Knowledgeable. Dedicated. Experienced.

Ready to Defend Your Child's Rights

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