Once, Sometimes, or Always in Special Education: Mathematics Growth and Achievement Gaps

By Schulte, Ann C.; Stevens, Joseph J. | Exceptional Children, April 2015 | Go to article overview

Once, Sometimes, or Always in Special Education: Mathematics Growth and Achievement Gaps


Schulte, Ann C., Stevens, Joseph J., Exceptional Children


The academic achievement of students with disabilities (SWDs) has been a long-standing concern (McDonnell, McLaughlin, & Morison, 1997; Wagner, Newman, Cameto, & Levine, 2006). For example, on the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress, students with disabilities scored more than one standard deviation below their peers without disabilities in Grades 4, 8, and 12 in reading and almost a standard deviation below these same peers in mathematics in Grade 4, with a larger gap of over one standard deviation in Grades 8 and 12 (U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, 2014).

No Child Left Behind and Disaggregated Achievement Reports

In response to concerns about this persistent low achievement, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB; 2006) requires states, districts, and schools to report annual achievement test score results for students with disabilities separately as well as to include these students' scores in aggregate reporting. Disaggregated reporting also is required along three additional dimensions where specific subgroups have been historically at risk for low achievement: ethnic-racial identity, economic disadvantage, and low English proficiency. NCLB also set annual achievement targets, termed adequate yearly progress (AYP). AYP goals require students in all subgroups to reach 100% proficiency in reading and mathematics by 2013-2014 and mandated a "conjunctive approach" (Koretz & Hamilton, 2006) to determining success in meeting these targets, meaning failure of one subgroup to meet AYP in a year would result in overall failure for the state, district, or school.

Of the subgroups targeted for disaggregation, the SWD subgroup has proved the most challenging in terms of meeting AYP targets. For example, Eckes and Swando (2009), in a study of three states, found that schools most often failed to make AYP because of low achievement for the SWD subgroup. A number of concerns have been raised about NCLB policies relative to this subgroup (e.g., Eckes & Swando, 2009; Wei, Blackorby, & Schiller, 2011; Wei, Lenz, & Blackorby, 2013). Among these is the concern that SWDs are the only subgroup where the basis for membership can include cognitive limitations that make it difficult for some students in this subgroup to reach grade-level proficiency. Another is that SWDs, on average, start out with lower test scores than students in other at-risk subgroups, making it less likely that the subgroup will be able to reach grade-level proficiency standards in the time frame originally required by NCLB.

In addition to concerns about whether the ambitious targets set by NCLB for SWDs can actually be achieved, Ysseldyke and Bielinski (2002) raised concerns that identifying the SWD subgroup on the basis of annual participation in special education masks true gains in achievement for this subgroup. They argued that this approach results in a downward bias for SWD subgroup results, because each year students who are academically successful "exit from" special education, whereas students who are experiencing academic difficulty in general education "enter" special education. Using large-scale assessment data from one state, Ysseldyke and Bielinski reported special education turnover rates of approximately 20% per year and found that achievement gaps between SWDs and non-SWDs were smaller when a stable subgroup of SWDs, defined on the basis of special education membership at one point in time, rather than on a year-to-year basis, was examined.

Another complication with the cross-sectional or year-to-year approach for characterizing the achievement gap between SWDs and non-SWDs is that specific exceptionality groups enter and exit special education at different grades. As such, the mix of mild, moderate, and severe disabilities may change from grade to grade. For example, there is a much higher prevalence of students with speech or language impairments, one of the disability groups whose achievement is most similar to non-SWDs (Puranik, Petscher, Al Otaiba, Catts, & Lonigan, 2008; Wei et al. …

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