In “Count Me In: Special Education in an Era of Standards,” Education Week’s “Quality Counts 2004” report considers the problems of fairly assessing special education students under the federal No Child Left Behind law.
By 2013-14, the law directs that all students, special education included, achieve academic proficiency. The issues facing special education are twofold. First, schools will have to find a way to test at least 95 percent of special education students to fulfill the requirements of the law. Bringing 100 percent of those students to academic proficiency is the second challenge.
As data from 2002-03 state-level tests show, special education students are much farther behind in achievement than are their nondisabled counterparts. North Carolina is no exception, although some districts in the state are making progress through aggressive efforts to improve student skills, and to move them out of special education entirely.
In Durham’s schools, a concerted effort to identify and correct reading difficulties in the early grades has reversed the trend in special ed. Instead of enrolling more kids every year, Durham’s literacy program has reduced special education enrollment by 100 students each school year.
According to Education Week, the range of possible disabilities is so wide that special education students are more different than alike. Children with specific learning disabilities make up the largest single category of students covered by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Almost half of all special ed enrollments, or 48 percent, are due to SLD students. Speech and language impairment affect another 19 percent, mental retardation 10 percent, and emotional disturbance 8 percent of the special ed population.
In addition to these, about 2 percent of kids are diagnosed with multiple disabilities, 2 percent are autistic, and hearing impairment, orthopedic impairment, and developmental delay account for another 1 percent each. The final 7 percent fall into the “other” catchall category. In all, nearly 6.6 million students are enrolled in special education programs across the nation.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 14.2 percent of the 1.4 million public schoolchildren in North Carolina’s schools during 2002-03 had some type of learning disability. Another 4 percent were of limited English proficiency. These percentages indicate that in 2002-03, North Carolina public schools served about 255,000 special ed students under IDEA.
Before No Child Left Behind, many special ed kids would have been excluded from standardized testing, or held to separate or lower standards. Since 1998, when the National Assessment of Educational Progress began to allow accommodations for students with disabilities, national testing has become more inclusive. And on state-level end-of-grade tests, disabled students can receive alternative assessments, modifications, or test accommodation, depending on their Individualized Educational Plan.
Whether on the NAEP or on North Carolina end-of-grade and end-of-course tests, students classified as learning-disabled have not been able to match the academic scores of their nondisabled peers, however.
The average composite level of proficiency for fourth-, eighth- and 10th- grade special education students in North Carolina was less than 44 percent at the end of the 2002-03 school year.
This fact has many educators worried about the fairness of requiring virtually all special ed students to be tested in the first place, and to holding special education students to the same proficiency standards as students in general education.
Flexibility can reduce the potential for unfair comparison, however. North Carolina is one of 26 states that count students who take tests under nonstandard conditions in their No Child Left Behind participation rates. In some cases, as with test modifications, flexibility could alter what is being measured on the test.
Most states, North Carolina included, count alternative assessments in their participation measures. Only 18 states allow any out-of-level testing (testing a grade level below the enrolled grade). North Carolina counts its out-of-level testing in state participation rates.
To avoid the problem of comparing apples and oranges, the “Put to the Test” segment of Education Week’s report states that “…each state’s [proficiency] rates were determined by comparing the number of special education students who scored at or above the proficient level on state tests with the total number of special education students enrolled in the tested grade. The same procedure was used to calculate proficiency rates for general education students.”
The significance of using the entire general or special ed population to calculate percentages is clear. According to the report, this gives “a more complete picture of how the total student population performed, as opposed to how well a group of tested students performed.” The facts are sobering.
In 30 of 39 states that supplied complete proficiency data for the Education Week study, the gap between special and general education students was 30 percentage points or more in fourth-grade reading alone.
In six of the 39 states, the reading proficiency gap was more than 50 percentage points.
Only five states reported fourth-grade reading proficiency gaps of less than 30 percentage points.
The story doesn’t improve in high school. High school proficiency levels for general vs. special education revealed proficiency gaps wider than 30 percentage points in 30 out of 36 states.
According to “Quality Counts,” only 4 percent of teachers think all of their special ed students can score in the proficient level on state tests; 13 percent expect that none of those students will hit the proficient mark in 12 years.
If expectations drive outcomes, there is trouble ahead for No Child Left Behind. And as a matter of practice, accountability standards in special education remain both difficult and unsettled issues.
Dr. Karen Palasek is assistant editor of Carolina Journal.