The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion We need more urgency in helping D.C. students with disabilities

A classroom scene at DC Bilingual School.
A classroom scene at DC Bilingual school. (Ann-Marie VanTassell/Courtesy of DC Bilingual)
5 min

Julie Camerata is executive director of the DC Special Education Cooperative.

The headlines and calls to action following the dramatic drop in test scores for D.C. students during the pandemic were clear: The city needs to do more to help students, especially Black and at-risk students, catch up to where they were before the coronavirus shuttered school buildings in 2020.

But one population has been largely absent in the discussions: students with disabilities.

Nearly 1 in 5 students in D.C. Public Schools and public charter schools have disabilities — about 16,000 children in total. Even as outcomes have improved for most groups of students, the achievement gap for students with disabilities was enormous and growing even before the pandemic. The small progress students with disabilities made couldn’t keep up with the gains students without disabilities scored.

That gap remains vast in the most recent test scores on the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers exam, or PARCC, the citywide assessment used to measure progress for all students. Just 8 percent of students with disabilities performed at grade level in English language arts; only 6 percent did so in math. Those numbers are largely level with how students performed in 2019, the last time the exam was given, mostly because the student scores were already so low. This data is also inextricably linked to race in D.C., because Black girls and boys are two times more likely to be identified as having disabilities than their White counterparts.

Yet research tells us that up to 90 percent of students with disabilities nationally have the ability to perform at grade level when provided with high-quality instruction, supports and needed accommodations. The question is simple: Why aren’t we doing just that for our students with disabilities in D.C.?

The Post’s editorial board and elected officials alike say this new test data must be used to point the way to what’s working for D.C. students while finding innovative, research-based solutions to replace what isn’t serving all students well. We couldn’t agree more. It’s long past time that we step up for all students, including students with disabilities, to prioritize creating the systems and services needed to meet the needs of every learner.

D.C. State Board of Education President Jessica Sutter noted that even though schools responded urgently to ensure their diverse student populations had the resources they needed to learn from home during the pandemic, the vast majority of our students have returned to classrooms with a pre-pandemic approach to teaching and learning.

We know that D.C.’s system for serving students with disabilities can be overwhelmingly fragmented and difficult to navigate for many families. The system is designed for compliance rather than effectiveness and creativity. To put it plainly: What’s required by law should be the floor, not the ceiling, for how our schools serve students.

Thankfully, there are bright spots that could serve as models for how to truly rethink teaching and learning for these students. In general, students with disabilities attending the city’s charter schools have worse outcomes than their peers at the more traditional D.C. Public Schools, scoring three points lower in both math and English language arts. Still, the innovations piloted at some of the city’s high-performing charter schools could give us some clues as to how we can help improve outcomes for students with disabilities.

Take for example DC Bilingual Public Charter School, where administrators changed the school schedule to include “learning labs” where students get individualized attention based on their academic needs. The work has paid off: The school’s students with disabilities scored 11 points higher than their peers in other schools.

At Paul Public Charter School, every student receives a customized learning plan similar to the individualized educational plans, or IEPs, that students with disabilities get under federal law. This kind of approach ensures all students get the specialized instruction — as well as the wraparound services and support — needed to be successful.

Special-education teachers at Paul also have instructional coaches just as math and reading teachers do, which means they receive consistent professional development and feedback for improving their craft. This kind of focus on constant improvement means that the most vulnerable students get the most effective teachers possible.

Langdon Elementary School, recently named a Bold Performance School for serving priority students, including students with disabilities, focuses on what research shows works: prioritizing effective co-teaching between special-education and non-special-education teachers steeped in keeping students with disabilities in the classroom with their peers to get constant access to grade-level, rigorous content.

Our city is a leader in education innovation, with a school district that has been among the fastest-improving in the country and a robust charter school sector that serves nearly half of D.C.’s public school students. It’s time to build on these successes and prioritize students with disabilities. Only then can we truly be a national leader in education.