This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
What can be done to help kids with disabilities succeed in school? Until recently, Congress’s main focus – as set out in the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA – was on improving IEPs (individualized educational plans) and getting more students into the "general curriculum." But with the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), Congress in 2001 added some new requirements.
Now, schools must measure kids’ actual achievement levels, using standardized tests; and must show that all students, including those with disabilities, are making "adequate yearly progress" (AYP). When scores do not improve, schools must make improvement plans, even if only one subgroup of students, such as students with disabilities, misses AYP goals. If the problem continues, students must be offered tutoring, schools must take "corrective action," and more.
All of this has sparked a huge controversy, especially regarding students with disabilities. The goals are set too high for these children, some say; and it’s unfair to label a school as low-performing if it’s only the special education students who are not making AYP. In fact, it has been argued, the AYP rule actually hurts these students, who are blamed for "bringing down" their schools’ scores.
This debate is likely to go on for a while, and like most education laws, NCLB will probably come in for some changes down the road. But here are some points to consider in the meantime.
Most children with disabilities have conditions at the milder end of the spectrum; their abilities are not that different from those of their peers, though they may need some special help. Even some children with complex disabilities can, with help, achieve at or near grade level. Thus, there are good arguments for not letting up on the idea that, with supports, most students with disabilities can be as successful as their classmates.
As for NCLB’s emphasis on standardized tests, it’s certainly important to avoid test-mania, and it’s true that test scores don’t give a full picture of any student’s achievement. But tests can still provide useful information about how schools and subgroups are doing. And the idea that schools should strive to raise the achievement levels of all children – including those with disabilities – makes sense.
And what do the AYP figures actually tell us about the progress of children with disabilities in the Philadelphia School District? In 2003-04, 27 schools – about 11 percent of all District schools – showed data on their special education subgroup. In 20 of these schools, the special education subgroup did not make AYP; in the other seven, the subgroup did make AYP (though this was sometimes because of "safe harbor" rules or statistical "confidence intervals"). These data at least suggest some serious questions about the extent to which children with disabilities are benefiting from current reforms.
Interestingly, in most of the 20 schools in which the special education subgroup did not make AYP, there was also some other reason why the school failed to make adequate progress. In Philadelphia, then, it is – so far – mostly not true that successful schools are being labeled as unsuccessful solely because of their special education subgroup. But we still shouldn’t be satisfied with how children with disabilities are performing.
Moreover, about 240 District schools were not held accountable by the state for the performance of their special education students because the number of special education students tested fell below the threshold of 40 students. For these schools, more information is clearly needed. And in all of the schools, more digging is needed on exactly what the test scores mean, why they improved (or declined), and how the experience of children with disabilities tracked, or didn’t, that of the rest of the student body.
Certainly NCLB did not get it all right. But the requirement that we look at test scores, "even" for children with disabilities, can be a kickoff to important discussions that should happen across this District. We should take AYP with a grain of salt; but we should also use the data, along with all of the other information we can get, to try to ensure that students with disabilities benefit from school reform efforts every bit as much as their non-disabled peers.