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Is Progress Being Made Toward Closing the Achievement Gap in Special Education?

The substantial achievement gap between students with disabilities and those without has been an integral part of the study and development of special needs education. While research and practice-based methods, techniques and adaptive technologies have been widely developed and implemented, recent research shows little change in this gap over the last decade. So, is progress truly being made to close the gap in special education? Students in a master’s degree in special education online program study this important topic in depth, including the historical and contemporary factors believed to cause the achievement gap — as well as the current thinking in how to overcome it.

The last survey of state assessment tests in reading and math from the National Center for Educational Outcomes shows that the achievement gap in special education according to grade level remains between 32 to 41 percent. And according to the National Assessment of Education Progress, this gap has barely changed in recent years. Interestingly, the percentage of the general population of students scoring at or above the basic level on these tests has dropped in the last few nationwide assessments, suggesting that although the scores of students with special needs has not changed significantly, the achievement gap in special education may have decreased.

If the inclusive rate of assessed achievement drops relative to the rate of achievement in special needs education, does this suggest a positive change in the achievement gap or a negative change in the overall success of our educational system? Although this finding and the questions it poses deserve consideration and study, the stagnancy of scores in the special needs population is concerning. Clearly, there is still work to do to close the achievement gap.

Laws, Requirements and Developments in Special Needs Education

Since the passing of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and its predecessor the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA), school systems have been required to develop inclusive special education programs for students with disabilities. The main tenets of these requirements are Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) for all students, regardless of any disability; creating the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) for each student; and basing each student’s education from preschool through secondary school on a personalized Individual Education Program (IEP).

Basically, schools must provide free and equal education to all students in the most inclusive and integrated classroom environment possible — an education tailored to each student’s unique needs. Integral to the law’s implementation are the rights of the parents or guardians and their roles in the development of the student’s IEP, as well as assessments and evaluations of the student’s special needs and progress.

Since the implementation of IDEA, and the No Child Left Behind Act (recently supplanted by the Every Student Succeeds Act), educators and researchers have been working hard to close the achievement gap in special education. This includes studying the different ways students can successfully learn, according to their unique abilities and needs; developing different methods of teaching that integrate these learning styles into flexible, inclusive classroom settings; and creating new adaptive technologies to assist students in processing material and information with the same ease as a student without disabilities.

Current Thinking and Practices

Although special needs education has changed dramatically to incorporate these new methods, classroom styles and adaptive technologies, professionals still struggle to close the achievement gap and figure out why these changes have not proved more successful. Many believe that a large part of the problem lies in the low expectations traditionally held for students with disabilities, even those without cognitive disabilities (who account for up to 85 percent of the special needs population).

If, from a young age, students are labeled as special needs, assigned lower expectations, and held to lower standards than other students, they can grow up believing that they are not capable of the same level of achievement as their peers. This type of thinking can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, inhibiting students from reaching their full potential and affecting their self-sufficiency and success in school and beyond. Teachers who consciously or unconsciously believe that students with disabilities in their classrooms will not learn as easily or achieve as much as other students perpetuate this problem.

Because of this line of thinking, educators have starting pushing for more equal standards for students with disabilities. Studies have shown that students who are held to higher standards and taught appropriately are more likely to believe in their abilities to learn and achieve. However, each student’s unique needs, abilities and learning styles require different learning methods. An inclusive classroom needs to incorporate instructional strategies that focus on learning outcomes while meeting the different learning needs of each student. The backward design approach is an example of this, setting outcomes and standards and figuring out how each individual student can learn, process, and understand curriculum in order to achieve those outcomes.

This and other approaches are not as simple as traditional teaching methods, and they require teachers with the willingness to try new things — as well as intensive training. Students in an online master’s in special education program not only study these new approaches and methods, they also fill an important role in teaching other educators how to implement these ideas.

Special needs education has developed substantially since policymakers passed IDEA, but clearly there is still work to do, and it requires educators willing to try new approaches in inclusive classrooms. With research, experimentation, adaptive technologies, educator training, and serious effort, closing the achievement gap in special education is possible.

Learn more about the UTPB online Master of Arts in Special Education program.


Education Week: NAEP Scores for Students With Disabilities Show Wide Achievement Gap

Teaching Exceptional Children: Backward Design

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