take
the law expressly requires holding all students to
into account the interaction between the person and
high expectations and providing them with access to
the quality of supports available to them. Ros
the GE curriculum, and there is a growing body of
Blackburn, a self-advocate with autism, has described research that supports the rationale behind this law,
how she cannot make a sandwich or dress herself, but US policies still sanction modified academic stan-
is a highly competent public speaker with a particular dards for students with IDD (Individuals with
aptitude for language (Blackburn, 2006). Disabilities Education Improvement Act, 2004; No
In 2006 the largest professional organisation Child Left Behind Act, 2001). Thus these students
devoted to individuals with IDD The American experience the lowest percentages of time spent in
Association on Mental Retardation (AAMR) GE classes (United States Department of
changed its name to The American Association on Education, 2006), with both special education and
Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities related services often being provided in segregated
(AAIDD, 2007b). The organisation has also chan- environments.
ged its definition of intellectual disability 10 times
since 1908. The 2007 definition recognises that:
(ii) The influence of assumptions on students
an understanding of mental retardation 1 educational programs and learning outcomes
requires a multidimensional and ecological It has been theorised that teacher expectations about
approach that reflects the interaction of the students ability to learn communicated in both
individual with the environment, and the out- explicit and subtle ways can be more influential on
comes of that interaction with respect to inde- learning outcomes than the students inherent
pendence, relationships, societal contributions, abilities or the teachers instructional methods.
participation in school and community, and This phenomenon is related to the construct of the
personal well being. (AAIDD, 2007a) self-fulfilling prophesy (Merton, 1948). In
250 C. M. Jorgensen et al.

Rosenthal and Jacobsons (1968) classic study, (p. 186). Giangreco, Dennis, Cloninger, Edelman,
teachers were told that several of their students were and Schattman (1993) found that when teachers
expected to make extraordinary progress during the were part of a collaborative team, received facilitative
current school year. Unbeknownst to the teachers, help from specialists, and possessed attributes such
the identified students comprised a stratified random as willingness to learn and flexibility, they were more
sample from the class, and included some students likely to experience a true transformation in their
who had performed well in the past as well as others attitude towards their students with significant
who had not. At the end of the year, the identified disabilities. Hunt, Soto, Maier, Muller, and Goetz
students did, in fact, make greater gains than would (2002) also found that when teachers who were
have been expected based on student abilities alone. members of collaborative teams conscientiously
This Pygmalion effect suggests that when opti- implemented student support plans, they reported
mistic expectations are communicated from teachers improvements in academic performance and
to students, they may have a demonstrable impact increased participation in the GE core curriculum
on student motivation and learning. by students who required AAC. Ross (1994) sought
Clark (1997) studied the influence of teacher to apply the principles of self-efficacy research to the
attributions on predictions of future achievement in design of a long-term in-service professional devel-
an experiment where teachers were given informa- opment program to promote cooperative learning.
tion about students disability status, the amount Although the in-service program was found to have
of effort they put into their schoolwork, and had a positive impact on teachers overall sense of
their academic ability. The results suggested that teaching efficacy, their beliefs about their own ability
teachers made causal attributions, and subsequently to affect individual students learning did not
responded to students with learning disabilities, at change. The authors hypothesised that the absence
least in part on the basis of the belief that these of a change in personal efficacy was related to the
students will fail more often than their peers without fact that the in-service training program did not
disability. Rolison and Medway (1985) found similar include a hands-on, in-class support component.
results in a study of the effects of pre-performance
information on classroom teachers expectations and
(iv) How presumed competence can affect educational
attributions. Teachers were found to have higher
expectations of students labelled as learning dis-
abled compared to students labelled as mildly Judgements about students competence can have an
intellectually disabled. impact on specific features of their IEPs, including:
(i) the relative emphasis on academic versus life skills
goals and instruction; and (ii) students placement in
(iii) Evidence that teachers can learn to presume their
GE as opposed to SE classes (Giangreco & Putnam,
students with IDD are competent
1991). The location of service delivery as a
Researchers have sought to understand the condi- separate consideration from students primary edu-
tions under which positive attributions and predic- cational placement may also be an indicator of
tions of performance might be held about individuals educators judgements about students competence.
with IDD, affecting both their educational and life Research into AAC has shown better outcomes with
outcomes. These conditions include: (a) teacher integrated delivery of communication services and
self-efficacy, defined as teachers belief in their supports (Hunt et al., 2002). Consistent with
ability to positively influence student achievement; Calculator and Jorgensens (1991) proposed set of
(b) teachers membership within a supportive team best practices for AAC, York, Giangreco,
of educators that has shared understanding, com- Vandercook, and Macdonald (1992) noted that:
mitment to similar goals, and adequate time for
collaborative work; and (c) the availability of Greater inclusion of students with diverse needs
comprehensive professional development and coach- into general education classes and other inte-
ing related to the adoption of new beliefs and grated environments has created the need for
practices. In a study on the attitudes of special support personnel to modify their traditional
education teachers towards the use of augmentative methods of service provision this requires two
and alternative communication (AAC), Soto (1997) major logistical changes: 1) flexible scheduling so
found that teachers perceptions of students that support personnel can spend time in general
abilities appeared to be strongly affected by percep- education classes and other integrated environ-
tions of their own skills and responsibilities to ments, and 2) scheduling opportunities for people
provide communication training in the classroom to collaborate. (p. 111)
Presumed competence: Before and after Beyond Access 251

(v) Emerging views on ideas associated with presumed (vi) An operational definition of presumed competence
competence and the criterion of the least dangerous assumption
Views about the presumed competence of people A framework for resolving lingering uncertainties
with IDD have been investigated primarily through about students abilities and the design of their
qualitative studies. For example, Bogdan and educational program can be found in the criterion of
Taylor (1989) investigated how some non-disabled the least dangerous assumption. Donnellan (1984)
people in caring relationships with people with reflected upon this criterion in the following way:
severe disabilities constructed competence as a
characteristic of simply being human. The authors Given that the long-term goal of education is to
found that these non-disabled people discounted ensure that students acquire the skills necessary to
the labels and professional judgements about their be able to live, work, and recreate as independently
friends abilities, and attributed to them the ability as possible as adults; and given that there are a
to think, reason, and communicate. They did so variety of educational means or strategies currently
based on intuition, by observing small variations in available for instruction; and given that, through
behaviour and mood, and by taking the perspective lack of conclusive data, we are currently forced to
of the person with a disability, imagining what they make assumptions about the relative impact of
might be feeling or thinking. They held the view various strategies on the long-term goals, which
that a person could have full thinking capacity, be assumptions will have the least dangerous effect on
intelligent and reflective, but be locked in a body the likelihood that the goal will be attained? (p.148)
that is incapable of or severely limited in its
capacity for communication (p. 139). Donnellan answered this question by suggesting that
Kasa-Hendrickson (2005) studied the way that the least dangerous assumption is to assume
four teachers who had non-verbal students with competence, and to provide opportunities consistent
autism in their classes constructed their compe- with high expectations, because to assume incompe-
tence, and found that when the teachers were faced tence and not provide such opportunities could be
with messages from people in authority about their more harmful, if ones assumptions were eventually
students incompetence, they held on to their to be proved wrong. Likewise, Biklen (1999) offered
optimistic outlooks (p. 61) about the students Guiding Principles for creating contexts for com-
ability to learn. These teachers searched for munication and participation, and stressed that
situations in which their students demonstrated difficulties with demonstrating ability not be taken
competence, even if it meant giving a broad as evidence of intellectual incompetence (p. 50).
interpretation to seemingly ambiguous behaviours. Furthermore, he argued that as a matter of basic
They provided access to the GE curriculum for sensitivity and good educational practice, educators
their students with autism by choosing instruc- must presume that the person is intelligent (p. 50).
tional activities that naturally accommodated stu- Striving to construct an operational definition of
dent diversity, such as cooperative learning and presumed competence, Jorgensen (2006) integrated
hands-on projects. Donnellans least dangerous assumption principle
Educators who view the label of intellectual with Biklens recommendation to presume compe-
disability as a social construct created from a tence, and produced a quantifiable benchmark for
set of culturally bound assumptions may be more achievement. She proposed that the least danger-
likely to presume competence and support stu- ous assumption is to presume a student is competent
dents full membership, participation, and learning to learn general education curriculum and to design
within the GE classroom (Biklen & Duchan, 1994; educational programs and supports based on that
Kliewer, Biklen, & Kasa-Hendrickson, 2006; assumption (Jorgensen, 2006). To date, no empiri-
Rubin et al., 2001). They may look for and expect cal studies have described the impact on students
to find competence, in spite of the students educational programs of a professional development
label (Biklen, 1999; Kasa-Hendrickson, 2005). model, including both workshops and on-site
Furthermore, they might understand that in coaching, using this presumed competence perspec-
assessing the effectiveness of participation in tive for students with IDD.
academics, it is important to consider not only
the students skills, but also those of the people
Aim of this study
around him or her, of supportive people in the
setting, and the impact of the setting itself The aim of this study was to describe how Jorgensens
(Biklen, 1999, p. 51). operational definition of presumed competence to
252 C. M. Jorgensen et al.

learn GE curriculum was reflected in the IEPs of participation in this study based on the following
students with IDD, and the reported percentage of selection criteria: (a) they had been given the label of
time these students spent in GE classes before and IDD; (b) they were eligible for the New Hampshire
after their educational teams participated in the Alternate Assessment; (c) they could benefit from
Beyond Access professional development intervention. AAC and/or assistive technology (AT) to support their
learning; and (d) they were placed in GE classes for at
least 50% of the day in at least two core academic
Method areas (e.g., language arts, maths, social studies). The
students ranged in age from 7 years, 5 months to 8
Informed consent
years, 0 months, with a mean age of 7 years, 8 months
This research was approved by the University of (see Table 1). The students used a variety of unaided
New Hampshires Institutional Review Board, which communication means, including facial expressions,
also assured participants informed consent and natural gestures, sign language, and speech. Four of
confidentiality. the five students had been introduced previously to
AAC strategies, including the use of picture
communication symbols, switches, and electronic
communication devices.
Students. During the 2005/2006 school year, five
students from two elementary schools in south- Educational teams. The five educational teams (three
eastern New Hampshire were selected for from one school and two from the other) were

Table 1. Student characteristics at the commencement of the Beyond Access intervention

Developmental Unaided communication Aided communication

Student Age Gender Grade Special education label level repertoire and assistive technology

Anna 7 yrs, F 2 Multiple disabilities 1 yr, 6 mths Vocalisations, gestures, Single switch, photos,
10 mths (mitochondrial disorder, to 2 yrs, physical movement, facial communication board
seizures), visual 6 mths expressions, a few signs,
impairment verbalises familiar 12 word
phrases, word approximations
Nelson 7 yrs, M 2 Autism, speech and Not available Uses simple sentences to Computer as tool for
5 mths language impairment, express basic needs, omits learning, picture
behaviour concerns grammatical forms, MLU55 schedules
words, struggles with asking
questions, responds well to
Travis 7 yrs, M 2 Developmental delay 1 yr, 8 mths Primary means of Visual supports, picture
9 mths (pervasive developmental communication is verbal; schedules, task cards
disorder not otherwise below age level receptive,
specified), speech and expressive, and pragmatic
language impairment language skills; difficulties
with social understanding/
social skills
Susan 8 yrs, F 2 Multiple disabilities, IQ,50 Body language, gestures, BIGmackH
0 mths other health impairment Adaptive inconsistent use of a few communicator, picture
(spina bifida), speech behaviour: signs, vocalisations, communication symbols,
and language impairment 1 yr, 6 mths verbalises a few familiar choice board
to 2 yrs single words and short
phrases; follows 1-step
Peter 7 yrs, M 3 Autism Not Gestures, some sign Picture communication
11 mths available language, limited verbal symbols, picture
abilities, difficulties with schedules, task cards,
receptive and expressive DynaMyte2 AAC device
language, and social (introduced), computer
interactions for learning

Note. Pseudonyms have been used to protect the students privacy.

Presumed competence: Before and after Beyond Access 253

comprised of the individual students parents/ membership and participation in the GE classroom;
guardians, GE teacher, SE teacher, and parapro- and (d) assessing the students learning of the GE
fessional (the term paraprofessional is used curriculum (McSheehan et al., 2006; Sonnenmeier
generally in the United States, and specifically in et al., 2005).
these schools, to refer to a teachers aide who is
assigned to assist and work with an individual student Coaching in presumed competence. Team members
with IDD). Related service providers (i.e., speech- were provided with on-site coaching by BA project
language pathologists, occupational therapists, staff during weekly 1-hour instructional planning and
physical therapists), the special education evaluation meetings. Prior to the intervention, team
administrator, and the school principal were also members would typically ask questions such as: Can
part of the team. this student participate in this lesson? and Will this
student ever learn this material? when planning for a
students involvement in instruction. During the
The intervention: Beyond Access intervention, team members were encouraged to ask
Beyond Access (BA) is a model of professional questions more aligned with presumed competence,
development that supports educational teams to such as: What supports are needed so the student
promote learning of the GE curriculum by students can participate in this lesson like his or her
with IDD (for details regarding implementation of the classmates? and What are alternate forms of
BA model, see McSheehan, Sonnenmeier, Jorgensen, communication or demonstration of learning that
& Turner, 2006; Sonnenmeier, McSheehan, & mirror those of classmates without disabilities?
Jorgensen, 2005). As part of the 10-month BA In-class modelling and coaching were provided by
intervention, teams participated in a variety of BA project staff for specific communication and
professional development activities that emphasised instructional strategies consistent with presumed
students presumed competence, including a 2-day competence. For example, a BA project staff
orientation workshop, subsequent monthly work- member supported a student to respond to questions
shops, and on-site technical assistance by BA project asked by the teacher by supplying four choices of
possible answers. In another example, a BA project
staff (MM and CJ).
staff member coached a paraprofessional to make
sure the student was in physical proximity to
Training in presumed competence. BA project staff
classroom activities rather than remaining at a desk
presented the concept of presumed competence
separate from the rest of the class. In yet another
(Jorgensen, 2006) during a 2-day orientation
example, special educators, speech-language pathol-
workshop. The concept was revisited, reflected
ogists, and occupational therapists were encouraged
upon, and clarified during seven monthly 1-day
to provide support to students within the classroom
workshops on topics including effective team
while the students were engaged in instructional
collaboration, instructional planning, AAC and AT,
activities led by the GE teacher.
and positive behaviour supports. Team members
Team members were coached to evaluate student
discussed various assumptions about student
work by first asking if and how effectively the
learning and the potential long-term impact of these
required supports had been provided to the student
assumptions on educational program design and before making judgements about student learning.
student outcomes. They also reflected on how well the team was doing
in applying the guiding principle of presumed
Operationalising presumed competence. Team members competence during at least three formal review and
were asked not to make any judgements about student reflection meetings, corresponding with periodic
learning during two contact classes per day until they reporting on student progress (i.e., report cards
could be confident that the student was fully and IEP progress notes).
participating in learning activities with high quality
supports. Presumed competence was operationalised
by: (a) designing and providing the communication Data collection: IEPs
supports necessary to allow the student to ask the The first data set for this study consisted of the five
same questions, make the same comments, and give students pre- and post-intervention IEPs. The IEP
the same answers as his or her classmates; (b) was chosen as a unit of analysis because it is a standard
designing and providing instructional materials so document completed for every student who receives
that the student had access to the same information as special education services (Shriner & DeStefano,
his or her classmates; (c) documenting the students 2003). Two IEPs were collected for each student:
254 C. M. Jorgensen et al.

one that had been completed the year prior to the Emerson, Fretz, & Shaw, 1995; Schram, 2007).
teams participation in the BA intervention, and a The steps in this process were as follows:
second that was developed 610 months after
commencement of the intervention. IEP statements 1. Researcher A (CJ) and Researcher C (RS)
from each students Program Overview, Annual conducted an initial review of all pre- and
Goals, Short-term Objectives, and Placement and post-intervention IEPs to identify examples
Location of Services sections were included in the that were consistent or inconsistent with the
analysis. IEP statements from their Student Profile, guiding principle.
Present Level of Performance, and Supports (includ- 2. Researcher A conducted a comprehensive
ing accommodations and modifications) sections were review of all pre- and post-intervention IEPs
not specific enough to be coded and were eliminated sorting consistent and inconsistent examples
from the analysis. Table 2 describes the sections of the (dichotomous categories).
IEPs that were included in the data analysis. 3. After training by Researcher A in the definitions
and codes, Researcher B (MM) reviewed the
pre-intervention IEPs and sorted the consistent
Data analysis: IEPs
and inconsistent examples.
An inductive analysis process, based in an inter- 4. Researchers A and B discussed their coding
pretivist research philosophy and methods (Bogdan decisions and noted agreement, disagreement,
& Biklen, 2003; Merriam, 1998) was used to and data that did not fit into the initial
examine the IEPs. dichotomous coding categories. Differences in
Our investigation began with a search for exam- coding were discussed and the definitions of the
ples of statements that were consistent or incon- dichotomous coding categories were revised until
sistent with the guiding principle: The least dangerous both researchers were in 100% agreement. These
assumption is to presume a student is competent to learn revisions included the specification that consis-
GE curriculum and to design educational programs and tent examples of Annual Goals and Short-term
supports based on that assumption (Jorgensen, 2006). Objectives needed to reflect the priority of
An iterative analysis process was applied in this learning grade-level or near grade-level GE
investigation, including open coding, identifying curriculum, while inconsistent examples
potential paths of inquiry, applying and comparing included learning of specialised curriculum,
promising coding frames, developing selective cod- functional skills, and other non-academic skills.
ing, redefining concepts, recoding the data, and 5. Researcher B coded the post-intervention
further analysis (Agar, 1996; Charmaz, 2006; IEPs using the revised definitions of the

Table 2. Description of the sections of individualised education programs (IEPs) used for analysis

IEP section Description

Program Overview This section outlines some of the required Special Education services, such as: (a) behavioural and academic
expectations (i.e., follow school policy or modified); (b) supplemental services/aide; (c) transportation;
(d) physical education (regular or adapted); (e) the type of diploma the student will receive (regular or alternative);
(f) whether the student has a transition plan (if 14 or older) or vocational component to his or her education; and
(g) a description of the students participation in large-scale assessments (i.e., regular, modified, or excluded).
Annual Goals Annual goals reflect the broad priority learning outcomes that students are expected to achieve in a school year.
They include: (a) the goal area (e.g., reading, occupational therapy, communication); (b) the specific skill or
behaviour that the goal relates to (e.g., Student will develop his sight word vocabulary/Student will continue
to expand on his ability to initiate conversation and respond to a variety of communication partners using
AAC); (c) the benchmark or level of the expected measurable performance (e.g., N will increase his maths
skills to the grade 2.4 level); and (d) the context in which the behaviour or skill will be demonstrated (e.g.,
During silent reading or When giving a book report).
Short-term Objectives Short-term objectives provide a process by which to break down an annual goal into a sequence of smaller
partsto offer additional clarity to the priorities that have been [stated] as annual goalsone of the widely
accepted formats is to include three distinct components [in Short-term Objectives]: (1) conditions, (2)
behavior, and (3) criteria. (Giangreco, Cloninger, & Iverson, 1998, p. 137)
Placement and Location There are several references within the IEP to various aspects of students educational placement and services,
of Services including: (a) the type, duration, and frequency of service; (b) who is providing it; and (c) the location in which
the service will be provided.

Note. The Student Profile, Present Level of Performance, and Supports sections of the IEPs were eliminated from the final data analysis.
Presumed competence: Before and after Beyond Access 255

dichotomous coding categories (consistent or environment in the local school; or (iii) services
inconsistent). provided outside the local school. The service
6. Researchers A and B discussed their coding delivery statements were coded according to these
results again, noting that four themes were themes and tallied.
becoming apparent with respect to Annual
Goals and Short-term Objectives, differentiated
Data collection and analysis: Percentage of time in the
by their relationship to: (i) learning of grade-
GE classroom
level GE curriculum; (ii) learning of lower level
or specialised curriculum; (iii) classroom parti- The second data set consisted of team members
cipation with a potential to learn curriculum; estimates of the percentage of the school day spent in
and (iv) acquiring functional skills. the GE classroom by the students 10 months post-
7. Researchers A and B recoded the data from the intervention (selected from one of the following
post-intervention IEPs using this four-category possible options: 020%, 2040%, 4060%, 60
framework. Program Overview statements were 80%, 80100%). The mean response was calculated
not specific enough to be coded using this for each student.
framework, and were excluded from the rest of
the analysis.
8. Researchers A and B discussed their coding
results again, noting that the examples of Analysis of the ten IEPs revealed five categories of
Annual Goals and Short-term Objectives in presumed competence reflected in Annual Goals
the category of learning of lower level or and Short-term Objectives: (i) competence to learn
specialised curriculum might be better repre- grade-level GE curriculum; (ii) competence to learn
sented in two distinct categories. Thus, a five- lower than grade-level GE curriculum; (iii) compe-
category framework of presumed competence tence to learn specialised or alternate2 curricula; (iv)
in Annual Goals and Short-term Objectives competence to participate, with the potential to learn
was described, and definitions were revised the GE curriculum; and (v) competence to acquire
again for each of the coding categories. non-academic skills. Analysis of the IEPs also
9. Researchers A and B recoded all of the Annual revealed a pre- to post-intervention shift towards
Goals and Short-term Objectives using the IEP goals and objectives that presumed competence
revised definitions of the coding categories, to learn grade-level GE curriculum.
reaching 100% agreement for coding each into Presumed competence was suggested also in the
one of the five identified categories. IEP descriptions of the location of SE instruction and
10. At the conclusion of the IEP analysis, definitions related service delivery. Comparisons of pre- and post-
of the coding categories were established, and intervention IEPs revealed a shift towards providing
representative exemplars were chosen. Presence more SE instruction and related services in the GE
or absence of categories was noted in each of classroom rather than in SE environments.
the IEPs. Finally, presumed competence was suggested in
team member estimates of the percentage of time
students spent in the GE classroom, with a pre- to
Data analysis: Location of SE service delivery statements
post-intervention shift toward more time in the GE
A second analysis was completed on the service classroom.
delivery statements in each students pre- and post-
intervention IEP. Using the same iterative analysis
Definitions and exemplars of presumed competence
process described above, service delivery statements
that were consistent or inconsistent with the guiding The five categories of presumed competence
principle of presumed competence were identified. revealed by analysis of the Program Overview,
Consistent service delivery location statements Annual Goals, and Short-term Objectives sections
reflected the students learning within the GE of the IEPs each reflect a different emphasis and set
classroom in the local school, and inconsistent of priorities for student learning and communica-
examples reflected the students learning in any tion. Exemplars of each category are presented in
other location. Following a second review of the Table 3.
statements, three themes became apparent with
respect to Location of Service Delivery: (i) services Category A. Competence to learn grade-level GE
provided in the GE classroom in the local school; (ii) curriculum. This category is defined by goals and
services provided in an SE classroom or other SE other programmatic elements related to learning
256 C. M. Jorgensen et al.

Table 3. Exemplars of presumed competence categories reflected in students individualised education programs (IEPs) pre-
and post-intervention

Presumed competence category Pre-intervention Post-intervention

A. Learn grade-level GE curriculum Travis will improve overall expressive For each social studies unit, Peter will
and receptive language skills to demonstrate enduring understanding of three
an age-appropriate level. main curriculum concepts, people and events,
vocabulary words, and relationship of unit to self.
B. Learn lower than grade-level GE Susan will identify CVC words and Nelson will increase his sight word vocabulary to
curriculum lower than grade-level spelling words. 2.5 grade level of the GE curriculum reading
series (while in 3rd grade).
C. Learn specialised or alternate Peter will read and obey all Susan will demonstrate 1:1 correspondence by
curriculum safety/survival signs. pointing to each word as she reads.

D. Participate with the potential to learn Nelson will continue to improve his After reading and listening to a selected passage,
GE curriculum ability to attend to and participate in Anna will participate in answering questions by
age-appropriate activities with his peers activating a VOCA (voice output communication
within the context of the classroom. aid) when several possible right answers are
E. Acquire non-academic skills Anna will use her Karaoke machine to Peter will demonstrate increased attention to
imitate sounds. tasks requiring use of his visual perceptual and
motor skills.

and communicating about chronological, age- Category D. Competence to participate with the potential
appropriate, grade-level GE curriculum. For any to learn the GE curriculum. This category is defined
student not communicating using speech, writing, or as an emphasis on participating in chronological,
sign language to meet these goals, aided and unaided age-appropriate, grade-level GE learning activities
AAC is utilised. The symbol set includes traditional with a focus on developing access skills such as
orthography in whatever sensory representation is receptive and expressive communication. There is
needed by the student (e.g., Braille, print, finger no expectation that the student will demonstrate
spelling). learning of the GE curriculum. For any student not
communicating using speech, writing, or sign
Category B. Competence to learn lower than grade-level language to meet these goals, aided and unaided
AAC is utilised. The symbol set includes traditional
GE curriculum. This category is defined by goals and
orthography in whatever sensory representation is
other programmatic elements related to learning and
needed by the student.
communicating about lower than grade-level GE
curriculum. For any student not communicating
Category E. Competence to acquire non-academic
using speech, writing, or sign language to meet these
skills. This category is defined by educational goals
goals, aided and unaided AAC is utilised. The
and other programmatic elements related to learning
symbol set includes traditional orthography in
basic skills and not related to learning academic
whatever sensory representation is needed by the
subjects; for example, object permanence, eye
contact, orientation to speaker, expressing wants
and needs, activities of daily living, personal care, or
Category C. Competence to learn specialised or alternate foundational cognitive skills.
curriculum. This category emphasises goals and
other programmatic elements related to learning
and communicating about academic subjects, Comparison of annual goals and short-term objectives
generally, but not explicitly associated with the pre- and post-intervention
students chronological, grade-level GE Annual Goals and Short-term Objectives statements
curriculum. These were also related to specialised were tallied in the pre- and post-intervention IEPs
or alternate curricula. For any student not with respect to their correspondence with Categories
communicating using speech, writing, or sign A, B, C, D, or E. With the exception of two short-
language to meet these goals, aided and unaided term objectives in maths (one for Susan and one for
AAC is utilised. The symbol set may or may not Peter) and one annual goal in communication (for
include traditional orthography. Travis), Categories A and B (i.e., grade-level or
Presumed competence: Before and after Beyond Access 257

lower than grade-level) were not represented in the 14 statements indicated service delivery in a SE
pre-intervention IEPs. In Annas pre-intervention environment.
IEP, all of the annual goals and short-term objectives Analysis of the post-intervention IEPs of all five
were classified as Category C, D, or E. In Susans students found that 14 out of 17 services were
pre-intervention IEP, all of the annual goals and all provided in the GE classroom in the local school,
but one of the short-term objectives were classified with no services being provided outside the school.
as Category C, D, or E. There is a notation on several of the post-interven-
Following the intervention, Category A and B tion IEPs: With parent permission, services can be
annual goals and short-term objectives were repre- modified to in/out as teacher/service provider deems
sented in all five students IEPs, and there were no necessary.
Category E statements. Annas post-intervention IEP Comparison between pre- and post-intervention
statements primarily demonstrated Category D exam- service delivery shows a shift towards the provision of
ples, with one annual goal in Category B. In Susans SE and related services delivery in the GE classroom.
post-intervention IEP, all statements were classified as
Category A, with the exception of one short-term
Percentage of time students spent in the GE classroom
objective from Category C, and one annual goal and
one short term-objective each from Category D. Team members were asked to estimate the percen-
Thus, for four of the five students, there was a tage of the school day students spent in the GE
shift towards annual goals and short-term objectives classroom 10 months post-intervention. A review of
that focused on the students learning grade-level baseline and mid-year measures of percentage of the
curriculum, and for Anna, a shift from non- day spent in the GE classroom for these five students
academic skills and alternate curricula to goals and is reported elsewhere (McSheehan et al., 2006), and
objectives that reflected participation in GE stan- reveals that students were spending less than 60% of
dards-based activities. their time in the GE classroom (and for Anna, only
020%). Comparison with the post-intervention
data showed a trend during the year towards an
Comparison of location of SE instruction and related
increase in the percentage of time all five students
services delivery pre- and post-intervention
spent in the GE classroom. Post-intervention, two
Exemplars of pre- and post-intervention IEP state- students (Travis and Peter) were reported to be
ments regarding location of SE instruction and spending between 80% and 100% of the school day
delivery of related services (OT, PT, speech-lan- in the GE classroom and three students (Anna,
guage therapy) are presented in Table 4. These Susan, and Nelson) were reported to be spending
statements were tallied by location: (i) in the GE approximately 80% of the day in the GE classroom.
classroom in the local school; (ii) in a SE classroom
or other non-GE classroom environment in the local
school; or (iii) outside the local school. Analysis of
Annas pre-intervention IEP identified that all SE The results of this study demonstrate that after
and related services were provided in a home-based participating in the Beyond Access professional
program or, on the rare occasions that she came to development intervention, educational team mem-
school, in a SE setting. Four out of 14 statements on bers wrote IEPs that reflected a view of students as
the remaining students pre-intervention IEPs indi- competent to learn grade-level GE curriculum at
cated service delivery in the GE class and 10 out of levels of achievement not usually associated with

Table 4. IEP statements regarding the location of SE instruction and delivery of related services pre- and post-intervention

Location of instruction and related services Pre-intervention Post-intervention

Within the local school and the GE Delivery of speech-language and Services to Susan will be provided by
classroom occupational therapy services for Travis speech-language specialist and occupational
is specified as regular class. therapist in regular class.
Within the local school, outside of the Related services to be provided outside Occupational therapy will be provided to Anna
GE classroom the regular class when Anna is in school. in two 30-minute units per week in a pull-out
Not within the local school Anna will receive 30 hours home-based
258 C. M. Jorgensen et al.

students with IDD. Furthermore, following the competence by reading the literature or attending a
intervention, changes also occurred in the location one-day workshop; team members are likely to need
of SE instruction and related services and in the ongoing support to make significant changes in their
percentage of the day that team members reported assumptions and, ultimately, in their practices. The
students spent in GE classes. intervention was delivered at the team level with all
workshops and on-site coaching provided to all
members of the team. This may have created a
Presumed competence reflected in annual goals and short-
community of supportive learners within the team,
term objectives
so that if one team member experienced a lack of
Prior to the intervention, all five students had been confidence in the presumed competence principle,
described as having moderate to severe intellectual he or she had other trusted team members and
disabilities, and none had grade-level GE curriculum university-based critical friends to support pro-
goals or objectives in their IEPs. The shift in the focus blem-solving, risk-taking, in-depth reflection, and
of students annual goals and short-term objectives consideration of differing points of view.
following the intervention to include more statements Changes in team members expectations for
related to learning the GE curriculum may be due to a student learning may also reflect their own increased
variety of factors. The BA professional development self-efficacy. As they tried out new instructional
intervention workshops presented philosophical, his- methods, and were provided with regular support to
torical, and research-based information about pre- reflect on both their successes and challenges, they
sumed competence; engaged team members in may have become more confident in their ability to
discussions about the risks and benefits of presuming teach students with IDD more rigorous academic
competence or incompetence; and showed video- content (Ross, 1994). Even if the team members did
tapes of real-life scenarios where heightened expecta- not change their fundamental beliefs about the
tions and enhanced supports in the GE classroom students capabilities, they may have internalised
were related to improvements in learning of the GE the principle of the least dangerous assumption:
curriculum by students with IDD. The BA project that to be wrong about presuming a students
staff had asked team members at the outset to just for competence to learn the GE curriculum is less
now, presume that the student can learn and then dangerous than to be wrong about presuming that a
design an educational program based on that assump- student cannot learn the GE curriculum. The
tion. The BA project staff emphasised that team approach of these educational teams may thus be
members did not need to make a lasting change in comparable to that of the teachers described by
their beliefs about the students capabilities, and Kasa-Hendrickson (2005), in that they put into
reminded team members that they would be given practice the theory of presumed competence by
frequent opportunities to check their provisional providing access to the GE curriculum in the GE
assumptions against student performance data. classroom for students who were not yet demon-
Many examples of instructional and communication strating their understanding of that curriculum.
supports based on presumed competence were
provided, and hands-on support was provided as
Presumed competence reflected in location of service
team members redesigned their own instructional
materials and plans. The intervention included weekly
on-site modelling and coaching by BA project staff to Following the intervention, the teams decisions
assist team members to implement and evaluate their about where to deliver SE and related services
new skills and practices. The BA project staff also appears to have shifted, reflecting less pull out
worked with school principals and special education and more push in services. Prior to the interven-
administrators to ensure that teams had regularly tion, team members may have held the view that
scheduled instructional preparation time in which to there was no disadvantage in removing students
plan for upcoming lessons, reflect on student perfor- from GE classes, or that pull out instruction was
mance, and discuss ways to improve their instruction. necessary for learning critical communication or
The findings from this study are consistent with academic skills. Following the intervention, team
those of other studies which have demonstrated that members appear to have adopted the belief that
educators make transformative changes in both there is a distinct advantage in keeping students in
beliefs and practices when they are involved in the GE classroom to benefit from instruction from
collaborative learning within day-to-day work struc- the GE teacher and from learning models provided
tures (Giangreco et al., 1993; Hunt et al., 2002). It by their classmates. The BA project staff modelled
may not be enough to learn about presumed new methods for integrating SE and related services
Presumed competence: Before and after Beyond Access 259

into typically occurring instructional and daily members, or of the administrative support necessary
routines. When the team members tried new to engage in what is clearly a demanding process.
methods of service delivery and found that students Educators who presume competence, yet do not
were able to learn important target skills, they may work under conditions supporting presumed com-
have written the students post-intervention IEPs to petence, may experience limited success for them-
reflect their growing confidence in the efficacy of an selves and their students. However in this study,
integrated service delivery model. This finding is when the presumptions of competence varied among
consistent with the findings and recommendations of team members, for example, skilled university-based
previous research (Calculator & Jorgensen, 1991; critical friends were available to facilitate con-
Giangreco & Putnam, 1991; Hunt et al., 2002; York sensus-building.
et al., 1992) regarding the provision of related On the other hand, there might also be risks
services within instead of outside the GE classroom. inherent in not presuming competence. Teams
might choose to prioritise educational goals that
underestimate students abilities, deny them access
Presumed competence reflected in the reported percentage
to challenging instructional content, and fail to
of time spent in the GE classroom
provide them with a communication system that
Changes in team members estimates of the percen- would enable them to converse with classmates and
tage of the school day that students spent as others about age-appropriate topics and ideas and
participating members of GE classes reflected to demonstrate what they do know. Until further
another shift between pre-intervention and post- research is undertaken to determine whether causal
intervention reports. The percentage increased for relationships exist among educational expecta-
all five students to 80% or more of the day. These tions, placement in GE classes, and student
findings may be related to a variety of factors. Given learning, what criterion might be used to judge
that an expressed goal of the BA intervention was to which decision is right for a particular student? We
increase students time in the GE classroom, team would suggest that presuming competence to learn
members may have been swayed by social desir- academic knowledge and skills is the least danger-
ability pressure to please the researchers. When team ous assumption, and will first, do no harm
members expectations for student learning (Hilliard, 1992, p. 168). Applying this presumption
increased and they observed students learning within does not imply that functional life skills are not an
the GE classroom, team members may have adopted important educational goal, but rather, that these
the belief that students needed to spend more time skills should be taught at a time and place that does
in the GE classroom so that they could receive not interfere with instruction in GE curriculum in
instruction from the most qualified content specialist the GE classroom.
the GE classroom teacher. Thus team members
may have adopted Wehmeyer and Agrans (2006)
proposition that: The place where students with
significant intellectual disabilities have access to the The limitations of this research should be taken into
general curriculum is the general education class- account when considering its implications. First, this
room (p. 20). was a descriptive study of five students IEPs written
by their educational teams, rather than an experi-
mental study. Although team members gave anec-
Risks of presuming or not presuming competence
dotal reports and many examples of these students
Some might argue that there are risks in applying learning more GE curriculum post-intervention
this studys definition of presumed competence to (published previously in McSheehan et al., 2006),
the educational programs of students with IDD. For the methodology of this study did not permit us to
example, focusing on GE curriculum might result in conclude that the BA intervention was the sole
a lack of attention to teaching daily living skills, pre- reason for changes in team member behaviour or
symbolic communication skills, or perceived devel- student achievement. Second, only a small number
opmentally appropriate skills. Others might argue of students IEPs were examined, and the small
that an incorrect presumption of competence could sample size limits the generalisability of the findings.
negatively affect a students self-esteem. There is Third, factors other than the BA intervention might
also the risk that teachers who presume competence have influenced the results. Such factors could
and strive to provide high quality instructional and include the Hawthorne effect, which states that
communication supports might be frustrated by a people will change simply as a result of being studied
lack of joint planning time with other team or participating in a new endeavour (Mayo, 1933),
260 C. M. Jorgensen et al.

or the fact that team members who made enhanced on-site modelling and coaching) to support educa-
post-intervention judgements about student compe- tional teams to apply these principles in their
tence might have wished to please the researchers, practice, could lead to higher expectations,
who were providing them with a valued service. And enhanced supports, and perhaps, better educational
finally, the definitions of the five categories reflect outcomes for students with IDD.
the authors unique experiences in the field and their If social desirability (defined in this study as team
personal interpretation of the data provided in these members wanting to please the researchers who were
IEPs. Another study which established at the outset perceived as authority figures) was partly responsible
a different construct of presumed competence and for recommended increases in the amount of time
which examined a different set of IEPs might show students spent in the GE class, this may have
different results. implications for administrative leadership and
accountability. Changes in student placement to
reflect more time in GE may occur if administrators
or policy-makers use their leadership positions to
Applying the principle of presumed competence could encourage this practice.
guide educational teams to write goals and objectives Further research is needed to examine how the
that are more closely aligned with grade-level GE categories of presumed competence identified in
curriculum standards, and that specify the context of this study may change or remain constant across
instruction and service delivery as the GE classroom. contexts. Researchers might utilise other meth-
The principle of presumed competence could also odologies to further investigate: (i) how educators
guide teams in: (i) reporting assessment results and and related service providers develop and change
describing present levels of performance information their assumptions about students competence; (ii)
using language that reflects a strengths-based rather which strategies are most effective in supporting
than a deficit perspective; and (ii) qualifying assess- teams to develop and apply the principle of
ment results based on the validity and reliability of presumed competence; and (iii) how presumed
assessment tools and instruments used, the quality of competence influences instruction, and student
instruction and supports provided to students, and the learning and communication outcomes. Since this
teams capacity to implement best practices. investigation did not measure changes in teachers
In addition, there are implications for making ratings of their self-efficacy or educational prac-
decisions about students educational placement and tices, this is also an important area for future study.
the location of service delivery. Placement in the GE Additional research on student outcomes could
classroom may be considered as a necessary condi- endorse the Beyond Access intervention as a useful
tion and support for learning of the GE curriculum. tool for improving educational outcomes for
Although making a priori decisions about placement students with IDD.
may seem to be in conflict with the generally
accepted guideline that a students educational
program must be determined before a placement
decision is made, US Special Education law does In conclusion, this study provides a new under-
permit simultaneous discussion of program and standing of some of the nuances associated with the
placement (Giangreco, 2003; Turnbull, personal principle of presumed competence, and provides
communication, 29 June 2006). Given this fact, preliminary data on an intervention for enhancing
the findings of this study would support placing educators judgements about the competence of
students with IDD in the GE classroom and students with IDD to learn the GE curriculum
providing them with the instructional and commu- within the GE classroom.
nication supports to learn the GE curriculum.
A better understanding of how presumed compe-
Author note
tence is demonstrated in students educational
programs also has implications for the content and This research was supported in part by the US
process of professional development programs and Department of Education, Office of Special
technical assistance. Our findings confirm those Education Programs, Grant # H324M020067 to
reported elsewhere (Giangreco et al., 1993; Mc- the University of New Hampshire, Institute on
Sheehan et al., 2006; Sonnenmeier et al., 2005): Disability/UCED. The authors have no financial or
that integrating specific information about pre- non-financial conflicts of interest, such as direct or
sumed competence into professional development indirect financial benefit related to this research. No
workshops, as well as technical assistance (including restrictions have been imposed by the funding
Presumed competence: Before and after Beyond Access 261

agency with respect to disseminating these results. In M. Wagner, C. Marder, J. Blackorby, R. Cameto, L.
The opinions expressed by the project do not Newman, & P. Levine, et al. (2003), The achievements of youth
with disabilities during secondary school. A report from the National
necessarily represent those of the US Department Longitudinal Transition Study 2 (NLTS-2). Menlo Park, CA:
of Education or the University of New Hampshire. SRI International.
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