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Including, Excluding Students With Disabilities Under NCLB

Students with disabilities were largely excluded from state testing programs before changes to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in 1997 and the 2001 No Child Left Behind law. A new report looks at how many schools were held accountable for the performance of students with disabilities when it comes to state tests. It shows that some of the fears about students with disabilities dragging down the performance of a school under the No Child Left Behind law weren't realized.

But the new report from the Institute of Education Sciences says that in 37 states with relevant data, 9 percent of all public schools missed AYP during the 2008-09 school year because of how students with disabilities performed and at least one other reason, and only 5 percent missed it solely because of students with disabilities' performance on state tests.

Looking at schools from the 2005-06 school year through the 2008-09 school year, the researchers found that in 32 states with relevant data, 55 percent of public schools were not accountable for students with disabilities in any of the 4 years examined, while 18 percent of schools that were consistently accountable in each of the 4 years.

And among schools held accountable consistently for students with disabilities during the 4 years across 27 states, 56 percent were never identified for school improvement over this time period. By comparison, among schools that were not accountable for SWD subgroup performance in any of the 4 years, 76 percent were never identified for improvement.

The report hypothesized that if schools are held responsible for these students, who are sometimes too few in number at a given school to matter in state grading and rating systems, schools will adopt improved instructional practices, and that will in turn improve the educational outcomes for this student population as a whole.

The way states have counted different subgroups of students, including students with disabilities, has been a concern since the No Child law was enacted. If schools must have a large number of students with disabilities—or any other group of students—for their scores to count in NCLB report cards, and schools have a smaller number of these kids, then their scores don't matter on these rating systems. (Think about that and then the name of the law.)

In addition, students with disabilities have sometimes been blamed for their poor performance on state tests being the only thing that keeps a given school from making adequate yearly progress, or AYP, as defined by the No Child Left Behind law. (Those concerns have been renewed in a different incarnation: There are fresh worries about how students with disabilities will affect schools' showings with the new Common Core State Standards.)

When schools miss AYP targets, they are subject to a set of increasingly onerous penalties, although the introduction of waivers to the fundamental tenets of No Child Left Behind is changing that.

The Institute for Educational Sciences is continuing to study the role of students with disabilities in accountability systems and will eventually issue another report that will explore the relationships between accountability for this student subgroup and school practices and student outcomes.

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