Special Report
Special Education

Special Needs, Common Goals

States are confronting how to help a diverse population meet the same standards expected of all.
By The Editors — January 08, 2004 7 min read
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Within a decade, federal law requires that all students—including those with disabilities—be performing at the “proficient” level on state tests. It’s a challenge of unprecedented proportions, particularly for the nation’s nearly 6.6 million children receiving special education services. Until now, such students have largely been excluded from state testing and accountability system—and often from mainstream instruction.

Quality Counts 2004: “Count Me In: Special Education in an Era of Standards” examines this explosive issue. Educators and parents of special education students alike find themselves on both sides of the fence, tom between wanting to raise expectations for students with disabilities and concerns that such children could suffer harsh or unintended consequences as a result.

As the title of this year’s Quality Counts report suggests, students with disabilities have the same right as all other children to be included in state standards, assessments, and accountability systems. Otherwise, it’s impossible to know how they’re performing or how well public schools are serving their needs. But how to do so in a way that’s fair and appropriate remains a major concern.

Part of the issue is that students in special education are such a diverse group, as illustrated by the personal stories throughout this report. Of the nearly 6 million students ages 6-21 receiving special education services under Part B of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the nation’s main special education law, 67 percent have specific learning disabilities or speech or language impairments. Fewer than 12 percent have disabilities associated with significant cognitive impairments, such as mental retardation or traumatic brain injury.

One-fifth of special education students spend the majority of their time outside regular classrooms, although the proportion varies by disability. And while special education students, as a group, tend to perform far lower on state tests than their peers without disabilities do, they can be found across the full range of academic performance.

At the same time, concern continues that minority students are overrepresented in some special education categories—and that many children are misidentified for special education simply because they did not receive effective instruction in the first place.

Now, educators are wondering how much progress they can expect from special education students, how fast.

For the first time, because of the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, data are publicly available across most of the 50 state and the District of Columbia about the performance of special education students on state tests. Those results show just how far the nation has to go.

For this report, Education Week asked states to provide information on the percent of special vs. general education students who took state tests in reading and mathematics in grades 4, 8, and 10 in 2002-03. We also asked what percent of the total enrollment of special vs. general education students scored at or above the proficient level on those tests. (Where states did not have such data, we asked for results from the next closest grade and year.)

On 4th grade reading tests, we found that 30 of the 39 states with complete data had achievement gaps of 30 percentage points or more between special and general education students. 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 even wider. Only five of the 39 states—Michigan, Mississippi, Nebraska, South Carolina, and Texas—reported achievement gaps under 30 percentage points. On high school reading exams, 32 of 36 states reported achievement gaps larger than 30 percentage points.

For this year’s report. Education Week commissioned a national survey of 800 special and general education teachers, conducted by the Washington-based firm of Belden Russonello & Stewart. While a vast majority of teachers believe their special education students make “significant academic progress over the course of the school year,” most question whether such youngsters should have to meet the same academic standards and testing requirements as others their age, as the No Child Left Behind law demands for most students with disabilities.

More than eight in 10 teachers believe that most special education students should be expected to meet a separate set of academic standards, rather than the same standards as others their age. Nearly as many say special education students should be given alternative assessments, rather than have to take the same tests as general education students. Eighty-five percent of teachers “somewhat” or “strongly” agree that including test results of special education students in the accountability system will result in an inaccurate assessment of the job that schools and teachers are doing.

Yet teachers overwhelmingly agree with another tenet of the No Child Left Behind Act: Ninety-eight percent say it is “very” or “somewhat” important that special education teachers demonstrate competence in all the academic subjects they teach their special education students.

That’s not the case now. Education Week’s annual policy survey found that in 2003-04 no state requires special education teachers at the secondary level to earn degrees, complete a minimum amount of coursework, or pass tests in the core academic subjects they intend to teach.

And while 76 percent of public school teachers teach special education students, according to Education Week’s teacher poll, we found that 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 compel general education teachers to complete preservice training related to special education. Five states require both.

By far the most contentious issue is how to test special education students and include those results in accountability systems.

In the past decade, states have made enormous strides in this area. Every state, for example, now provides at least one alternate assessment for special education students who cannot take part in regular state tests even with accommodations, or permits districts to do so.

But we found that only 13 of the 37 states that provided data tested 95 percent or more of their special education students in reading and mathematics in grades 4, 8, and 10, in the 2002-03 school year, or the most recent year for which data were available.

Moreover, while every state now has written guidelines about providing special education students with accommodations on state tests—changes in test materials, procedures, or settings designed to eliminate barriers based on students’ disabilities—states don’t agree on which accommodations are appropriate for which students.

Concerns that some accommodations give special education students an unfair advantage—or could change the nature of what’s tested—have led to diverse practices across states. A prime example is reading portions of a reading test out loud to students, a practice banned in some states and permitted in others.

Education Week’s policy survey for Quality Counts 2004 found that 15 states forbid students to take state tests with “modifications,” or nonstandard accommodations that could change what’s being measured. Ten exclude the results of tests taken with modifications in determining proficiency rates. And 18 states automatically give a zero or a score below the proficient level for a test taken with nonstandard accommodations.

All states and the District consider the test scores of special education students in rating schools. Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia also consider the dropout rates of such students, and 28 states and the District consider the graduation rates for students with disabilities in school ratings.

Equally controversial is the question of whether students with disabilities should be required to pass promotion or graduation tests in the states that have such exams. We found that 14 states require special education students to pass exit or end-of-course tests to earn diplomas. While 39 states and the District regulate the requirements for a standard diploma, 24 states permit students with disabilities to earn such diplomas even if they don’t meet the graduation requirements.

As is true every year, Quality Counts also charts progress in other facets of states’ education systems and grades them in four areas: standards and accountability, efforts to improve teacher quality, school climate, and resources. States averaged a C-plus across those categories.

This year, we changed the format of state profiles to explain, in detail, how we graded each state.

Quality Counts 2004 is divided into four sections. “Enveloping Expectations” examines the special theme for this year’s report. “Put to the Test” tracks state policies and indicators related to the theme. “State of the States” includes more than 100 indicators of the health of each state’s public education system. Profiles and report cards for the 50 states and the District of Columbia appear at the back of the report.

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In March 2024, Education Week announced the end of the Quality Counts report after 25 years of serving as a comprehensive K-12 education scorecard. In response to new challenges and a shifting landscape, we are refocusing our efforts on research and analysis to better serve the K-12 community. For more information, please go here for the full context or learn more about the EdWeek Research Center.

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


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