Why Are Students with Disabilities Failing Standardized Tests?

By Christina A. Samuels — May 02, 2016 3 min read
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At least in part, it’s because students with disabilities are not being exposed to the kind of instruction that would allow them to pass these tests.

The findings come from documents produced by the National Center on Educational Outcomes and the National Center on Systemic Improvement. Both federally funded entities work to improve the academic performance of students with disabilities.

In Lessons Learned About Instruction from Inclusion of Students with Disabilities in College and Career Ready Assessments, NCEO heard from teachers that students struggled to read extended passages of text and they were not familiar with “authentic” texts; they were not used to writing extended responses; they had difficulty using evidence to justify answers, and they did not have basic research skills. Another policy brief, Lessons Learned About Assessment from Inclusion of Students with Disabilities in College and Career Ready Assessments, found that students were unfamiliar with test items and with the accessibility features built into the common-core tests.

As an example for how this turns out in real life, let’s look at New York. In 2015, 5.7 percent of students with disabilities met or exceeded the state’s proficiency standard in reading, compared to 36.6 percent of the general student population. In math, 10.6 percent of students with disabilities in New York met or exceeded the state’s math proficiency standards in 2015. That compares to 43.9 percent of the general student population. (Source for New York test scores.)

I single out New York only because its scores are readily available. Also, New York has been praised as a state where scores on state tests and on the National Assessment of Educational Progress—considered a “gold standard” in measuring student achievement—are closely matched. Last week, I wrote a blog post about how only a fraction of high school seniors with disabilities are scoring proficient and above on the NAEP, a test of math and reading administered to a sample of students approximately every other year. Proficiency is defined as demonstrating “solid academic performance and competency over challenging subject matter.”

Sheryl Lazarus, a senior research associate at NCEO, said that these documents are intended to help educators focus on the issues of biggest concern. For example, knowing that authentic texts are a challenge, technical advisers can now concentrate on provide examples to teachers on how they can incorporate more of these works into their classes. The documents offer several suggestions along those lines.

And these issues go beyond the needs of students with dyslexia or with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, for example.

“The challenges aren’t just challenges that are facing students with disabilities. A lot of struggling learners would be facing similar challenges. It would benefit all kids in a classroom to have instruction that gives them opportunity for rich learning experiences,” Lazarus said.

A note: Whenever I write about students with disabilities and standardized tests, many commenters say that of course students with disabilities would perform poorly on standardized tests—such scores are just a manifestation of their disability.

But, about 60 percent of students age 6-21 are in regular classrooms the vast majority of their school day. About 70 percent of students with disabilities have specific learning disabilities such as dyslexia, or a speech/language impairment, or another health impairment such as ADHD. These students need academic supports. But it would not seem, based on categorization and educational placement, that their disabilities require a less rigorous curriculum.

The wide gaps raise the question of whether these test scores are the best that the field can expect from the nearly 6 million 6-to-21 year olds in special education nationwide. What do readers think?

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