A team of UCF researchers examined the forms given to parents of students considered for or receiving special education services.

Study Finds State Disability Forms Not Complying with Federal Plain Language Act

By: Robert H. Wells on

With school in full swing, parents are signing the inevitable permission slips and forms covering everything from field trips to after school care.

However, for parents of children with special needs, the forms they encounter are likely written in a way that few could comprehend.

That’s the finding of a recent University of Central Florida study that examined the readability of the procedural safeguards forms that are part of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The act outlines the rights parents have when it comes to their children’s education and the responsibilities the schools have to provide services.

The study results were recently published in the journal Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools.

UCF researcher Richard Zraick, a professor in UCF’s School of Communication Sciences and Disorders, Sara Gray, a graduate of the school, and Samuel Atcherson, a professor at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, examined the forms given to parents of students considered for or receiving special education services.

Part of the IDEA federal law requires that schools identify students who may have disabilities and may be eligible to receive special education. These disabilities could include autism; hearing, sight; speech and language impairments; learning disabilities, orthopedic impairments and more.

Out of the four parts of the IDEA, the researchers examined one of the eight subparts of Part B, the procedural safeguards, which outlines the rights of students and parents and options for handling any disagreements.

These include parents’ rights to access their child’s student records and ask that they be amended, participate in meetings about their child and rights to be notified.

They looked at the safeguard forms for all 50 states, the District of Columbia and for the U.S. Department of Education’s template for the forms, of which the state forms are largely based. For each of these, they examined 30 samples of text from three sections that were present in all.

Using four different readability tests, they found none of the documents they examined were written below an 11th-grade reading level.

“Most of them were written at a level that would require a master’s degree or higher to comprehend,” Zraick said.

This is despite The Plain Writing Act of 2010 mandates that government agencies communicate in a way that is easy for the public to understand.

Furthermore, the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics reports that about 20 percent of U.S. adults, or 43 million people, have low literacy skills, meaning they aren’t able to compare and contrast information, paraphrase or make low-level inferences.

A previous study of the safeguard forms made before the passage of the Plain Writing Act had similarly found the documents to be written at a level that would require at least a bachelor’s degree to comprehend.

In the current study, Florida’s forms were found to be some of the hardest to read compared to other states, such as New Jersey, Alaska, and Massachusetts, that were found to be some of the easiest.

Zraick said solutions to the readability problem could include writing the forms in plainer language as well as recognizing the difficulty of these forms ahead of time so that school officials can help parents comprehend them.

This comprehension not only protects students and parents but could also help prevent schools from being faced with lawsuits charging that a parent signed a document without being able to fully understand what it is saying.

The researchers got the idea for the study from previous experiences in schools with the forms and from others who said the language may be written at too high of a level.

Zraick received his doctorate in speech and hearing science from Arizona State University, and his master’s degree in speech and hearing science and a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Arizona. He joined UCF in 2014, and has a secondary appointment as a professor in the Department of Clinical Sciences at UCF’s College of Medicine in addition to his professorship in the School of Communication Sciences and Disorders in the College of Health Professions and Sciences.

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