For over half a century, our nation has committed to closing achievement gaps by providing all students with equal access to high-quality education. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) was signed into law in 2015, reauthorizing the 50-year-old Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). The ESSA includes provisions to uphold “critical protections for America’s disadvantaged and high-need students,” including students with developmental and learning needs. Although many impassioned educators and administrators have done their best to push this issue to the forefront, the measurable progress in the last half-century towards closing the achievement gap for students with disabilities has been modest.

There are a variety of developmental and learning disabilities that can affect student achievement, including dyslexia, autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and ADHD. Some students with disabilities are able to excel in general education classrooms, while those with severe disabilities may best achieve their potential in special education classrooms. As we’ll see below, a one-size-fits-all approach is ineffective at closing the achievement gap for special education students. Let’s take a look at the achievement gap affecting students with disabilities and the role that individuals with a Master of Arts (MA) in Special Education play in closing the gap.

How Large Is the Achievement Gap?

In an article published in the academic journal Exceptional Children in 2018, researchers noted a significant achievement gap in American students in grades K-12. This meta-analysis of 23 studies found that on average, students with disabilities performed more than three years below their nondisabled peers. This achievement gap suggests that students with disabilities still have limited access to the instruction needed to succeed in school.

The researchers also explored why a reading gap still exists despite federal policies aimed at improving the reading skills of students with disabilities. Their meta-analysis concluded that accountability-based policies focused on reporting achievement gaps are not enough to strengthen academic outcomes. As the article states, “the goal of access to the general education curriculum for [students with disabilities] is commendable, but this access will only be achieved when special education is actually special, that is, individualized and intensive for the many who require it.”

Students With Disabilities are Unable to “Catch Up” Without Intervention

Once an achievement gap is present, it’s nearly impossible to overcome. One research study published by the American Psychological Association in 2016 looked at the reading comprehension growth trajectories of nearly 100,000 students in grades three through seven. The study found that “achievement gaps for [students with disabilities] changed very little across grades, and group rankings for the exceptionality groups also remained stable. After four years, none of the groups [of students with disabilities] had “caught up” with the students in [general education] in their reading comprehension achievement.”  Expecting all students to reach the same reading level ignores how serious and complex achievement gaps are by the third grade.

The study also notes that, by the third grade, there is already a significant achievement gap in reading comprehension that naturally and gradually increases over time. This is especially concerning because reading comprehension is so crucial for children’s development and is considered a critical outcome of early education. Without early, aggressive intervention, students with disabilities will continue to lag behind their nondisabled peers, which is why special education plays such a vital role in leveling the academic playing field.

Closing the Achievement Gap for Special Education Students

Implementing effective special education programs does not come without its own challenges, however. In an op-ed piece published by The Washington Post, former superintendent of the Arlington, Mass., school system Nathan Levenson writes that special education can sometimes hurt students if implemented poorly. He writes that students with special needs can be pulled out of core classes and not given the instructional time they need. Alternatively, they are sometimes placed in the care of paraprofessionals without the expertise or experience needed to assist them. As Levenson states, “Achievement of students with disabilities is low, the achievement gap is high, and despite heroic efforts by schools and teachers, the gap isn’t closing.” When students with developmental and learning disabilities are given access to a strong, adaptable curriculum and highly skilled teachers, particularly those who are capable of giving them individualized education, they learn more and the achievement gap closes.

Measuring the achievement gap between students with and without disabilities can help identify the problem. However, it’s important to take a holistic approach that considers the whole child in all of his or her complexity and not just look at a test score; otherwise, students in need of help may be left behind. There is perhaps no one in a better position to help these students than special education teachers. By intervening early, special education teachers can make a real difference in the lives of students with disabilities.

Enriching the Lives of Students

If you’re interested in closing the achievement gap for special needs students and working in the special education field as a special education teacher, educational diagnostician, or director of special education, you’ll first need to earn a master’s degree in special education. At The University of Texas Permian Basin, our online MA in special education program will empower you with the skills needed to enrich the lives of students with developmental and learning disabilities. In special education courses like Characteristics of ASD and Developmental Disorders, you will learn:

  • The characteristics of developmental disorders.
  • Procedures for identifying developmental disorders.
  • Appropriate intervention programs.

You don’t need a teaching certificate to apply for our program, and GRE requirements are waived for candidates with a 3.0 grade point average. Our program is affordable, 100% online, and can be completed in as few as 12 months, which means that in as little as one year, you could be entering the growing field of special education. UT Permian Basin also offers an MA in special education with an emphasis on autism for individuals interested in a career serving students on the autism spectrum.

Equipped with the lessons learned in UT Permian Basin’s online MA in special education program, you’ll be able to identify learning and developmental disorders and intervene before a student is left behind. There are few things in life more rewarding than playing an instrumental role in a child’s academic success. Before you lead your own class, enroll in ours and earn your master’s degree in special education.

Learn more about UT Permian Basin’s online MA in special education program.