By Colorado Fellow Sean Davis

Originally published by Sean Davis Education Blog on 10/15/16

A few weeks ago, the state of Colorado released the data on year to year student growth on state tests. Typically, the median growth percentile is about 50. However, this year's data showed a major median growth gap between non-disabled students and students with disabilities. The growth for non-disabled students was 51 compared to those with disabilities at 38. Clearly, these numbers are of concern.

Alarmed by the increasing gap, districts, state officials, and the media attempted to explain what is going on. A recent post by Nicholas Garcia from Chalkbeat looked to advocacy groups and university professors who seemed to put a lot of blame on Special Educators. The article stated, “Too often kids with disabilities just don’t have the opportunity to learn,” said Sheryl Lazarus, a senior research associate with the National Center for Education Outcomes. The article went on to quote numerous 'experts' in the field but failed to ask the real experts on this issue: Special Educators that devote their lives to improving opportunities for the most vulnerable students.

Here are the real reasons students with disabilities continue to fall behind their non-disabled peers on PARCC Tests:

No Access + No Relevance = No Chance

In schools across the country, many special education students are classified with a Specific Learning Disability. Despite targeted interventions, these students continue to fall behind in reading, math, writing and other academic areas. Often times, special education students read significantly below grade level and possess few basic math skills that they need to access the grade level curriculum.

Experts agree that a student's instructional reading level, or the level where a student is challenged but can still access the material, should be about a year higher than their current reading level. However, when 9th grade students are forced to take a test like the PARCC, they are being asked to access a reading level years above their current levels. If students cannot access the material, they have no chance to succeed on the test.

In addition, students see no relevance in taking these tests. Even tests like the SAT or ACT mean nothing to students that plan on taking a more vocational route than a college one. Why should these students care about a test that does nothing to support them in reaching their post-secondary goals?

Assessments can be powerful. They can tell us where our students stand and what skills they need to improve on. They can inform instruction and let students know their options and steps they must take to achieve their goals. But if an assessment is not relevant to the student, we can not expect them to perform well on it.
The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is exciting because it gives states much greater flexibility to determine what assessments they use. Colorado is currently in the process of drafting its plan on how it will implement ESSA in our state. Now is our chance to advocate for more relevant assessments for our special education students.

Tests like the Test of Adult Basic Education (TABE) or other transition based assessments are used to determine student readiness for vocational programs or technical colleges and could be used as a supplement for PARCC. These tests provide relevance to our students and, if used, would give us a clearer, more accurate picture of growth for our special education students.

Special Educators Feel Undervalued, Overworked, and Underprepared

A shortage in special educators is becoming a national epidemic. The demand for special educators is expected to increase by 17% from now through 2018 – a rate greater than what is predicted for all other occupations. (Bureau of Labor Statistics, US Department of Labor, 2009). Special Education teachers enter the job feeling underprepared, conduct the job with insufficient resources, and leave the job feeling overwhelmed. Special Educators leave the profession at much higher rates than other teachers.

Take my experience for example. I love my job -- love the students I work with, love the motivated and inspiring teachers I share an office with, and love working every day to combat the inequities that exist for our kids. But is my job sustainable? It's hard to say.

Here are a few of my concerns:
I start every day by entering the office I share with five other special education teachers. Last year I shared the same office with two people and we had enough space for the 75+ IEP meetings we hold each year with our students and parents. This year, our office lacks the space to host meetings so our school gave us a former storage closet located behind two golf carts in a garage of our building. Some parents have been so appalled by these conditions that they have complained (to no avail) to our principals. How can we expect students to perform well on a standardized test with these constant subliminal messages of inferiority?

I teach five classes a day -- every class is a different subject and is taught in a different room. The only 'room' designated to our department is a former office between two classrooms. In addition to planning for five classes a day, we are expected to case manage 25 students. We are responsible for ensuring students graduate on time, writing and implementing individual education plans for each student, and closing growth gaps for our students.

While difficult, these tasks would be doable given the proper resources. Without the proper resources, however, these tasks are impossible. Many districts provide teachers in core content areas with high quality curriculum. They send unit plans every few weeks to math, english, social studies, and science teachers. However, in many districts across the country, special education courses receive no curriculum. We give the fewest resources to our neediest students and then question why they underperform.


If districts genuinely care about closing growth gaps, they need to analyze what they're putting into these areas instead of looking only at the bad numbers coming out.

Teachers need resources and need to feel valued. Providing classrooms, sufficient office space, and curriculums to teachers is necessary.

Tests need to be relevant and accessible to students. If students see no relevance in a test and read significantly below grade level, we cannot expect them to grow.

Sean Davis is a passionate, equity driven Special Education teacher at South High School in Denver, Colorado and a Colorado Educator Voice Fellow with America Achieves.

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