Special Education

Does Special Education Work for Students With Learning Disabilities?

By Corey Mitchell — November 06, 2019 3 min read
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Test scores for students with learning disabilities improve after they are classified into special education, and the gains are greatest for students who entered special education before they reached middle school, a recently released report finds.

The report, “The Effects of Special Education on the Academic Performance of Students With Learning Disabilities,” used data from the New York City schools to track the academic performance of more than 44,000 students with learning disabilities over seven years.

The study tracked student scores on New York’s statewide math and English/language arts exams for students in grades 3 through 8. Having access to the longitudinal data allowed the researchers to document how the selected students performed before and after they began special education services.

On average, scores improved in both English and math for the special education students, and the effects were largest for students who entered special education in grades 4 and 5. The study found no statistically significant effects on test scores for students who began services in grade 7, just a few years later.

“These larger effects for early classification are consistent with hypotheses described earlier—the particular benefits of supports in earlier grades, duration of receipt, or efficacy of parent or school advocacy in earlier grades—although we cannot distinguish between these,” the report reads.

The research, part of the Annenberg Institute at Brown University’s working paper series, was led by Amy Ellen Schwartz, a professor at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University, and Leanna Stiefel, a professor at New York University’s Wagner School of Public Service.

Their work only examined the performance of students with a learning disability classification, such as dyslexia or ADHD—not those with health impairments or emotional disturbances that require special education services, or for those with autism.

Troubling Gaps

Overall, students who began special education services in grades 4 and 5 “were more likely to be placed, and remain, in less restrictive service settings” than students who began later, the researchers found. The findings suggest that support services that help students remain in the general education classrooms may be “particularly effective” for students with learning disabilities.

Girls and Asian students, regardless of gender, had the largest gains while the increases for black students, especially black boys, were smallest. The relatively small impact of special education services on black boys’ test scores may “bolster concerns” about them being overclassified as in need of special education services, also known as disproportionality, according to the authors.

The researchers also questioned whether the low incidence of special education among Asians and the large impact of special education raises questions about whether Asian parents are particularly resistant to special education services and whether that means that Asian students with only the most severe disabilities and the “greatest potential to benefit from services” are receiving them.

The researchers decided to tackle the question because of persistent gaps in performance between students with disabilities compared to general education students.

“Some of what happens with the special education conversation, is people say that we’re spending a lot of money and we’re not getting anything for it,” Schwartz said. “People who are in the world of helping kids with their learning disabilities, they’re going to say, ‘Yes, we know this works. As it turns out, we know how to teach kids with learning disabilities.’”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the On Special Education blog.