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Survey: Practices Vary at Schools That Must Report on Students With Disabilities

Schools with a large enough special education population to require reporting on that subgroup's performance were more likely to move students from self-contained to general education classrooms, and those schools also were more likely to offer more professional development and coaching related to the teaching students with disabilities, a survey by a federal center that evaluates education programs found. 

Under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, only schools with a certain number of students with disabilities are required to report separately on how those students perform on state tests. That subgroup size, determined by each state, ranges from 5 to 50 students, with most states using either 30 or 40 students as their threshold for reporting. 

The National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, which is part of the federal Institute of Education Sciences, set out to describe the differences between schools that have always had to report on the disability subgroup compared to schools that have not. 

The report, School Practices and Accountability for Students With Disabilities, is particularly relevant as Congress works through how it will revise accountability and testing under the ESEA, currently known as the No Child Left Behind Act. Some advocates are already worried that proposed changes to the law will  not require states to set specific achievment goals for the performance of subgroup studnets, including students in special education.

Survey Sample

Researchers focused on a sample of elementary and middle schools and the three school years of 2005-06, 2006-07 and 2007-08.  Schools that met their state's threshold for reporting the results of students with disabilities for all three years were deemed "always accountable."  Schools that did not meet that threshold for any of those years were labeled "never accountable." In the survey sample, 60 percent of elementary schools and 27 percent of middle schools fell into the "never accountable" group during those three years.

As would be expected, schools that were "always accountable" tended to be larger schools in general, and to have a higher percentage of students with disabilities than "never-accountable" schools. "Always-accountable" schools were also more likely to house a central district program for students with disabilities.

Schools that were accountable for disability subgroup performance were also more likely to be identified for school improvement, as this graphic shows: 

SWD Accountability.jpg

Some Mixed Results

The survey also found that elementary schools that were accountable for the disability subgroup were more likely to have adopted new English/language arts programs between 2005 and 2011, and both elementary and middle schools that were "always accountable" were more likely to adopt the educational practice of infusing reading instruction in all subject areas. Schools with high numbers of students with disabilities were also more likely to used tiered models of intervention to meet either academic or behavioral goals within the school. Schools with high numbers of students with disabilities were also more likely to use co-teaching with general and special education teachers working together.

But in some cases, the results were mixed. "Always accountable" elementary schools were more likely to use after-school programs for instructional time. At the middle school level, however, there was no significant difference between schools with high numbers or low numbers of special education students.

The survey does not make any assessment about the effectiveness of the different practices, but the description of the differences could be fodder for future research, the report says. 

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