Special Education

Test Scores Rise for Students With Disabilities

Report’s author calls for NCLB law ‘strong factor’ in 4th grade score gains
By Dakarai I. Aarons — November 17, 2009 3 min read
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Test scores on state assessments for students with disabilities have increased in recent years, according to a recent study.

The Washington-based Center on Education Policy examined state mathematics and reading test results from the 2005-06 school year to the 2007-08 school year. Those state tests are used to determine whether schools and school districts are making adequate yearly progress under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

The study, released Nov. 17, found that students with disabilities showed progress at all levels of proficiency in 4th grade, where the median percentage scoring at the basic level or above was 71 percent. Most states showed more gains than declines among students with disabilities over the three-year period.

Measuring the progress of that group of students, however, remains particularly difficult, said Jack Jennings, the president of the nonpartisan research group. While the complex layers of district- and state-level school improvement efforts make it difficult to tell what effect the federal law has had on improving student achievement, the NCLB law was a “strong factor” in the gains, Mr. Jennings said.

The federal law deserves credit for ensuring that students with disabilities are part of the conversation when assessments are discussed, said Deborah A. Ziegler, the associate executive director for policy and advocacy services for the Council for Exceptional Children in Arlington, Va.

“Prior to No Child Left Behind, students with disabilities were not even talked about,” Ms. Ziegler said. “We don’t necessarily agree with all of the components of No Child Left Behind, but the fact [the students] are included in the accountability system has raised the bar for children with disabilities, and we are encouraged by that.”

Shifting Numbers

Earlier years of data were not used because the U.S. Department of Education made changes to its policy on testing students with disabilities in 2003 and 2005, the report says. States have used the flexibility provided, including the use of “alternate assessments” for some students, in a variety of ways.

Another complication in evaluating the academic progress of students with disabilities was the often-rapid changes in the number of test-takers that some states reported in that subgroup from year to year. State officials told researchers that the seemingly whimsical shift in numbers often was a result of a change in the type of tests administered to students.

Some students took the regular state exam with or without special accommodations, while others took alternate assessments, which may or may not have been linked to the same standards for students without disabilities.

“The numbers seem to change, sometimes erratically, over the years in different states. What states are telling us is it is because the federal Department of Education will only allow them to count so many children in one year,” Mr. Jennings said.

In Michigan, for example, the overall number of 4th grade students tested in reading declined just more than 2 percent, while the number of tested students with disabilities increased by more than 10 percent. Ms. Ziegler said students with disabilities should be a priority when state assessments are crafted, which means they should be included in the groups used to set a performance baseline. She also said all students would benefit from multiple measures of assessment to better gauge what they have learned.

Policymakers, Ms. Ziegler said, also need to take a hard look at the discrepancies in what accommodations students with disabilities are allowed to use in the classroom and those accommodations students are allowed to use on tests. The center’s study found that the accommodations allowed varied and sometimes had an impact on whether the federal Education Department would allow a student’s scores to count.

“They need to be the same accommodations that are offered for the child as they are learning the curriculum,” she said.

While students with disabilities are performing better, the gap in achievement between such students and their nondisabled peers remains large, the report says.

The study is the first in a trio of special reports looking at the impact of testing for accountability purposes under NCLB on certain groups of students. Reports to be released later this year will look at results for English-language learners and at achievement differences between males and females.

A version of this article appeared in the December 02, 2009 edition of Education Week as Test Scores for Students With Disabilities Found on Rise


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