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for the Blind

Expanding possibilities for people with vision loss

Research Navigator: Back to School for Students with Visual Impairments

What Can Be Counted vs. What Really Counts?

published September 3, 2015

This edition of the Navigator tackles some of your most frequently-asked questions!

a child at a 

desk with a reading light

A child at a desk with a reading light

  • How many school-aged children in the U.S. are blind/visually impaired?
  • How do children who are blind/visually impaired compare with their peers on national academic performance measures?
  • What about kids with multiple impairments or deafblindness?
  • How are students faring when they leave school?
  • … and what’s this I hear about the Cogswell-Macy Act?

About This Series

Welcome to the fourth edition of AFB’s Research Navigator. This is a quarterly series – accompanying AFB’s DirectConnect newsletter – from the AFB Public Policy Center. The purpose of this series is to keep you informed of user-friendly facts and figures and the latest research pertaining to people with vision loss. The series will also include the necessary background information so you may use the information most accurately. Have an idea for a Research Navigator topic? Want to know more about a particular statistic or line of research? Send your thoughts to AFB's Senior Policy Researcher, Rebecca Sheffield. Readers are also encouraged to check out AFB’s Statistical Snapshots. This webpage is regularly updated with a wide variety of information and tools that address commonly asked questions about people with vision loss.

Introduction to the Topic

In the previous edition of the Navigator, we presented recent, national-level data on infants and toddlers. We now continue this demographic discussion with a focus on national data for school-aged children, beginning with students of preschool age and continuing through the end of the secondary school, including students transitioning from school to college and career.

Counting School-Aged Children

Alexander den Heijer, an international leadership trainer, succinctly summarized the challenge of demographic statistics in our field when he said, “It’s easy to measure what you can count, but what counts is not easy to measure.” From any internet connected computer, you can access endless tables and reports containing various measures and census counts, but the best numbers to answer a particular research inquiry are often much more elusive!

Data from the Department of Education

The enrollment of children into preschool and school systems provides many opportunities to collect and track student data, including important statistics about the prevalence of vision loss. State and local education systems must report data to the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) within the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services in the Department of Education. This reporting is a requirement of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) for all of a state's students with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs; beginning with children receiving early intervention at age 3 until the students exit special education, graduate, or turn 22 years old). This data is summarized each year in an “Annual Report to Congress on the Implementation of IDEA” (U.S. Department of Education, 2014). For students ages 6 through 21, this report includes – by disability category – total numbers of students served, students’ racial/ethnic groups, the educational environments where students receive services, and students’ graduation and dropout rates. For students ages 3 to 21, the report includes suspension, and expulsion rates by disability category. Additionally, state-level data files are available, providing state-by-state breakdowns (including by disability category) on the topics of Child Count, Educational Environments, Discipline, and Exiting. (State level reports are also produced in the areas of Assessment and Dispute Resolution, but these are not reported by disability category).

From these reports, we can gather data about students with visual impairments and deafblindness, summarized below. However, before reading these statistics, it is critical to understand two significant limitations. First – when states report data to IDEA, they classify each student by a single, “primary” disability category. According to a study in the late 1990’s (Kirchner & Diament, 1999), approximately 65% of students receiving special education services under the category of visual impairment were deafblind and/or had additional disabilities. Kirchner and Diament’s study was included as part of the National Plan for Training Personnel to Serve Children with Blindness and Low Vision (Mason & Davidson, 2000), which put forth the term “educationally significant visual impairments” – a useful way to describe the broad range of students (including students with multiple disabilities) who qualify for special education services. Since state IDEA data for students categorized as visually impaired is not likely to include all students with visual impairments and multiple disabilities, the data is presumed to be a significant undercount of the total population of students with educationally significant visual impairments.

Second – at the state level, some state data is suppressed or not reported due to data privacy concerns, and other data is excluded due to data quality issues. In looking at the state-reported data files, many fields for low-incidence disabilities are empty or marked with an asterisk to explain that the data was redacted or suppressed for quality/privacy issues.

With the above caveats in mind, from the 2012 IDEA data (the most recently reported statistics), for students served under Part B of IDEA in the 50 states, DC, Bureau of Indian Education schools, Puerto Rico, and three outlying areas, OSEP (2014) reported:

  • Of the 6,046,051 students receiving special education, ages 6 through 21, 0.4% (approximately 24,000 students) were identified in the category of visual impairments, and less than 0.03% (approximately 1,800 students) were identified in the category of deafblindness; the percentages of students with visual impairments and deafblindness served were each estimated to be less than 0.05% of the total U.S. population ages 6 to 21.
  • Of students in the category of visual impairment, 64.7% were reported to spend 80% or more of their school day inside a regular classroom rather than a special education setting; for students in the category of deafblindness, this percentage dropped to 21.5%.
  • In the 2011-2012 school year, of all students in the category of visual impairment who exited special education between the ages of 14 through 21, 77.1% did so with a regular high school diploma (this is higher than for any other disability category). For the category of deafblindness, the percentage of students graduating with a regular diploma was 47.0%.
  • Also in the 2011-2012 school year, 7.3% of all students in the category of visual impairment exited special education between the ages of 14 through 21 by dropping out of school. For students in the category of deafblindness, the percentage was 14.5%. In both cases, these rates are lower than the national average for students with disabilities (20.5%).
  • The rate of suspension/expulsion for drugs, weapons, or serious bodily injury for students in the category of visual impairment was reported as 4 per 10,000 students (0 for students in the category of deafblindness).

For more data, see OSEP’s 36th Annual Report to Congress (2014) and the associated data files, available on OSEP's Annual Reports webpage.

A boy wearing 

a backpack walks outside of his school with his white cane

A boy wearing a backpack walks outside of his school with his white cane.

Data from the American Printing House for the Blind

The American Printing House for the Blind (APH) conducts an annual Federal Quota Census as a part of its mandate from the Federal Government to provide adapted educational materials to qualified students (students meeting the definition of blindness). For several reasons, including the limitations of the OSEP data described above and the fact that the APH census only counts students who are legally blind, the APH numbers should not be expected to match the OSEP reports. APH relies on state ex-officio trustees to register and report on the qualified students which they serve (through state departments of education, public and private schools for students who are blind/visually impaired, rehabilitation programs, and programs serving students with multiple disabilities).

For 2013, APH (2014) reported 60,393 students and adults served (for an adult over school age, as determined by respective state laws, to be included in the APH census and to receive support from Federal Quota funding, the person must be enrolled in an instructional program at less than the college level for at least 20 hours per week). Among these students,

  • 4,501 were served by infant programs
  • 5,666 were served by preschool programs
  • 32,158 were in kindergarten through 12th grade
  • 1,486 were in ungraded academic programs
  • 237 were in postgraduate programs
  • 176 were in vocational programs
  • 8,006 were adult students
  • 8,163 were otherwise registered (APH, 2014).

While APH also reports on the primary reading media for these students (braille, print, etc.), they make very clear that “The specific purpose of the annual Federal Quota Census is to register students in the United States and Outlying Areas who meet the definition of blindness and are, therefore, eligible for adapted educational materials from APH through the Act to Promote the Education of the Blind. Statements regarding student literacy, use of appropriate learning media, and students taught in a specific medium cannot be supported using APH registration data” (APH, 2014). Therefore, we cannot use APH data to estimate the rate of braille/print instruction or braille/print readership among students with vision loss in the United States. For more information from APH, see Dr. Tuck Tinsley’s article “The Use of Federal Quota Registration Data,” in the September, 2009, issue of APH News. We will also explore the issue of braille readership in a later edition of the Research Navigator.

National Child Count of Children and Youth who are Deaf-Blind

The National Center on Deaf-Blindness is home to the “first and longest running registry and knowledge base of children who are deaf-blind in the world” (NCDB, 2014). This child-count is conducted each year and the results are reported to OSEP. For the count taken December 1, 2013, a total of 9,454 children and youth were reported: 552 infants (birth to age 2) and 8,902 children/young adults (through age 21, including some students who had turned 22 but were still eligible for state special education services until the end of the school year) (NCDB, 2014). Almost 90% of these children and youth were reported to have other disabilities in addition to deafblindness. This number is a striking contrast to the estimation of fewer than 1,800 students with deafblindness reported by OSEP based on states’ standard special education data collection. Read more on the National Center on Deaf-Blindness’ National Child Count webpage about the Child Count and possible explanations for these data differences.

Data from the U.S. Census Bureau and Other Federal Agencies

As discussed in previous editions of the Research Navigator, we can gather data about the population of people with vision loss from several national surveys, including the American Community Survey (ACS) and the National Health Interview Survey (NHIS). Below we have shared recent findings from the ACS and NHIS – both self-reported surveys in which participants self-identify (or parents report about their children) with disabilities.

The following estimations are for 2013, for non-institutionalized civilians ages 6 to 21 who were reported by a parent/guardian or who self-reported the following difficulties:

  • From the American Community Survey: 640,000 children and youth with vision difficulty; 95,000 children and youth with both vision and hearing difficulty (U. S. Census Bureau, 2015).
  • From the National Health Interview Survey: 2,700,000 children and youth with vision difficulty; 280,000 of those youth were also reported to have at least “a little trouble hearing,” and 14,000 were reported to be deaf (National Center for Health Statistics, 2015).

For more about these surveys, including webinars conducted by the Census Bureau and AFB on how to access demographics and statistics available online, see AFB’s Statistical Snapshots webpages. For explanations of the limitations of these data sources, see our earlier edition of the Research Navigator, “Just how many blind folks are there anyway?”

Success in School and Beyond

So now that we have provided some estimates about how many children with vision loss are in K-12 schools, an important question to tackle is “How are they doing?” How do these students perform, academically, relative to their peers, and how are they doing long-term, after high school graduation?

The United States Education Dashboard provides state report cards on student performance in Math and Reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), but data for students with disabilities is only reported for all disability categories combined. Since performance on high-stakes, state-based exams is measured differently from state to state, each state currently reports on performance for students with disabilities on its own website. Presently, states can determine the minimum “n size” (a statistical term for the size of a subgroup) for any disability subgroup categorizations that they will report in their performance plans; therefore, the availability of data on the performance of students with educationally significant visual impairments varies based upon:

  • whether a state’s minimum n size is low enough to include children with vision loss,
  • the extent to which a state chooses to make subgroup data publically available, and
  • state-to-state variations in assessment types and in rates of assignment of students to alternate assessments.

Ultimately, publically available state assessment data is not currently useful for evaluating the national progress of students with vision loss, relative to their peers, on measures of academic performance. The pending reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act has the potential to change/increase/decrease/eliminate state reporting requirements.

National Longitudinal Transition Study-2

So if we cannot use states’ annual reports to figure out how kids with educationally significant vision loss are performing in school, where can we turn? Instead of data aggregated from annual assessments, we must look to large-scale research studies. The National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 (NLTS2) was a federally funded effort to study a nationally representative sample of students receiving special education services. Students were followed over nine years, from their original ages of 13-16 in 2000, through to their young adulthoods (ages 21-25 by the conclusion of the study in 2009). The intentional sampling of approximately 1,250 students with visual impairments in NLTS2 (Cameto et al., 2002) resulted in specific data about transition-age youth with vision loss over time. This has made possible many important investigations in the field of blindness and visual impairment (for recent examples, see Botsford, 2013; Cmar, 2015; Connors, Curtis, Wall Emerson, & Dormitorio, 2014).

Much of the NLTS2 data is restricted; thus researchers need special permission to access data for in-depth analyses. However, the NLTS2 website allows everyone access to some basic information gathered during the survey through easily searchable reports and tables. Like the previously described OSEP report data, these publically available NLTS2 data tables report only on students’ primary disability category as determined by each state/school district (with a slight exception for the category of deafblindness, which in NLTS2 also includes any students who were identified as both visually impaired and hearing impaired by their districts, regardless of the students’ primary disability categories). For more information about the publically available data, see the NLTS2 Database Overview (IES National Center for Special Education Research, 2012).

The NLTS2 data give us national-level insights into the educational performance of students with visual impairments and deafblindness. In the publically available data, students’ scores on standardized assessments are reported by percentile rank, so a score at the 40th percentile does not mean the student was 40% accurate; rather, it means that a student performed, on average, better than 40% of a comparison group of students who have taken the assessment. Approximately 420 students in the category of visual impairment and fewer than 90 students in the category of deafblindness completed a range of academic assessments. A few examples from the publically available data from NLTS2 (2003):

  • In the passage comprehension assessment, the average score for a student with visual impairment was near the 30th percentile. For students with deafblindness, the average score was near the 14th percentile. For all NLTS2 participant students (with disabilities) taking this assessment, the average score was near the 19th percentile.
  • In the mathematical calculation assessment, the average score for a student with visual impairment was near the 42nd percentile. For students with deafblindness, the average score was near the 23rd percentile. For all NLTS2 participant students (with disabilities) taking this assessment, the average score was near the 26th percentile.

As with all assessments designed for students in the broader population, we should always be careful about drawing conclusions and comparisons from standardized scores and norms, since these tests are frequently not normed for populations that include students with low-incidence disabilities.

With respect to high-school graduation, from the NLTS2 (2003) data, it is estimated that of students who graduated high school, 68% of students in the category of visual impairment and 52% of students in the category of deafblindness graduated with a regular or advanced diploma. For all students with disabilities, the average was 54%. (Yes, these numbers are noticeably different from those reported in the OSEP annual report!) Additionally, from the final wave of NLTS2 data, it was reported that about 68% of young adults with visual impairments had some post-secondary education (53% of young adults with deaf-blindness). For all young adults who had received special education services, this rate was 58%. For those no longer attending post-secondary school, only about 60% of young adults with visual impairments had graduated from the post-secondary program (less than 0.05% of students with deafblindness); for all young adults who had received special education services and who were no longer attending post-secondary programs, this rate was 44%.

While we have just scratched the surface of what is available in the NLTS2 data, we hope we have inspired you to want to know more! Search “NLTS2” in the Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, (JVIB) to read how scholars in our field are using this resource. For further details about the NLTS2 data collection, see the resources in JVIB and on the NLTS2 website, described throughout this passage and listed in the references section at the end of this newsletter. Also check out the National Longitudinal Transition Study 2012 (NLTS 2012), a study currently underway to better understand the experiences of transition-age youth.

So What Next?

With the above data on youth transitioning from high school to career/college/beyond, we have come full-circle, returning to the conversation in our first edition of the Research Navigator, “Employment of People with Vision Loss.” We have demonstrated that state reporting of even basic information about students with vision loss does not provide reliable, meaningful information (or accountability!) There are many challenges for comparing data across states or over time. Students seem to be performing better than peers with disabilities on academic assessments, but their scores are still below average within the broader population (and we are still not confident that academic assessments are meaningful for our students – a matter worthy of its own newsletter!) Additionally, even with the previously cited rates of high school completion and college attendance, a significant percentage of people with vision loss are not in the work force. There is still much work to be done!

In the arena of special education, with the goal of improving outcomes for kids, AFB is very pleased to announce that the Alice Cogswell and Anne Sullivan Macy Act will soon be reintroduced in the U.S. House of Representatives. This proposed legislation would make important changes to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to improve the provision of special education services to children who are blind/visually impaired, deaf-blind, or deaf/hard-of-hearing. Importantly, the Cogswell-Macy Act:

girl using 

braillewriter in the classroom while her teacher watches

A girl uses a braillewriter in the classroom while her teacher watches.

  • Addresses the undercount of students in the categories of visual impairment, hearing impairment, and deafblindness by requiring states to report to OSEP the number of students within each disability category, regardless of whether or not the students might also be identified in other disability categories (see the previous section, “Data from the Department of Education,” for an explanation of why the current reporting system is inadequate).
  • Promotes research into best practices for teaching students with visual impairments by establishing the Anne Sullivan Macy Center on Visual Disability and Education Excellence.
  • Requires that states have a plan to provide students who are blind/visually impaired, deaf-blind, or deaf/hard-of-hearing with best-practice services and evaluations, provided by trained teachers.
  • Improves educational outcomes for deaf-blind students by updating relevant terminology, including intervener services as a related service, and ensuring the availability of trained and qualified personnel.
  • And much more.

Please read the full text of the Cogswell Macy Act, and stay tuned to the Direct Connect newsletter for updates on how you can support this important legislation.


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