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Closing the Low-Expectations Loophole for Students with Disabilities

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By Todd Grindal, Laura Schifter and Thomas Hehir

Whether or not you think it is smart policy to measure schools' effectiveness using standardized tests, there is one thing on which we all should be able to agree: school districts should not decide which students that they are accountable for educating and which they are not.

Since 2007, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) has permitted school districts to hide the performance of up to two percent of students (or approximately 20% of students with disabilities) by allowing students with disabilities to be measured using substantially less challenging assessments. This provision, referred to by education policy wonks as the "2% rule" encourages inappropriate referrals to special education, paints an inaccurate picture of school performance, and, worst of all, reinforces stereotypes that students with disabilities cannot succeed in school.

Last month, ED issued a plan to close this loophole. This action represents an important step to meaningfully include students with disabilities with their non-disabled peers.

To understand why this change is so important, we need to delve into the inside baseball of education policy. When No Child Left Behind (NCLB) began requiring that schools demonstrate adequate yearly progress (AYP) for all their students, many complained it was unreasonable to expect students with disabilities to meet these standards. ED, then led by Secretary Margret Spellings, initially responded by allowing districts to assess up to 1% of students using alternate achievement standards. This "1% rule" made sense as approximately 1 out of every 100 children in the U.S has the type of significant cognitive disability that might preclude them from successfully completing a standard assessment.

Some school districts argued that 1% was just not enough. After two years of pressure, Secretary Spellings introduced the 2% rule. This change permitted measuring more students with disabilities using low-level assessments. The criterion for determining whether a student was eligible to take a modified assessment was simply that the student be deemed as "unlikely to achieve grade-level proficiency." Districts and schools could then use the results of these modified assessments to count up to an additional 2% of their entire student populations (approximately 20% of students with disabilities) as proficient for the purposes of making AYP.

A growing body of research suggests that the 2% rule has had damaging consequences. We examined data from the Houston Independent School District and found that more than half of the students who were measured using these assessments were students who were diagnosed with "learning disabilities" such as dyslexia rather than students who had the sorts of significant cognitive impairments that might impede them from completing a standard assessment. Even more disturbingly, we found that African American students with learning disabilities were up to six times more likely to be assessed on these low-rigor tests than were similar Caucasian or Latino students with learning disabilities. In other work, researchers found that some students were included in this easier assessment even though they scored proficient on the regular assessment in the prior year. Research out of California suggests that the 2% rule led to an inflation of schools' ratings. In 2012, approximately 210,000 California students (5% of all students and nearly 50% of all students with disabilities) took the California Modified Assessment. In some California districts, as many as 76% of students with disabilities were assessed using this easier assessment. These data demonstrate that the use of these assessments far exceed the intended use, provide inaccurate pictures of school performance as well as inappropriately low expectations for poor and minority students--the students that NCLB is intended to protect.

Some continue to argue that schools should have substantial flexibility in determining how many students with disabilities take these modified assessments. However, there is no reason to believe that the vast majority of students with disabilities, given the appropriate accommodations, cannot be evaluated using the same measures as their peers. The research is increasingly clear that lowering expectations and obscuring student performance data does nothing to improve academic achievement.

Providing students with disabilities with excellent education may not be simple, but it is not impossible. Students with disabilities can achieve at high levels when held to the same high expectations as their peers . Massachusetts for example, chose not to use the 2% loophole and evaluates the performance of more than 90% of its students with disabilities using the standard assessment. Having high expectations contributes to Massachusetts scoring at or near the top on the National Assessment of Educational Progress for students with disabilities. Massachusetts is not alone. A number of schools and school districts across the country have used assessment data to change instruction and successfully improve the performance of all students, including students with disabilities. This indicates that the low-performance of students with disabilities is, by and large, a problem of instruction rather than one of students' inherent capacities.

As states reshape their assessments to align with Common Core Standards, it is important that educators reinforce their commitment to the success of all students, including students with disabilities. In fact, the 45 states that are participating in one of the two assessment consortia have already committed to including students with disabilities in their general assessment. ED's move to close the low-expectations loophole is supported by key Congressional members, including Representative George Miller and Senator Tom Harkin and is an important step in the right direction. It recognizes the damaging consequences of low expectations for students with disabilities and demonstrates a faith that students with disabilities, given the proper accommodations, can succeed at the highest levels.

Todd Grindal is an associate with Abt Associates where he studies the impact of public policies on young children and children with disabilities. Todd condcuted his doctoral work at the Harvard Graduate School of Education where he was awarded a Julius B. Richmond Fellowship by the Harvard Center on the Developing Child in support of his dissertation research on the unionization of home childcare providers. Prior to beginning his doctoral studies, Todd worked for six years as a teacher and school administrator at the high school level in Florida, and at the elementary school and preschool levels in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area.

Laura A. Schifter is an Instructor in Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) and a doctoral candidate in the Education Policy, Leadership, and Instructional Practice Program at HGSE. Her work focuses on education policy related to students with disabilities and in particular high school graduation policies. Schifter is a former Senior Education and Disability Advisor for George Miller on the Education and the Workforce Committee in the House of Representatives, and has conducted policy research for the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Schools.

Thomas Hehir is the Silvana and Christopher Pascucci Professor of Practice in Learning Differences at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Dr. Hehir served as director of the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Special Education Programs from 1993 to 1999. As director, he was responsible for federal leadership in implementing the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Hehir played a leading role in developing the Clinton administration's proposal for the 1997 reauthorization of the IDEA, 90 percent of which was adopted by Congress