Students with disabilities seldom to blame for schools not meeting AYP

Schoolkids in classroom. Girl reading task aloud at lesson.Students with disabilities are seldom the reason why schools fail to meet their Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) goals under No Child Left Behind (NCLB), according to a report recently released by the Aspen Institute, Beyond NCLB: Fulfilling the Promise to Our Nation’s Children.

In 2004–05, 16% of schools (approximately 14,121 schools) and 20% of districts (2,347 districts) did not make AYP, says the 222-page report. Research in five of the largest states–California, Florida, Michigan, Georgia and Pennsylvania–found that subgroups of students with disabilities were seldom the sole reason schools did not make AYP.

In fact, schools in those five states rarely reported assessment results for students with disabilities because of the small populations of students in them, according to the No Child Left Behind Commission, an independent, bipartisan commission funded by the Aspen Institute and major foundations.

“Most of the time, schools were labeled in need of improvement because of low performance overall or because of low performance by multiple subgroups,” finds the report , which is based on a yearlong investigation into the implementation of NCLB. The commission held 12 public hearings across the country, visited schools and received 10,000 comments on its website.

To ensure that subgroup data is statistically reliable, schools are only required to include student subgroups above a minimum size (N-size) in their AYP calculations. However, the law leaves it up to states to determine the N-size they will use. In California, groups must have at least 100 students or 50 students and comprise 15 percent of the school population.

“As a result of this flexibility, large numbers of students are not counted in some states’ accountability systems,” the report says. “The large and varied N-sizes in these states mean that many African American and Hispanic students, as well as students with disabilities and English language learners, remain invisible, and schools are not held responsible for improving their performance.”

Trend to increase N-size

The trend has been for states to raise their N-sizes, according to the report. The Associated Press has reported that 1.9 million students throughout the country–or about one in 14 test scores–are not counted in AYP calculations because of state N-sizes.

The NCLB commission obtained student achievement data for every school in the five states to examine how often schools missed AYP because of students with disabilities and also because of students with limited English proficiency. (See chart below).

To address states’ challenges with assessing students with disabilities, the U.S. DOE has issued rules for determining how students with disabilities are included in state accountability systems.

Under the rules, children with severe cognitive disabilities–up to 1 percent of students in a state–can be administered alternate assessments using alternate standards. These standards are different from the regular academic standards used to assess students without disabilities and those students with disabilities who take regular assessments aligned to regular standards.

In addition, the U.S. DOE has issued other regulations that allow up to 2 percent of a state’s student population, who struggle to be on grade level, to take assessments using “modified achievement standards.” These standards are required to be aligned to grade level expectations, but are permitted to be lower in scope than the standards used for nondisabled students.

To access the report, Beyond NCLB: Fulfilling the Promise to Our Nation’s Children, go to

Published in ERN March 2007 Volume 20 Number 3


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