Special Report

Put to the Test

By Susan E. Ansell — January 08, 2004 10 min read
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Quality Counts 2004 focuses on state efforts to include students with disabilities in standards-based education--a rapidly moving target.

The 1997 version of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires states to set goals and standards for special education students that are consistent, to the maximum extent appropriate, with those for all students. The law, known as the IDEA, also requires states and districts to include students with disabilities in their testing systems and report the results. Four years later, another federal law, the No Child Left Behind Act, pushed states even further, by holding them accountable for the “adequate yearly progress” of students with disabilities on state tests.

States have been scrambling to meet the new federal directives. Special education policies were continuing to shift when Education Week surveyed all 50 states and the District of Columbia in the fall of 2003. Furthermore, Congress had yet to complete the pending reauthorization of the IDEA, and the U.S. Department of Education had not released final rules concerning aspects of the No Child Left Behind law.

Because of the volatility in the field, the data presented in the following tables are meant to serve as a snapshot of state special education systems as of October 2003.

Despite operating in a context of constant change, state schools chiefs and their directors of special education proved very willing to respond to Education Week’s survey.

Participation Rates

One of the greatest changes has been the inclusion of more students with disabilities in state testing and accountability systems. Quality Counts includes data on the percent of special and general education students who took state tests in reading and mathematics in grades 4, 8, and 10 in 2002-03, and what proportion of special vs. general education students scored at or above the “proficient” level on those exams.

As is true of the report as a whole, states were asked to provide information specifically for students who were receiving special education services and who had individualized education plans, or IEPs. Although most states were able to provide data for the 2002-03 school year, a handful had not vetted those numbers and, therefore, supplied data based on an earlier testing year. In addition, all states do not give tests in grades 4, 8, and 10. In such cases, Education Week accepted data for tests given in the next closest grade, as footnoted in the tables and in the Sources and Notes on Page 95.

The editors of Quality Counts urge readers to focus on the achievement gaps within states, rather than compare data across states, because each state has its own standards, tests, and definitions of “proficiency.”

Ten states and the District of Columbia could not provide participation rates for any of the requested grades. Some states could not break out the rates by specific grade levels; some experienced coding problems that invalidated their data; and others could only compare test-taking rates of special education students against those for all students (including those with disabilities), not just general education students.

The No Child Left Behind Act requires states, districts, and schools to test 95 percent of all students, including those with disabilities. According to Education Week’s survey, 13 of the 37 states that provided participation rates for students with disabilities tested 95 percent or more of their special education students in reading and math in grades 4, 8, and 10. Overall, participation rates for students with disabilities ranged from 40 percent to 100 percent.

Typically, larger proportions of general education students tended to take the tests. Twenty of 31 states that provided participation rates for general education students reported participation rates for such students of 95 percent or more in both subjects at all three grade levels.

Differences in participation rates across states reflect, in part, the fact that states do not count students the same way when calculating such data.

All states and the District of Columbia count special education students who take state tests without accommodations, or with standard accommodations, in their participation rates.

But only 26 states and the District of Columbia count special education students who take state tests with modifications (changes to a test that could alter what is being measured). Of the 18 states that allow out-of-level tests (those designed for a grade level below the one in which the student is enrolled) in 2002-03, 14 included students who took such exams in their test-taking rates.

Most states counted students with disabilities who took alternate assessments when calculating participation rates. Only California and Indiana excluded students who took alternate exams from their calculations of participation rates.

Proficiency Rates

When collecting participation and proficiency rates from states for this report, Education Week tried to avoid comparing apples and oranges.

For this report, each state’s rates were determined by comparing the number of special education students who scored at or above the proficient level on state tests with the total number of special education students enrolled in the tested grade. The same procedure was used to calculate proficiency rates for general education students.

Education Week’s decision to use the number of students enrolled in the tested grade as the denominator for proficiency calculations--rather than the smaller number who were actually tested--gives a more complete picture of how the total student population performed, as opposed to how well a group of tested students performed. Essentially, a state that excludes large numbers of students with disabilities from its testing program could not exclude those students from its proficiency calculations.

In reviewing state accountability plans under the No Child Left Behind law, however, the federal Department of Education permitted some states to calculate proficiency rates based on the number of students tested rather than the number enrolled in a particular grade. Consequently, all states do not calculate proficiency rates in the same manner when determining adequate yearly progress under the federal law. That forced some states to recalculate their rates for inclusion in this report.

Nine states and the District of Columbia were unable to provide proficiency data for any of the three grade levels, based on Education Week’s criteria. Some of those states could not break data out by grade level, or lacked disaggregated data for both 2001-02 and 2002-03. New Mexico and Kansas could only provide data for special education students compared with all students (including those with disabilities).

Across the board, state-reported proficiency rates for general education students were much higher than for students with disabilities. For example, 30 of the 39 states that provided complete proficiency data had an achievement gap between special education and general education students on 4th grade reading tests of 30 percentage points or more. In Arkansas, Iowa, Montana, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, and Vermont, the gaps were more than 50 percentage points. Gaps in 8th grade reading tended to be wider. Only five of the 39 states--Michigan, Mississippi, Nebraska, South Carolina, and Texas--reported achievement gaps of less than 30 percentage points. That trend carried through to high school; 32 of 36 states reported achievement gaps larger than 30 percentage points on their high school reading exams.

Accountability Systems

The survey also asked whether states consider the performance of special education students in rating schools. Education Week found that all states and the District of Columbia factor in the scores of students with disabilities on state tests when determining school ratings under the No Child Left Behind law. Forty-three states and the District include the scores of such students who took alternate assessments. Fewer than half, 23 states and the District, consider the dropout rates of students with disabilities in rating schools. Twenty-eight states and the District consider graduation rates.

Moreover, many states still do not include separate test results for students with disabilities on school or district report cards. This school year, 35 states and the District of Columbia include both participation rates and performance rates for special education students on school or district report cards. But only 15 states include graduation rates for such students, and just seven include dropout rates reported separately for students with disabilities.

Education Week also tracked state policies concerning high-stakes testing for individuals. Currently, only Louisiana and Wisconsin require special education students to pass promotion exams to continue to the next grade.

More states require students with disabilities to pass exit or end-of-course tests to earn standard high school diplomas. Fourteen states ask special education students to pass such exams. But, of those, the National Center on Educational Outcomes identified five that permit students with disabilities to demonstrate they’ve met the standard on an alternate assessment.

And while many states have coursework and attendance requirements for students to earn diplomas, 24 allow students with disabilities to receive standard high school diplomas even if they have not met regular graduation requirements.

Qualified Personnel

Much of the responsibility for helping students with disabilities reach higher academic standards falls to teachers. But are they up to the task?

Education Week found that 27 states and the District of Columbia require individuals to complete the equivalent of a major or minor in special education, or a minimum amount of coursework, to earn initial teaching licenses in special education. Twenty-nine states and the District require special education teachers to pass exams related to special education to earn their initial licenses. Fourteen states and the District require both in the 2003-04 school year.

But states have made few attempts to ensure that special education teachers are well-versed in the subject they plan to teach. In 2003-04, no state required special education teachers at the secondary school level to earn degrees, complete a minimum amount of coursework, or pass tests in the core academic subjects they intended to teach.

States also have made limited headway in ensuring that general education teachers are equipped to teach students with disabilities. Just 14 states and the District of Columbia require general education teachers to complete one or more courses related to special education to earn their licenses. Only nine states require general education teachers to complete preservice training related to special education. Five states--California, Iowa, Missouri, Vermont, and Virginia--require both.

While 82 percent of public school teachers teach at least one special education student, fewer than four in 10 agree that they are given the support they need to teach students with special needs, according to the federal 2000 Schools and Staffing Survey.

States have been more active in designing incentives to recruit or retain special educators. Twenty-six states offer recruitment incentives, such as tuition reimbursement, loan forgiveness, or stipends, for individuals willing to become certified in special education. Eight states provide retention incentives.

Oklahoma pays qualified special education teachers 5 percent more than what general education teachers earn. In Vermont, teacher-candidates can transfer 18 of the 21 credits they need for an endorsement in special education toward a master’s degree. The program also offers stipends to support their studies.

Special Education Funding

Education Week surveyed states on the structure of their special education finance systems and has categorized those efforts in the table that follow. In particular, Quality Counts tracks whether states consider district wealth, student poverty, or students with high educational costs in allocating money to districts. The report also looks at whether states cap special education allocations, based on student enrollment or prior-year allocations. More information on those results can be found on Pages 72 and 92.

A version of this article appeared in the January 08, 2004 edition of Education Week


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