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The Special Education Achievement Gap: A Brief Analysis of the States

 Each year, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) administers the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) to a statistically valid sample of elementary and secondary school students throughout the country.  The NAEP is a paper and pencil test in math, reading, science, writing, and other subjects.  It is administered to 4th, 8th and 12th grade students. From the NAEP results, the Department of Education publishes an annual Nation's Report Card. Since 2009, NCES has separately tabulated results for students with disabilities.  With this data, we can analyze the achievement gap on a state-by-state basis.  Indeed, one of the purposes of special education is to close the achievement gap.  So, by looking at the gap between the performance of all children and the performance of children with disabilities over time, we get some sense of the quality of special education in a state.  Further, by looking at the present achievement gap, we get another sense of the quality of special education in each state. For purposes of this analysis, we combined four scores: 4th grade reading, 8th grade reading, 4th grade math, and 8th grade math.  For 2015, the states ranked as follows:

All Student Scores 2015 All Student Score Rank
Jurisdiction
Massachusetts 1079.5 1
New Hampshire 1072.7 2
Vermont 1064.2 3
DoDEA 1061.4 4
New Jersey 1060.5 5
Minnesota 1056.5 6
Wyoming 1049.8 7
Indiana 1049.8 8
Virginia 1047.8 9
Nebraska 1047.4 10
Pennsylvania 1046.5 11
Washington 1045.5 12
Connecticut 1045.3 13
Maine 1044.1 14
Wisconsin 1043.9 15
Iowa 1043.7 16
Utah 1042.9 17
North Dakota 1041.2 18
Ohio 1039.8 19
Montana 1039.3 20
Colorado 1036.8 21
Rhode Island 1033.2 22
Kansas 1033.0 23
North Carolina 1031.7 24
South Dakota 1030.4 25
Kentucky 1029.5 26
Idaho 1029.0 27
Maryland 1029.0 28
Delaware 1028.6 29
Missouri 1028.3 30
Oregon 1028.2 31
Illinois 1027.4 32
New York 1025.0 33
Tennessee 1022.0 34
Florida 1021.8 35
Oklahoma 1021.5 36
Texas 1018.9 37
Arizona 1016.6 38
Georgia 1012.6 39
South Carolina 1012.2 40
Alaska 1012.1 41
Michigan 1011.2 42
Hawaii 1008.3 43
West Virginia 1006.6 44
Arkansas 1004.4 45
Nevada 999.8 46
California 994.7 47
Alabama 990.3 48
Louisiana 988.9 49
Mississippi 986.3 50
New Mexico 984.9 51
District of Columbia 980.8 52

Although the match-up is not exact, the rank of the states in scores for students with disabilities is largely the same.  Massachusetts leads both lists and the District of Columbia is a pathetic last place in both tallies.  The exceptions are Florida and Kentucky.  Both states have robust voucher programs resulting in the private school placement of large numbers of children with disabilities.  Because fewer special education children are in the public school system, the results may be skewed.  In any case, here is the rank order of states in scores for students with disabilities:

Massachusetts 937.5 1
DoDEA 925.8 2
New Hampshire 915.0 3
New Jersey 912.9 4
Florida 910.4 5
Indiana 901.2 6
Wyoming 900.8 7
Kentucky 898.6 8
Virginia 897.5 9
Nebraska 895.2 10
Minnesota 894.8 11
North Dakota 893.3 12
Pennsylvania 890.5 13
Maine 889.8 14
Vermont 886.9 15
Wisconsin 886.8 16
Montana 886.6 17
New York 880.5 18
South Dakota 880.1 19
Ohio 876.9 20
Oklahoma 873.2 21
Connecticut 872.6 22
Georgia 872.1 23
Kansas 868.2 24
Oregon 867.8 25
Maryland 863.3 26
Utah 862.7 27
Michigan 862.6 28
Illinois 862.4 29
Missouri 860.9 30
Tennessee 860.7 31
North Carolina 860.1 32
Washington 858.3 33
Delaware 856.7 34
West Virginia 849.7 35
Rhode Island 849.7 36
Iowa 849.0 37
Texas 846.2 38
Colorado 845.8 39
Idaho 845.1 40
Arizona 841.7 41
Louisiana 841.3 42
Alaska 841.0 43
Mississippi 833.2 44
South Carolina 830.2 45
Arkansas 825.8 46
California 819.1 47
Alabama 816.5 48
New Mexico 815.1 49
Nevada 812.2 50
Hawaii 803.6 51
District of Columbia 798.8 52

As is clear from the charts above, students with disabilities lag approximately 16% behind all students in their NAEP scores.  This is the achievement gap for students with disabilities.  Here is the rank order of states in 2015 on the achievement gap, together with an indication of the percentage the gap represents of the scores of all students:

Florida 111.4 1 10.9%
Kentucky 130.9 2 12.7%
DoDEA 135.7 3 12.8%
Georgia 140.5 4 13.9%
Massachusetts 142.0 5 13.2%
New York 144.5 6 14.1%
Louisiana 147.6 7 14.9%
New Jersey 147.6 8 13.9%
North Dakota 147.9 9 14.2%
Oklahoma 148.3 10 14.5%
Michigan 148.5 11 14.7%
Indiana 148.5 12 14.1%
Wyoming 149.0 13 14.2%
Virginia 150.3 14 14.3%
South Dakota 150.3 15 14.6%
Nebraska 152.2 16 14.5%
Montana 152.7 17 14.7%
Mississippi 153.1 18 15.5%
Maine 154.4 19 14.8%
Pennsylvania 156.0 20 14.9%
West Virginia 156.9 21 15.6%
Wisconsin 157.1 22 15.1%
New Hampshire 157.6 23 14.7%
Oregon 160.4 24 15.6%
Tennessee 161.3 25 15.8%
Minnesota 161.6 26 15.3%
Ohio 162.9 27 15.7%
Kansas 164.9 28 16.0%
Illinois 165.0 29 16.1%
Maryland 165.7 30 16.1%
Missouri 167.4 31 16.3%
New Mexico 169.7 32 17.2%
Alaska 171.1 33 16.9%
North Carolina 171.7 34 16.6%
Delaware 171.8 35 16.7%
Connecticut 172.7 36 16.5%
Texas 172.7 37 16.9%
Alabama 173.8 38 17.6%
Arizona 174.9 39 17.2%
California 175.6 40 17.6%
Vermont 177.4 41 16.7%
Arkansas 178.7 42 17.8%
Utah 180.2 43 17.3%
South Carolina 182.0 44 18.0%
District of Columbia 182.0 45 18.6%
Rhode Island 183.5 46 17.8%
Idaho 184.0 47 17.9%
Washington 187.2 48 17.9%
Nevada 187.6 49 18.8%
Colorado 191.0 50 18.4%
Iowa 194.7 51 18.7%
Hawaii 204.7 52 20.3%
   

Again, we see the outliers of Florida and Kentucky showing the smallest achievement gap.  Whether this is due to better quality of special education or due to the removal of large numbers of special education students to private schools is a question that would take more research.  It is notable that the District of Columbia has an extremely high achievement gap, on top of the worst scores overall in the nation. One strong indicator of the quality of a State's special education program might be the size of the reduction of the achievement gap over time.  So, we looked at the same four tests in 2009 and 2005 to see the change over time.  Remarkably, in only two states - Alabama and Hawaii - was the gap reduced over that period.  Despite the improvement, Hawaii remained the state with the largest achievement gap in the nation.  Overall, on average, the achievement gap increased by 21 points, or 2% over the past six years.  The state rankings follow:

Alabama 18.1 1
Hawaii 10.5 2
Georgia -0.1 3
Arizona -1.9 4
Montana -2.4 5
Oklahoma -2.9 6
Florida -3.2 7
Arkansas -3.9 8
New York -5.9 9
Wisconsin -9.5 10
Michigan -9.7 11
Vermont -9.8 12
Idaho -10.2 13
Pennsylvania -10.8 14
California -10.9 15
Nebraska -15.8 16
New Hampshire -15.9 17
Maine -16.5 18
Iowa -16.9 19
West Virginia -17.4 20
Connecticut -18.2 21
Virginia -18.3 22
DoDEA -18.7 23
Oregon -20.9 24
Alaska -21.7 25
Wyoming -21.9 26
Massachusetts -22.0 27
North Carolina -22.2 28
Tennessee -22.8 29
District of Columbia -23.5 30
Louisiana -24.7 31
Mississippi -24.8 32
Ohio -25.1 33
Kentucky -26.0 34
South Dakota -26.0 35
Texas -27.4 36
Minnesota -27.6 37
Utah -29.1 38
New Jersey -29.9 39
Rhode Island -29.9 40
Illinois -30.0 41
New Mexico -30.5 42
Kansas -33.0 43
Washington -33.9 44
Colorado -36.4 45
Indiana -37.2 46
Nevada -39.7 47
South Carolina -39.9 48
Missouri -39.9 49
North Dakota -45.8 50
Delaware -48.1 51
Maryland -73.6 52

The conclusion is that the quality of special education in the United States has declined significantly over the past six years.  Students with disabilities are being left behind in every state.  Rather than seeking to close a yawning achievement gap, state officials seem content to let it increase, thereby frustrating the goal of the Individuals with Disabilities Act 'to ensure that all children with disabilities have available to them a free appropriate public education that emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs and prepare them for further education, employment and independent living." 20 U.S.C. 1400(d)(1)(A). Image credit: Alma760 via WikiMedia Commons

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