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What Do Washington, D.C., School Data Tell Us About Special Education?

Data • 8 min read • Mar 5, 2019 12:07:37 PM • Written by: Sarah Sandelius

New Breakdown Has 3 Key Takeaways


Article originally published by The 74, February 20, 2019

In education policy circles, accountability and metrics are frequent topics for discussion and debate. In the rest of the country, people just want to know how our schools are doing and whether our children are getting a good education. Through either lens, one group of students often lags behind — students with disabilities.

While evidence shows that addressing the needs of our most diverse learners presents a tremendous opportunity, with benefits for the entire education community, we have a lot of work to do before our schools and policymakers fully embrace that mindset.

States across the country recently released the first round of school-level accountability data mandated by the Every Student Succeeds Act, giving the public an unprecedented level of transparency into educational outcomes. Reviewing the data shows that while we’re heading in the right direction, the decisions made by states about how and what to include in these reports are as enlightening as the outcomes the data uncover.

What does this mean for students with disabilities? The Washington, D.C., report cards, based on the School Transparency and Reporting (STAR) Framework, are a helpful case study. Seventeen percent of D.C. students receive special education services, slightly above the national average of 13 percent, and the district’s students overall are almost evenly split between charter and district schools.

The Ability Challenge, a data-driven initiative launching in both D.C. district and charter schools, crunched the numbers to develop a custom 2018 snapshot and multi-year dashboard for each school, and the following three points emerge.

1. Comparing STAR measures for all students vs. students with disabilities shows results that vary considerably.

On virtually all attendance measures, rates for students with disabilities were relatively consistent with those for all students. For example, in-seat attendance hovered around 90 percent for all students, compared with 88 percent for students with disabilities. Eighth-grade promotion rates, re-enrollment, and re-engagement were also fairly consistent.

However, vast differences between students with disabilities and the all-students group still exist in areas such as discipline rates, where students with disabilities were almost twice as likely to receive an out-of-school suspension. Twelve percent of students with disabilities received an out-of-school suspension last year, compared with only 7 percent of the entire student population.


Test scores shows another troubling trend. D.C. assesses most students using the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career, while children with significant cognitive needs take the Multi-State Alternate Assessment. Although student growth is fairly consistent overall — 55 percent of all students and 46 percent of students with disabilities demonstrated desired growth — there are large gaps in proficiency level. Take the combined English Language Arts results for the two exams as an example: While 50 percent of all students received a score of approaching expectations or greater (corresponding to Level 3 and above), only 19 percent of students with disabilities scored as high. That disparity is even wider when looking at students meeting or exceeding expectations (PARCC Level 4/MSAA Level 3 and above). Only 8 percent of students with disabilities demonstrate such outcomes, compared with 27 percent of all students.


2. Current metrics obscure the full picture of how some students are faring.

For some metrics, such as standardized assessment scores, STAR does not provide critical information about outcomes of students with disabilities.

STAR includes PARCC scores by level for all students, but not for subgroups such as children with disabilities. Subgroup information is reported in the combined metric for proficiency (PARCC/MSAA Level 3 and above; PARCC/MSAA Level 4 and above), but there is no breakdown of how students with disabilities who were not proficient performed on each of those exams.

Over the past three years, PARCC scores for all students have generally remained steady. Between 2015-16 and 2016-17, citywide PARCC math scores improved slightly for students with disabilities, with 3 percent fewer students not yet meeting expectations (Level 1 scores moving from 62 to 58 percent) and 2 percent more both approaching and meeting expectations (Level 3 scores moving from 11 to 13 percent and Level 4 scores moving from 4 to 6 percent). In light of these incremental shifts, and when only 8 to 9 percent of students with disabilities meet or exceed expectations, deeper examination of this year’s PARCC scores is warranted.

There are ways to make connections with other data sets or draw general conclusions from the current data, but precise comparisons are problematic, especially when seeking to review data over time.

Even more important, current data do not provide insight into what is happening inside the classroom, a critical element toward equitably serving all students. Annual outcomes and report cards are telling, yet when digging into the elements that correlate with better learning outcomes for diverse learners (such as differentiated and specialized instruction, flexible grouping, and a mindset of high expectations for all students), the current accountability and compliance-based metrics fall short.

3. Using data for improvement rather than only as an accountability tool will help all schools improve, especially for our students who need it the most.

While beneficial, there are also consequences in relying heavily on data for accountability – most notably, the desire to game the system to look best on paper. The power wielded by true data analysis and honest reflection is that schools can look critically at what is working and what is not, examine root causes, and correct course when necessary. To do this, the stigma of “bad results” must be removed so schools can more freely embrace all information, of both successes and challenges, as a means to bolstering improvement. This is especially important in special education, where using evidence to individualize and differentiate should be at the heart of every decision.

Using data as a learning tool helps schools create strong systems for students with diverse needs, fostering a culture of continuous improvement that has ripple effects for the entire school community. By reframing our approach to data, educators can take an important step toward achieving equity – helping to meet the needs of all our students.


Ready to Make an Impact For Your Most Diverse Learners?

Sarah Sandelius