A study highlighting the performance of special education students on Massachusetts’ state assessment shows that urban districts that perform well share common practices.
The 57-page report by the Donahue Institute at the University of Massachusetts focuses on the school districts in Boston, Chelsea, Everett, Framingham, and Pittsfield. Their practices, researchers say, could be adopted by other school systems trying to improve the performance of students with special needs.
“A Study of MCAS Achievement and Promising Practices in Urban Special Education,” is available online from the Donahue Institute. ()
Researchers selected the districts because they posted higher-than-expected achievement for special education students on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, or MCAS, which all students must pass in English language arts and mathematics to graduate from high school.
Steven Ellis, the manager of the research project at the institute, which is located in the office of the university president, said he hoped the study could begin changing the tenor of discussions about special education in Massachusetts.
“Much of the dialogue focuses on what’s wrong, and the relative failure of many districts to improve the MCAS achievement of these students,” he said. “We wanted to get a sense of what was working. We tried to look at things that are able to be implemented broadly.”
The study compared the five districts with 28 other urban districts in the state that have similar demographic characteristics. The researchers used a “community effects” model, which evaluated the impact on academic performance of a community’s average education level, income, poverty rate, single-parent status, and primary language spoken. The evaluation, released on Nov. 23, focused on MCAS performance in 4th, 7th, and 8th grades.
Overall, the analysis found that the districts that performed better for special education students than their demographic peers align their curricula with the state’s academic frameworks; emphasize the inclusion of special education students in regular classes; use student-assessment data to inform decision making; maintain a disciplined social environment; and have strong leadership teams.
The study was billed by its authors as the first major analysis to use comprehensive student-level data to evaluate the achievement of special education students on the state assessment. It comes at a time of increased attention in Massachusetts to the performance of districts with high percentages of students with academic, social, and economic challenges.
Massachusetts’ highest court is expected to rule soon on a lawsuit brought by 19 districts that have argued the state has failed to provide a constitutionally guaranteed adequate education. Twenty urban superintendents in the state have signed on to that case as individuals. A lower-court ruling in their favor last spring called for, among other improvements, stronger programs and support systems for special education students.
The 8,000-student Framingham public schools, located 20 miles west of Boston, was one of several urban districts researchers visited to learn about practices that have supported strong MCAS performance.
Last year, 85 percent of the 4th graders in special education there passed the exam in English language arts, and 77 percent passed the mathematics test.
The report notes that Framingham has “a strong culture of inclusion and ownership of students with special needs” and has worked hard to provide teacher professional development to “reduce the barriers between regular and special education.”
Pamela Kaufmann, the special education director in Framingham, said that for too many years, students in special education have been excluded from a challenging academic program.
“I don’t think there has been enough emphasis on ensuring students with disabilities have the same access to the curriculum and textbooks that regular education students have,” said Ms. Kaufmann, a former state director of special education.
“There has been a tremendous effort here around providing opportunities for special education students to access curriculum,” she added. “They should be on the same page.”