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Colorado students with disabilities continue to struggle on PARCC tests

A sixth-grader in Sheridan takes part in a PARCC practice session in March 2015. Craig F. Walker/Denver Post

Three years into Colorado’s move to more challenging tests aligned with the state’s academic standards, the gaps separating the scores of students with and without disabilities remain wide, especially in English language arts.

The majority of Colorado students are not meeting the state’s expectations on the tests. But the results for students with disabilities — a broad category that covers many kinds of disabilities — are particularly low.

The gaps tell that story: On last spring’s English tests, just 6.9 percent of students with disabilities met or exceeded the state’s expectations, compared with 46.2 percent of the rest of the test-taking population. That is bigger gap than when students first took the PARCC math and English tests in 2015. To be precise, the gap grew 2.4 percentage points.

That gulf in English results is one of the largest achievement disparities in the state.

Math scores are lower across the board for Colorado students, and the gap separating students with disabilities from those without shrunk slightly this year — from 29.5 percentage points to 29.2 — after growing by about 2 points in 2016.

Students with learning disabilities have historically underperformed compared with the general student population on standardized tests. But experts say that with the right help, they should be just as likely to score well on standardized tests as students without disabilities.

A relatively small number of students have cognitive disabilities such as autism and Down syndrome. The majority of students with disabilities have speech impediments, attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder and emotional disabilities, experts say.

Toby King, interim director of the state’s special education office, said narrowing the gaps will be crucial in the coming years.

Paying attention to the individual needs of students with disabilities is key, King said. He cautioned educators against lumping students with disabilities together, as not every kid experiences the same barriers to learning.

“In a lot of cases these kids with disabilities, though they may look one way on a state assessment sometimes they look quite different when you look at the local assessments,” King said.

The gaps for students with disabilities are playing out at the local level, too. In Denver Public Schools, the gaps on the English test are nearly 75 percentage points at some schools. On math, the gap tops out at 54 percentage points.

Diane Smith, director of special education for DPS, said that many teachers don’t expect students with learning disabilities to succeed, and that those low expectations show up in test scores.

Smith said providing more supportive classroom environments is the most significant step that can help students with disabilities improve academically.

“We want to be sure teachers have high enough expectations,” Smith said. “Sometimes when a child is labeled in a way, teachers make assumptions that students can’t do more, and they often can.”

Smith said DPS recently restructured its special education department in an effort to lift student achievement, creating a couple of new positions — a math specialist and literacy specialist to help train teachers and help them with instruction.

King, of the state, said districts must be responsible for addressing these instructional deficiencies.

“There’s gotta be a more intentional focus on instruction for all kids, but particularly these kids who learn differently or who respond differently,” he said. “These gaps, though pretty significant and persisting over time, are really indicative of a need to do something a little bit differently at the local district level.”

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