ESEA/ESSA, School Improvement, Race/Ethnic Status, and Students with Disabilities

We Need to Differentiate Disability Just as We Differentiate Race and Ethnicity

Dear Colleague,


Historically, the 2001 No Child Left Behind version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA/NCLB) tracked students’ academic progress by different subgroups. . . including one subgroup related to students with disabilities.the 2001 No Child Left Behind version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA/NCLB) tracked students’ academic progress by different subgroups. . . including one subgroup related to students with disabilities.

As the U.S. Department of Education (USDoE) realized that not every student in America would become proficient by 2014 (What a shocker !!!), it began to issue state waivers that focused school improvement status on a Targeted Achievement Gap Group (TAGG) which was comprised of (a) students at risk due to economic disadvantage; (b) English Language Learners (ELLs); and—once again (c) Students with Disabilities (SWD).

In essence, schools could find themselves “in the greatest need of school improvement” (i.e., as Priority schools), or at the “next level of need for school improvement” (i.e., as Focus schools) based on the multi-year academic proficiency of their “Non-TAGG” and/or TAGG cohorts of students, respectfully.

Fast forward to the 2015 reauthorized ESEA—also called the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESEA/ESSA).

Three important facets of ESEA/ESSA involve: (a) the development of a Statewide Accountability System; (b) Academic Assessments that track students’ proficiency over time; and (c) the designation of specific “Indicators” such that states can establish a way to meaningfully differentiate all of its public schools on an annual basis.

All three of these facets involve planning, assessing, and evaluating Subgroups of Students.

In the “Statewide Accountability System” section of ESEA/ESSA, it states:

“(T)he term ‘subgroup of students’ means—

(A) economically disadvantaged students;

(B) students from major racial and ethnic groups;

(C) children with disabilities; and

(D) English learners.”

In the “Academic Assessments” section of ESEA/ESSA, it states that districts and schools need to produce:

“(I)ndividual student interpretive, descriptive, and diagnostic reports, consistent with clause (iii), regarding achievement on such assessments that allow parents, teachers, principals, and other school leaders to understand and address the specific academic needs of students. . .

(and that are) disaggregated within each State, local educational agency (i.e., District), and school—by

(I) each major racial and ethnic group;

(II) economically disadvantaged students as compared to students who are not economically disadvantaged;

(III) children with disabilities as compared to children without disabilities;

(IV) English proficiency status;

(V) gender; and

(VI) migrant status. . . .”

Thus, once again, a school’s improvement status might hinge on the performance of its students with disabilities.

But here’s the rub:

  • Why does ESEA/ESSA require schools to differentiate their planning, data analysis, and accountability provisions among different racial and ethnic groups. . . but NOT across the thirteen different disabilities included in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)?
  • How does the pooling of these 13 disabilities mask, convolute, or confuse the academic results of different students with different disabilities in a school or district. . . and how does this pooling negatively impact a school’s analysis of the outcomes—especially when they are unsatisfactory—and the resulting interventions?
  • Could the ESEA/ESSA’s pooling of the different disabilities into one sub-group explain the historically poor state standards test results—where students with disabilities significantly underperform their same-grade peers?

A Primer on Disabilities

As noted above, IDEA protects the educational rights of students who “qualify” in one or more of 13 different disability areas:

  • Specific Learning Disability
  • Speech or Language Impairment
  • Orthopedic Impairment
  • Visual Impairment
  • Hearing Impairment
  • Deafness
  • Deaf-Blindness
  • Intellectual Disability
  • Emotional Disturbance
  • Autism
  • Traumatic Brain Injury
  • Other Health Impairments
  • Multiple Disabilities

While “qualification” requires that a student meet the criteria (see below) of a specific disability category, IDEA also requires that the disability affect “the child’s involvement and progress in the general education curriculum.”

That is, while a child may indeed exhibit the characteristics of a specific disability, they qualify for special education services and supports (delivered through an IEP) only when the disability impacts their educational progress.

Obviously, this IDEA language has been debated and “clarified” in many due process, state, and federal court hearings and rulings. Moreover, even if they do not qualify under IDEA, some students with disabilities still receive their needed services under Section 504 of the (federal) Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

Below are brief descriptions of IDEA’s thirteen disability areas.

As you read these different descriptions, please think about (in general) how each disability area impacts (a) a student’s learning and learning progress; (b) a teacher’s instruction and need to provide accommodations, modifications, and interventions; and (c) the test-taking process, and what needs to occur to ensure that the test results are reliable and valid.

Specific Learning Disability. The IDEA defines a specific learning disability (SLD) as “a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, that may manifest itself in the imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or to do mathematical calculations.” This disability category includes such conditions as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia (a type of language disorder).

However, IDEA’s definition notes that SLD “does not include a learning problem that is primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor disabilities; of intellectual disability; of emotional disturbance; or of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage.” This clause helps to distinguish learning disabilities from the other disability categories specified by IDEA. SLD is by far the largest category of disability within the Individuals for Disabilities Education Act.

Speech or Language Impairments. The IDEA officially defines speech and language impairments as “a communication disorder such as stuttering, impaired articulation, a language impairment, or a voice impairment that adversely affects a child’s educational performance.” Each point within this official definition represents a speech and language subcategory.

“A communication disorder such as stuttering” provides an example of a fluency disorder; other fluency issues include unusual word repetition and hesitant speech.

“Impaired articulation” indicates impairments in which a child experiences challenges in pronouncing specific sounds.

“A language impairment” can entail difficulty comprehending words properly, expressing oneself and listening to others.

Finally, “a voice impairment” involves difficulty voicing words; for instance, throat issues may cause an abnormally soft voice.

An Orthopedic Impairment is defined by IDEA as “a severe orthopedic impairment that adversely affects a child’s educational performance.” IDEA specifies that this term “includes impairments caused by a congenital anomaly (birth defects), impairments caused by disease (e.g., poliomyelitis, bone tuberculosis), and impairments from other causes (e.g., cerebral palsy, amputations, and fractures or burns that cause contractures).” Aa required by IDEA, orthopedic impairments involve physical disabilities that affect the academic process of students.

A Visual Impairment involves an issue with sight which interferes with a student’s academic pursuits. IDEA officially defines the category as “an impairment in vision that, even with correction, adversely affects a child’s educational performance. The term includes both partial sight and blindness.”

Hearing Impairment. IDEA defines a hearing impairment as “an impairment in hearing, whether permanent or fluctuating, that adversely affects a child’s educational performance but is not included under the definition of ‘deafness’ (see below). A hearing loss above 90 decibels is generally considered deafness, which means that a hearing loss below 90 decibels is classified as a hearing impairment.

Deafness is an inability to comprehend verbal language due to an inability to hear characterizes deafness. IDEA states that deafness is “a hearing impairment that is so severe that the child is impaired in processing linguistic information through hearing, with or without amplification.” The phrase “with or without amplification” is significant as it indicates that a hearing aid will not provide sufficient accommodation so that the student can succeed in the classroom.

Deaf-Blindness refers to a child with both hearing and visual disabilities. The IDEA officially defines the term as “concomitant [simultaneous] hearing and visual impairments, the combination of which causes such severe communication and other developmental and educational needs that they cannot be accommodated in special education programs solely for children with deafness or children with blindness.”

According to National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities (abbreviated as NICHCY), deaf-blindness does not necessarily mean complete losses in these sense areas. NICHCY’s fact sheet on this disability category states, “the word ‘deaf-blindness’ may seem as if a person cannot hear or see at all. The term actually describes a person who has some degree of loss in both vision and hearing. The amount of loss in either vision or hearing will vary from person to person.”

Intellectual (or Cognitive) Disability, formerly labeled “mental retardation,” is defined by IDEA as “significantly sub-average general intellectual functioning, existing concurrently with deficits in adaptive behavior and manifested during the developmental period, that adversely affects a child’s educational performance.”

There are two key components within this definition: a student’s cognitive functioning (usually measured with an IQ test), and his or her capability to function independently at home and in school in areas like communication, self-help, daily living skills, and socialization (usually referred to as adaptive behavior).

Emotional Disturbance. IDEA (somewhat anachronistically) identifies students with social, emotional, or behavioral challenges as emotionally disturbed (ED). While many states have changed both this label and its definition, IDEA’s definition states this disability involves:

“A condition exhibiting one or more of the following characteristics over a long period of time and to a marked degree that adversely affects a child’s educational performance:

(A) An inability to learn that cannot be explained by intellectual, sensory, or health factors.

(B) An inability to build or maintain satisfactory interpersonal relationships with peers and teachers.

(C) Inappropriate types of behavior or feelings under normal circumstances.

(D) A general pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression.

(E) A tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears associated with personal or school problems.

The term includes schizophrenia. The term does not apply to children who are socially maladjusted, unless it is determined that they have an emotional disturbance.”

Significantly, IDEA does not further define or quantify any of the global elements of the definition above—including the term “social maladjustment.”

Autism, as defined by IDEA, refers to “a developmental disability significantly affecting verbal and nonverbal communication and social interaction, generally evident (but not required) before age three, that adversely affects a child’s educational performance.”

The definition also describes traits commonly related to the condition: “Other characteristics often associated with autism are engaging in repetitive activities and stereotyped movements, resistance to environmental change or change in daily routines, and unusual responses to sensory experiences. The term autism does not apply if the child’s educational performance is adversely affected primarily because the child has an emotional disturbance.”

Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) is defined in IDEA as “an acquired injury to the brain caused by an external physical force, resulting in total or partial functional disability or psychosocial impairment, or both, that adversely affects a child’s educational performance.”

The definition continues: “Traumatic brain injury applies to open or closed head injuries resulting in impairments in one or more areas, such as cognition; language; memory; attention; reasoning; abstract thinking; judgment; problem-solving; sensory, perceptual, and motor abilities; psycho-social behavior; physical functions; information processing; and speech. The term does not apply to brain injuries that are congenital or degenerative, or to brain injuries induced by birth trauma.”

Other Health Impairment (OHI) involves a range of conditions such as (per IDEA): “having limited strength, vitality, or alertness, including a heightened alertness to environmental stimuli, that results in limited alertness with respect to the educational environment, that— (a) is due to chronic or acute health problems such as asthma, attention deficit disorder or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, diabetes, epilepsy, a heart condition, hemophilia, lead poisoning, leukemia, nephritis [a kidney disorder], rheumatic fever, sickle cell anemia, and Tourette syndrome; and (b) adversely affects a child’s educational performance.”

The list of conditions above is not inclusive. That is, conditions not directly named in the definition can still qualify under OHI.

_ _ _ _ _

Multiple Disabilities in IDEA refers to “concomitant [simultaneous] impairments (such as intellectual disability-blindness, intellectual disability-orthopedic impairment, etc.), the combination of which causes such severe educational needs that they cannot be accommodated in a special education program solely for one of the impairments. The term does not include deaf-blindness.”

Thus, students (other than those identified as Deaf-Blind) who have coinciding special education programming needs in two or more disability areas can be considered to have multiple disabilities.

Why ESEA/ESSA and Schools Should Differentiate Different Disabilities

From an ESEA/ESSA perspective, different schools and districts have different percentages of students with disabilities within them. Moreover—as you can tell from the very different disabilities covered by IDEA (and the very different needs of students with different disabilities), I believe that:

The educational services that schools need to provide for their students with disabilities will necessarily differ with the different (percentages of) students with disabilities they must educate.

While I understand that—relative to tracking the academic proficiency of specific subgroups—ESEA/ESSA requires schools to have a statistically-determined number of students such that the results are reliable and valid. . .

I DO NOT believe that it is fair to identify a district or school as a “Low Performing School” based only on a “students with disabilities” subgroup that varies by having different disability clusters of students, at different ages, at different levels of severity and need, and in schools with different levels of resources.

From an IDEA perspective, I ALSO believe that. . .

  • Putting all students with disabilities in one ESEA/ESSA subgroup is negatively affecting schools’ attention to these students’ individual, disability-related service, support, programmatic, and intervention needs.

That is, in the rush to increase students with disabilities’ academic proficiency on their state standards tests, some districts and schools are:

  • Teaching all of their students with disabilities in the same way, in the same classes, with the same strategies, and with the same learning and mastery expectations—even though their educations are supposed to be individualized, and their disabilities may interfere with them learning as quickly or as completely as their “typical” peers
  • Forcing students with disabilities to be taught academic content and material at their chronological age- or grade-levels rather than at their functional skill and understanding levels.
  • Ignoring the social, emotional, and behavioral needs of these students—especially as (for example) the behavioral intervention needs of some of these students (e.g., students with emotional disturbances or autism) directly interferes with their academic engagement and achievement; and the history of academic failure of others of these students (e.g., students with specific learning disabilities or cognitive impairments) has created a belief or mindset that they cannot succeed regardless of the modifications or accommodations provided to them.

Relative, especially, to the second bullet above: While we need to have “high and realistic expectations” of all students, we know that students with disabilities (indeed, all students) learn best when (a) they have the prerequisite experiences, knowledge, and skills to engage in and benefit from new learning; and when (b) new information is provided to them at a level of reasonable—NOT impossible—challenge.

And yet, many districts and schools are “violating” the long-standing research and practice in this area—in the name of ESEA/ESSA.

As but one example: A past Blog described my dealings with the Special Education Unit of the Arkansas Department of Education and its “reluctant” (but non-public) agreement with me (as part of a Due Process hearing) that the goals on a Standards-based IEP do not need to be written at the student’s age- or grade-level.

This Blog was subtitled, “How Departments of Education Use Language, Fear, and Ignorance to Get their Way.”

The “take-away” here is that the requirements of ESEA/ESSA are negatively impacting the IDEA rights of students with disabilities.

Relative to the Data (based on the 38th Annual Report to Congress on the Implementation of IDEA, 2016):

In 2014 (the most-recent data discussed in this Report):

  • There were 5,825,505 students with disabilities identified in the United States ages 6 through 21—an increase of over 91,000 students from the year before.
  • The most prevalent disability category of students ages 6 through 21 was Specific Learning Disabilities (39.2%), Speech or Language Impairments (17.6%), Other Health Impairments (14.4%), Autism (8.6%), Intellectual Disabilities (7.0%), and Emotional Disturbance (5.9%).
  • The percentages of students reported under the category of Specific Learning Disabilities by the individual states ranged from 18.7% to 60.4%. The percentages for the following three states were larger than 50%: Iowa (60.4%), BIE schools (52.3%), and Nevada (51.3%). In contrast, the percentages for the following seven states were less than 30%: Wisconsin (28.2%), Massachusetts (28.2%), Missouri (27.8%), Minnesota (26.9%), Idaho (26.1%), Mississippi (24.4%), and Kentucky (18.7%).
  •  More than 20% of the students served in the following five states were reported under the category of Other Health Impairments: Maine (21.5%), Virginia (21.5%), Connecticut (21.3%), Washington (20.5%), and Missouri (20.3%). In contrast, less than 9% of the students served in the following three states were reported in this category: BIE schools (8.6%), Colorado (4.5%), and Iowa (0.1%).
  • More than 11% of the students served in the following nine states were reported under the category of Autism: Minnesota (14.1%), California (11.7%), Connecticut (11.4%), Oregon (11.4%), Nevada (10.8%), Texas (10.7%), Virginia (10.7%), Maryland (10.5%), and Rhode Island (10.1%). However, less than 4% of the students served in the following four states were reported under this category: Montana (3.9%), BIE schools (3.0%), Puerto Rico (3.0%), and Iowa (1.1%).

Clearly, relative to the last three bullets above, there is a high probability that each of these states also has districts and schools that ALSO vary in the percentages of students with these different disabilities—just as the United States has (as above) significant variations in these areas across states.

The Recommended Resolution(s)

As an advocate for students with disabilities, I want to be clear that the goal here is to improve and enhance the quality and outcomes of services, supports, programs, and interventions. I do not believe that educators, parents with students with disabilities, or anyone else should “settle” for mediocre, diminished, or limited services.

In fact, if anything, the quality and success of such services under ESEA/NCLB was depressing and deplorable.

And so, given the discussion above and in the context of ESEA/ESSA giving state departments of education more self-determination in creating, personalizing, and implementing their own state-tailored accountability, “high stakes” assessment, and school improvement systems, here are my suggestions:

  • States should require districts and schools to differentiate and track all ESEA/ESSA outcomes (including academic achievement and proficiency) across the thirteen disability groups
  • Progress for students with disabilities should be evaluated using a growth model, and not using a “percent of proficiency” approach
  • The evaluation of expected growth for students with disabilities should vary by disability, the degree or significance of impairment, the intensity of services and supports needed, and other relevant criteria
  • District and schools should not be automatically put into “school improvement” status if the students with disabilities subgroup (if the state still decides to use this subgroup) is the only subgroup that is underperforming.

Instead, the district or school should collaborate with the state’s Special Education Division to mutually determine that their students with disabilities are receiving every opportunity to succeed, and that they are making appropriate levels of progress given the disability-related conditions of their students. If a district or school is not succeeding in this context, then the state department of education can require improvements under its ESEA/ESSA school improvement provisions.

  • If a state department of education requires a District and/or School Improvement/Strategic Plan each year, a specific section of that plan must address how the district and/or school will plan, resource, and address the academic and social, emotional, and behavioral needs of its different students with disabilities.
  • Within that Plan, states should require districts and schools to describe their ESEA/ESSA-required multi-tiered systems of support, and how their specific systems will directly serve and address the needs of their different students with disabilities.

To a large degree, the differentiation and reporting of data by the thirteen different disability categories will not increase the burden on any district as these data are already required by their state departments of education as part of their U.S. Office of Special Education Program Annual Performance Reports.

Instead, as argued above, it is anticipated that the differentiated attention to the different disability areas—and the ESEA/ESSA “relief” of not having to track and serve an impossibly complex and varied students with disabilities subgroup—should improve the quality and outcomes of services, supports, programs, and interventions to and with these students. . . making everyone “a winner.”


ESEA/ESSA not only requires, but it gives schools and districts the opportunity to review, revise, re-energize, and re-establish effective, responsive, and successful multi-tier system of supports that are personalized to all of their students, and that maximize their students’ academic and social, emotional, and behavioral learning, mastery, and proficiency.

Districts and schools (and states) need to make ESEA/ESSA worked for them, rather than have this law dictated to them.

I hope that you found this message useful. . . if not, at least, thought-provoking. As always, I appreciate your feedback and comments.

If there is anything that I can do to facilitate your work in this—and related—areas, please do not hesitate to contact me. I am always available for a free consultation—to help you think about how to bring your organization to the “next level of excellence.”