Special Education

AYP Rules Miss Many in Spec.Ed.

By Lynn Olson — September 20, 2005 7 min read
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More special education students are being excluded from federal accountability provisions, driving up the number of public schools able to make adequate yearly progress and raising questions about the pledge to “leave no child behind.”

To make adequate progress under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, public schools and districts need to meet annual targets for the percent of students scoring at least at the proficient level on state tests. That goes both for their student populations as a whole and for certain subgroups, including students who are poor, speak limited English, are members of racial or ethnic minorities, or have disabilities.

But a yet-to-be-published analysis, based on test score data in five states, found that more than 80 percent of schools that made AYP under the federal law in 2003 or 2004 did so without having to meet standards of proficiency for their special education students as a separate subgroup.

One of the biggest reasons, according to the study by the Dover, N.H.-based Center for Assessment, is the threshold sizes states are setting before a subgroup counts in calculating AYP.

Data gathered independently by Education Week showed a similar pattern.

“It’s disappointing that in so many places, students with disabilities are not being counted,” said Martha L. Thurlow, the director of the National Center on Educational Outcomes at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, a federally financed research center. “I think that people do not realize that this is the case.”

The U.S. Department of Education has permitted each state to set a minimum number of students that need to be in a subgroup before that subgroup counts separately in determining a school or district’s AYP status. The provision is meant to avoid letting a small number of students skew a school’s status, and thereby help states identify schools that truly need intervention.

The study by the assessment center, a nonprofit group that works with states to improve testing and accountability systems, used actual state test data from five unnamed states and then modeled what the impact on schools’ AYP status would be using different subgroup sizes.

The study found that when the minimum subgroup size approached 60 students, almost 100 percent of schools in all five states were able to “pass” AYP without the performance of special education students being taken into account as a separate group.

Most states report subgroup performance, including that of students with disabilities, once the number of students exceeds between 10 and 20.

Still, at least 22 states now require subgroups to include at least 40 students before they are used to calculate AYP, with states such as Oklahoma, West Virginia, and Wisconsin requiring at least 50 students. And a handful of states, such as Ohio and Nebraska, require their special education subgroups to contain larger numbers of youngsters than other subgroups.

The picture is complicated by the fact that some states, such as California, Florida, Georgia, Texas, and Virginia, require subgroups to exceed both a minimum number of students and a minimum percent of the total school population, until the subgroup exceeds a certain threshold.

In California, for example, each subgroup must have at least 50 students and constitute 15 percent of the students at the school with valid test scores, or include at least 100 students, for it to factor into the AYP calculation.

Controversial Provision

The inclusion of special education students as a separate subgroup under the nearly 4-year-old No Child Left Behind law, a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, has been controversial from the beginning.

Counted Out

Education Week selected five states to show how the minimum subgroup size for students with disabilities can affect the percentage of schools that do not have such a separate testing subgroup for accountability purposes under the No Child Left Behind Act.


Grades tested: 3-8 & 10
Minimum subgroup: 100, or 50 if that makes up at least 15 percent of students tested
Schools without disabilities subgroup: 92 percent


Grades tested: 3-10
Minimum subgroup: 100, or 30 if that makes up at least 15 percent of students tested
Schools without disabilities subgroup: 42 percent


Grades tested: 3-8 & 11
Minimum subgroup: 75, or the greater of 40 students or 10 percent of students tested
Schools without disabilities subgroup: 57 percent


Grades tested: 3, 4, 6, 10
Minimum subgroup: 45**
Schools without disabilities subgroup: 96 percent

West Virginia

Grades tested: 3-8 & 10
Minimum subgroup: 50
Schools without disabilities subgroup: 80 percent

**Minimum size for all other subgroups is 30.

Note: Percents are based on 2004-05 test data, except for Georgia’s, which is an estimate based on October 2004 enrollment figures.

SOURCE: Education Week

Unlike other subgroups of students—such as those from racial or ethnic minorities—children receiving special education services, by definition, have disabilities that interfere with their learning. And, on average, they perform at much lower levels on state tests, making it far more likely that schools with a special education subgroup will fail to make adequate progress.

Data gathered by Education Week show that West Virginia, which requires a subgroup size of 50, included 715 schools in its accountability ratings in 2005. But only 146 of them, or 20 percent, had to meet subgroup targets for students with disabilities.

Of the 9,188 California schools that had to reach schoolwide targets to make AYP this year, only 699 had to meet math and reading targets for the special education subgroup, or fewer than 8 percent of schools. About 10 percent of students statewide are identified for special education. California already tests in reading and math in grades 3-8 and once in high school, as all states must begin to do by this school year under the federal law.

Bill Padia, the director of the policy and evaluation division for the California Department of Education, said that while many schools do not meet the subgroup criteria for students with disabilities, most districts do. Over half the districts identified last year as in need of improvement based on AYP data failed to meet their special education targets.

“So I don’t have any issue,” he said. “I think we’re actually covering the special education subgroup pretty well.”

Ms. Thurlow of the National Center on Educational Outcomes said she wasn’t so sure.

“The rubber hits the road at the school,” she said. “Hopefully, there are leaders in schools looking at data, and they’re looking at their subgroups, no matter what.”

States Adjust Criteria

In Florida, meanwhile, the state last year required a minimum subgroup size of 30, resulting in about 21 percent of public schools’ not having a separate special education subgroup in calculating AYP. Those schools enrolled about 5 percent of the state’s special education students.

But this year, the state raised the threshold to at least 30 students and at least 15 percent of the student population, although once a subgroup reaches 100 students, the percentage requirement no longer applies.

The proportion of Florida schools that did not meet the criteria for a special education subgroup doubled this year, to 42 percent. Those schools educate about 20 percent of Florida’s special education students.

Neighboring Georgia has also adjusted its subgroup size. Now, each subgroup must include at least 40 students or 10 percent of students enrolled in the tested grades, whichever is greater. Once there are 75 students, however, a subgroup counts regardless of percentage. Previously, the state simply required a minimum of 40 students.

Based on an estimate using October 2004 enrollment data, about 43 percent of the state’s schools had enough special education students to constitute a subgroup, compared with 46 percent under the previous threshold.

In Ohio, schools had to have at least 45 special education students in the tested grades in the 2004-05 school year. Ninety-six percent of schools did not reach that threshold; those schools enrolled about 87 percent of the state’s special education students.

J.C. Benton, the spokesman for the Ohio Department of Education, said those figures should change this school year, when the state tests in each of grades 3-8 and once in high school. Last year’s AYP determinations were based solely on tests in grades 3, 4, 6, and 10.

Defeating the Point?

But the analysis by the Center for Assessment calculated that even once state testing systems expanded to cover grades 3-8, as required by federal law, a majority of schools in the five states could meet their AYP benchmarks without having a disabilities subgroup, if the minimum subgroup size was set at 30.

When the minimum subgroup was modeled at 60 students, more than half the students with disabilities in four of the five states were excluded as a subgroup for accountability purposes, even with all grades tested.

“By using a tool to try to improve the reliability of the system, states have inadvertently negatively affected the validity of the system by leaving so many kids out,” said Scott Marion, the vice president of the center and one of the study’s authors.


While the study examined only five states, Mr. Marion said that the findings were suggestive of a broader national pattern. One caveat, he said, is that the study did not include any large states, such as California, New York, or Texas.

The study used a single year of reading and math data for either 2003 or 2004, depending, in part, on availability. Of the five states, three are small and two are midsize, with about 50,000 students tested per grade level. The proportion of students tested who received special education services ranged from a low of about 11 percent to a high of about 20 percent. The national average is about 12 percent.

The federal law requires that all students be proficient on state reading and math tests by 2013-14.

“It defeats the whole point of No Child Left Behind not to have and report data on students with disabilities because states have defined sample size in such a way that most schools don’t show up on the radar screen,” said Jay P. Heubert, a professor of law and education at Teachers College, Columbia University.

“The underlying problem, though,” he added, “is [that] for kids who have serious disabilities, it may take a full 12 or 13 years of high-quality instruction to be able to meet the kinds of standards states are increasingly adopting. And that’s simply not the political timetable.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 21, 2005 edition of Education Week as AYP Rules Miss Many In Spec.Ed.


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