How are our Students with Disabilities Really Doing Academically?

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The astounding district graduation rate increase of 13% from 2014 (75%) to 2015 (88%) was attributed in part to gains in the graduation rate of students with disabilities (SWDs). The SWD graduation rate in Douglas County doubled from 35% in 2014 to 70% in 2015 (compared to an increase from 36 to 54% in Georgia over the same time period)*. How was this dramatic increase attained? Was it a result of significant increases in the academic achievement of these special needs students? Does Douglas County have a higher SWD graduation rate because its students are learning more?

A comparison on End of Course exam proficiency data between SWDs in Douglas County and the state of Georgia provides some clues^:

In 7 of 8 subject areas, Douglas County’s SWDs achieved less than their peers throughout the state, indicating lower standards and expectations for this population.

One might counter in the one exam seniors take, Economics,  DC students did better. This is true and it may account partly for why the SWD graduation rate was better than the state’s. However, in 2016 the graduation rate was still much higher (65 compared to 56%), yet DC students did worse on all 8 exams that year, including Economics. And the 2016 graduates would have taken the American Literature and US History exams as juniors in 2015. With a proficiency rate of 15%, the American Literature scores certainly raise questions about the quality of the education these students are receiving.

So how can the graduation rate of this population be so high while academic achievement is so low? The likely answer that very little learning is required of students to earn credits and thus progress through the system and graduate. I saw this firsthand last year when I taught high school classes that included students with disabilities. Quite frankly, these students had been conditioned by years of low expectations. For example, all of them were allowed “test corrections for points.” This means that after taking a multiple choice test, they were shown which ones they got wrong and allowed to change their answers and get their tests re-graded. It was not uncommon for test grades to rise from Fs to Bs or As as a result. I found this problematic because in most cases I knew that the students were not really learning at this level. Rather, this practice allowed them to increase their grade mostly by guessing. In addition, they commonly received and so expected “study guides” that gave them the test questions and answered ahead of time.

Having grown accustomed to such crutches, most did not know how to really prepare for tests because they didn’t have to. And since such practices were not allowed on their final, standardized exams (because that would invalidate the results!), most could not succeed on them.

Such low expectations indicate a low view of these students capabilities and even value as persons. An experience I had in a teacher planning meeting illustrates this vividly. We were trying to set academic achievement goals for our students for the year. The previous year, the SWD passing rate on a particular science exam was only 7%. We had to set a target for increasing it. The faculty decided on an increase to 8%. Yet, as I objected, since there were only about 40 SWDs enrolled in the course this year, an increase of one percentage point did not even represent one more whole student passing the course! (7% to 8% of 40 is an increase of 2.8 to 3.2, or 0.4 students). In other words, only 1 more student had passed the exam, the passing rate would have increased by more than 1 percentage point.

This raises an essential question about the primary goal of special education: should standards be lowered for them in order to make it easier for them to progress through the system? Or should they be expected to really learn and given effective supports to overcome their disability to do so?

*All data obtained from the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement – https://gosa.georgia.gov/downloadable-data.
^Proficiency rates here are weighted averages using different multipliers for different levels of performance on exams.

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