NGSS Hub - Case Study 3

Case Study 3: Students With Disabilities and the Next Generation Science Standards


The percentage of students identified with disabilities in schools across the nation is currently around 13%. As a result of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), school districts are held accountable for the performance of students with disabilities on state assessments. Although students with disabilities are provided accommodations and modifications when assessed, as specified in their Individualized Education Plans (IEP), achievement gaps still occur between their science proficiency and the science proficiency of students without disabilities. The vignette below highlights effective strategies for students with disabilities: (1) multiple means of representation, (2) multiple means of action and expression, and (3) multiple means of engagement. These strategies support all students’ understanding of disciplinary core ideas, scientific and engineering practices, and crosscutting concepts as described by the Next Generation Science Standards.

Vignette: Using Models of Space Systems to Describe Patterns

While the vignette presents real classroom experiences of NGSS implementation with diverse student groups, some considerations should be kept in mind. First, for the purpose of illustration only, the vignette is focused on a limited number of performance expectations. It should not be viewed as showing all instruction necessary to prepare students to fully understand these performance expectations. Neither does it indicate that the performance expectations should be taught one at a time. Second, science instruction should take into account that student understanding builds over time and that some topics or ideas require extended revisiting through the course of a year. Performance expectations will be realized by utilizing coherent connections among disciplinary core ideas, scientific and engineering practices, and crosscutting concepts within the NGSS. Finally, the vignette is intended to illustrate specific contexts. It is not meant to imply that students fit solely into one demographic subgroup, but rather it is intended to illustrate practical strategies to engage all students in the NGSS.


There are five 6th grade classes at Maple Grove the only middle school in a small rural school district. Approximately 10% of the K-12 school population is receiving special education services. The school has about 480 students in grades 6-8. The district population consists of 1,320 students: 92.3% White, 3.6% Black, 2% Hispanic, 0.5% Asian, and 0.3% Native American; 34% come from a low socioeconomic status.

The incidence rates of identified special education students in the district are highest in the categories of specific learning disabilities (2.4%) and other health impairments including ADD/ADHD (2.7%). In addition, 1.1% of students are in the category of “speech impaired,” 1.4% “language impaired,” 0.8% “intellectual disabilities,” and 0.8% “autism.”

There are special education students in each of the 6th grade classes, with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) that specify the accommodations and modifications when participating in the regular education classroom. Mr. O. thinks about potential barriers that any of his students, including those with special needs, may have to the planned instruction. Then he adjusts instruction to overcome those barriers. Often, changing an approach to accommodate barriers makes instruction more effective for all students. The students with disabilities, along with their regular education peers, receive science instruction from the science teacher five days a week for 50 minutes each day. Most of the identified students receive instruction in reading/language arts and mathematics in a co-teaching model. Some students receive additional pullout services in those content areas or in social skills.

In the lesson sequence in this vignette, Mr. O. uses multiple means of representations for moon phases – Stellarium (planetarium software), Styrofoam balls, a lamp, golf balls, and foldables (three-dimensional interactive graphic representations developed by Zikes). Mr. O. provides additional practice for students who may need it, such as placing cards with moon phases in chronological order and then identifying each phase. He plans modified assignments for students with intellectual disabilities as mandated by their IEPs. In addition, strategic grouping of students provides support for struggling students, including special education students. Throughout the vignette, classroom strategies that are effective for all students, particularly for students with disabilities according to the research literature, are highlighted in parentheses.

Special Education Connections

Jeanette and Nicole have intellectual disabilities; they have a paraprofessional who accompanies them to selected regular education classrooms, providing instructional support. Nicole is identified with socio-emotional disability and receives special education services for both language arts and mathematics. Kevin is diagnosed with autism, exhibits difficulties in social skills, and is high functioning cognitively. Hillary and Brady have specific learning disabilities and receive special education services for both language arts and mathematics. Jeff is also identified with specific learning disabilities and receives services for language arts; his math skills are advanced for his grade level. All of these students are part of the diverse community of learners working toward scientific understanding of the earth-moon-sun relationship, as described in this vignette.

Exploring the Earth-Moon-Sun Relationship

Mr. O. initiated the unit by asking students to open their notebooks, write the numbers 1-8 down the next blank page, and title it “Relative Diameters?” On the interactive whiteboard, he projected a slide from a multi-media presentation Two Astronomy Games that showed nine images each identified by a letter and a label (Morrow, 2004). The images were the sun, Earth, a space shuttle, the moon, the solar system, Mars, a galaxy, and Jupiter. Students were asked to number the objects in order from smallest (number 1) to largest (number 8) and from nearest to the surface of the Earth to farthest from the surface of the Earth. He planned to have students come back to this page later. Kevin seemed pleased and announced, “I love to study space!”

With a standard-sized playground ball in hand, Mr. O. asked the class to imagine the ball was Earth and he wrote down the class’ consensus of the ball’s dimensions that they had figured out in math class. Then he presented the class with a box of seven balls in a variety of sizes and listed their dimensions on the interactive white board. He asked: “If Earth was the size of this playground ball, which of these balls would be the size of the moon?” One student (from each table) came up and chose the ball they thought would be correct. Their choices varied from a softball to a small marble. Before going further, the class reviewed the term diameter and Mr. O. asked, “If you know that Earth’s diameter is 12,756 kilometers and the moon’s diameter is 3,476 kilometers, with your table groups, come up with a method to see if the ball you chose is the right size for this size Earth (holding up the playground ball).” (Practice: Using Mathematics and Computational Thinking.) (CCC: Scale, Proportion, and Quantity.)

After some discussion time, students reported their calculations. One group noticed that there was a proportional relationship in the diameters of approximately 1:4, Earth to moon. A student asked how they made that determination. Jeff responded, “If you estimate using 12,000 and 3,000, three goes into twelve four times.” He showed on the interactive whiteboard how four circles of a moon model fit across the diameter of an Earth model. Mr. O. said, “Now look at your ball as a moon model and decide if you think it is the correct size. What can you do to be sure? Decide on a process.” He let them use the playground ball as needed. (DCI: MS-ESS1.A: Earth’s Place in the Universe.)

Each group reported their findings and methods for determining whether or not their choice would be correct. One group made lines on paper where the endpoint of their ball was and did the same for the playground ball. Using those measurements and the 1:4 ratio, they decided if their moon was the correct size. Another group used string to measure the diameter of the balls and then determined whether or not it was correct. Still another group held their ball up against the playground ball and moved their ball four times while marking the playground ball with a finger to see if their ball was the correct size for the model of Earth.

The groups reported their findings. Kevin was agitated as he explained, “I told my group they were not right. The racquetball is the only one that is possible as the moon, but they wouldn’t believe me.” Mr. O. asked Kevin to restate the rule for when his group disagrees. Kevin thought and said, “When my group disagrees, I listen and then tell them what I think.”

Only those groups with the racquetball had the correct size for the playground ball. Two of the students from one of those tables came up and showed how far they thought the moon would be from Earth using the playground ball and racquetball model. Several students disagreed with the distance shown by the students. Four students came to the front, one by one, and showed their ideas about the distance between Earth and the moon. Then Mr. O. showed them the actual distance from Earth to the moon and the circumference of Earth in kilometers. He asked them again to use the new evidence to determine how to figure out the distance in the model and to show it using string. Students were shocked at the distance the moon was from Earth in this model. Their estimates had been much lower.

As the class finished presenting their arguments for the correct size balls for the sun and Earth, students considered the relative size of the sun and the distance of the sun from Earth in the model. They used the evidence of the diameter of the sun and its distance from Earth in the same way they determined the size and distance of the moon from Earth. Some students were surprised at the size of the sun and its distance from Earth in this model. Jeff decided that they could not fit the sun in the room. He explained that it would take over 100 playground balls to approximate the sun’s diameter. Jeff was eager to share his mathematical skill at finding the answer: “I know the answer! It would take almost 12,000 playground balls lined up to show how far away the sun would be in this model.” Two students nonchalantly said, “That’s a lot” and “The sun is very far away from Earth.” (CCC: Scale, Proportion, and Quantity.)

The students returned to their initial ideas on the “Relative Diameters” page in their notebooks, renumber the objects, and write any ideas that had changed after making the model. After giving students time to record their responses, Mr. O. showed images of the items on the interactive white board and led a discussion of the great distances between objects in the solar system in preparation for modeling the moon’s phases. (DCI: MS-ESS1.B: Earth’s Place in the Universe.)

For this lesson sequence, Mr. O. considered the make-up of the table groupings of students. He wanted the special education and other struggling students to have support while determining methods to check their choice of the moon model, so he grouped students with that concern in mind. He used physical representations of Earth and the moon and had students represent the distance physically, thereby assisting them in visualization and comprehension. (The strategy of providing multiple means of representation was important to support understanding for his special education students, but it also benefited all of his students.)

Exploring Moon Phases

Mr. O. showed how the moon’s and Earth’s orbital planes are offset by 5 degrees in an effort to help students understand how light can illuminate the moon when it is on the other side of Earth without being blocked by Earth’s shadow. Throughout this instruction the special education students were strategically placed at tables in groups that would support their engagement in the content and activity.

Mr. O. downloaded an open source planetarium software onto his interactive whiteboard-connected computer as well as onto the 14 student computers he had in his classroom. On the first day of moon phase instruction, each student received a one-page moon calendar similar to the one they took home. The students who had completed the calendar kept it out to compare their observations to the data collected using the software. Mr. O. launched the program on the interactive whiteboard, introduced the students to the software, and showed them how to change the date and set up the scale moon so they could see the phases.

Recording began on the first Sunday on the calendar and ended on the last Saturday, resulting in five weeks of data to analyze. (Practice: Analyzing and Interpreting Data.) Mr. O. modeled how to record the data on the whiteboard next to the interactive whiteboard. Students recorded the time and direction of moon rise and moon set as well as the apparent shape of the moon in the sky for each date. To make sure that students understood the process and were recording accurately, he walked through the room and checked student work throughout the lesson. Also during this modeling process, the students paid attention to the sun-moon relationship so they could see the light from the sun traveling in a straight line to the moon. The moon was in the sky as the sun was rising, and they focused on the moon so that they could use the model for predictions. Mr. O. asked, “Does anyone know where the sun is right now?” Brady responded, “It’s more to the east and still rising.” Using the time and date function in the program, he advanced the time to show the sun rise and said, “Look at the sun and moon. What pattern do you notice about the light on the moon in relation to the sun?” (CCC: Patterns.) Hillary answered, “It is going from the sun to the moon.” Mr. O. responded, “Hmm. The light travels in a straight path from the sun to the moon. You have already learned that light travels in a straight line. Can we use that information to predict the position of the sun even if we can’t see it? Let’s try as we continue.”

After a few days of data were collected, Mr. O. asked students to predict the time and direction for moonrise and moonset and brought their attention to the patterns in the data. He asked, “What time do you think the moon will set on this day? The last time was 12:09.” Mark said, “I think 12:59.” Mr. O. advanced the time until the moon set – at 13:08. Jeff called out, “So it is setting about an hour later each time.” A student said, “So let’s see if that pattern continues the whole month.” Once the students had a foundation for data collection (about eight to ten days), they went to the computers in partners so they could work more independently to complete the data collection on the calendar.

Mr. O. wanted some control over the assignment of partners to provide support for students who needed it and to challenge more advanced students, so he predetermined the partners and assigned them before sending them to the computers. Jeanette and Nicole worked with their paraprofessional. As a modification to recording the data, they were given a calendar with a set of moon phase images. As they worked with the paraprofessional, Jeanette said, “When do we write the answer?” Nicole answered, “You have to wait and look at Stellarium and glue the picture.” The paraprofessional redirected Nicole and made sure that the directions were understood: match the image to the one on Stellarium and glue it on the calendar for each day. They did not record the moonrise and moonset times. Hillary, Jeff and Brady were each paired with a partner whose skills were a little higher than their own, allowing them to receive some support from the partner. Kevin was paired with someone at the same ability level who would be patient with his unique social skills. Kevin enthusiastically stated, “I love science and I love to learn about space.”

While students worked at the computers to complete the calendar, Mr. O. took aside small groups of students to do an activity in which they modeled moon phases using Styrofoam balls, their heads, and a lamp with a bare bulb. Students stood in a circle around the lamp representing the sun, holding a Styrofoam ball on a stick representing the moon. They held the ball at arm’s length and rotated their bodies using their heads as a representation of Earth so they could see the earth view of the moon in all its phases in the lit portion of the ball. The students went through the phases, naming each one and making sure that all students could see the lit portion on the Styrofoam balls for each phase.

Jeanette kept turning the wrong way as she looked at the student across from her. “Is this the way?” she asked, as Mr. O. gently helped direct her turn. Nicole was focused on the computer groups, so Mr. O. directed Nicole to look at the Styrofoam ball and the changing shadow. “What? I don’t see the shadow.” Mr. O. pointed out the curve of light on the moon. “I see it!” Nicole said.

Small groups allowed Mr. O to make sure that all students were able to accurately illustrate the phases in the model, giving him the opportunity to physically move them into position as necessary. In addition, he kept students from the first group who he felt might need more time with the model in the second group for more practice if needed.

The students collaborated to explain how the model of the moon phases illustrated changes in the apparent shape of the moon. They discussed limitations of the models – the things that a model is unable to show accurately. The students identified the relative sizes of the sun, Earth, and moon as well as the relative distances between each as being inaccurate in this model. (Practice: Developing and Using Models.)

To finish the class period, all students were at the computers working with Stellarium and their calendars. Mr. O. walked around the room assisting students with their data collection. Jeanette called Mr. O. over and quietly said, “I lost the moon and can’t find it.” He showed her how to search for it using the “find” function. Many of the students had changed the dates, so he stopped the class to note, “Many of you have found that this program shows future dates.” To reinforce the language Mr. O. had used on many occasions throughout the unit, he asked, “What does that tell us about the planets and the moon? They all move…” and students responded, “…in predictable patterns.”

Over the next two days while students continued working on their calendar with Stellarium, Mr. O. again pulled small groups of students to use another model showing moon phases. (Practice: Developing and Using Models.) This one used golf balls that were painted black on half of the sphere, leaving the other half showing the side of the moon lit by the sun (Young & Guy 2008). The golf balls were drilled and mounted on tees so they would stand up on a surface. Mr. O. had two sets – one set up on a table that showed the moon in orbit around the earth in eight phase positions as the “space view” model (Figure 1), and the other with the model moons set on eight chairs circled in the eight phase positions to show the “earth view” model (Figure 2).

First, students were shown the space view model and asked what they noticed about the moons. Mr. O. wanted them to notice that the white sides of all the balls (showing light) faced the same direction. He asked them to identify the direction of the sun. Nicole was looking toward the window, and Mr. O. asked her, “Nicole, where is the sun in our model here in the classroom?” Nicole looked around and responded, “Over here, I think, because that’s where the lit up sides are facing.” Then Mr. O. drew the students’ attention to the model on the chairs, the earth view model. All the balls in this model faced the same direction as those in the space view model. Students again identified the direction of the sun and noted that the position of the moons in both models was the same. (DCI. MS-ESS1.A: Earth’s Place in the Universe.) One at a time, students physically got into the center of the circle of chairs and viewed the phases at eye level, which simulated the earth view of each phase. (Providing multiple means of action and expression is one of three principles of Universal Design for Learning.)

Each of the special education students was put in a different small group, with the exception of Jeanette and Nicole who were in the same small group. Their turn inside the circle was last, giving them the opportunity to observe, listen, and practice while verbalizing the phases and location of the sun within the system. This activity made the diagram, often found in books and worksheets showing both views on the same diagram, less confusing to the students.

Although most students were not finished with the calendar, Mr. O. brought all students together the next day to create a foldable showing the earth view of the moon phases similar to diagrams found in books. Students created their moon phases using eight black circles and four white circles, cutting the white circles to make two crescent moons, two gibbous moons and two quarter moons. The white circle pieces were placed on the black circles to create the phases, and later glued on the foldable. Jeanette was unsure of the placement of the pieces. “Where does this one go?” Jeanette asked referring to the gibbous moons which were incorrectly placed. “Look at mine. I’m right,” said Nicole who also had confused the two phases. As he walked around the room checking student work, Mr. O. gently pointed out the lit side of the moon and asked which phase that represented. Inside the foldable, students drew a large circle to represent the moon. (Providing multiple means of representation is one of the three principles of Universal Design for Learning.)

They partnered to read The Moon by Seymour Simon (2003). Students used the information in the book to label the moon phases on their foldable, write about the moon’s surface, and record any new questions that arose from their reading. Kevin asked, “When is the next solar and lunar eclipse?” Jeanette questioned, “What samples were brought back from the moon?” And Nicole wanted to know, “Where did Americans land on the moon?”

To support their reading of the text, Hillary, Brady and Jeff were given the option of being paired with students who had more advanced reading skills or using Mr. O.’s recordings made on handheld computers. Jeanette and Nicole had the support of their paraprofessional in reading and obtaining information from the text. Mr. O. asked Kevin, “What would you prefer?” He answered, “Oh, I think this time I want to read by myself because I love space and want to find out more about the moon.” As students finished their reading and writing, they went back to finish their calendars using the software.

Students finished the calendar at different rates. When finished, they checked their work against the calendar that Mr. O. had completed. Since several pairs finished at the same time, he grouped the pairs to discuss the patterns they noticed in their calendars. He gave them a list of questions to guide their discussion and asked them to conference with him when they were finished. (Providing multiple means of engagement is one of the three principles of Universal Design for Learning.) He expected all students to observe that the lit segment of the moon’s face increased, decreased, and increased again relative to the part in shadow. He also expected students to notice that the lit side of the moon was on the left after the full moon phase, and on the right after the new moon phase, as viewed from Earth. Students who finished with all tasks were allowed to use text materials and Internet resources to research answers to the questions they developed when reading The Moon, while the rest of the students completed their calendars.

Assessing Student Learning

Throughout the lesson sequence, Mr. O. continually assessed students’ progression through observations and conferences. If he noticed students needed more experience with moon phases, he provided them with additional activities such as videos and moon phase cards. In one formal assessment of understanding, Mr. O. paired students together so that one was assigned to be the earth and the other the moon. He designated one wall of the classroom as the sun and then asked the moons to show different phases. The students switched roles so that Mr. O. could assess everyone. He also used this model to demonstrate the moon’s coincident rotation and revolution. In another formal assessment, he asked students to draw a model on whiteboards showing the relationship of the earth, moon, and sun in full moon phase.

NGSS Connections

NGSS requires that students engage in science and engineering practices to develop deeper understanding of the disciplinary core ideas and crosscutting concepts. This presents both challenges and opportunities to special education students, since a broad range of disabilities impacts their science learning. This vignette highlights examples of strategies that support all students while engaging in science practices and in rigorous content. The lessons give students varied exposure to the core ideas in space science, helping to prepare all students to demonstrate mastery of the three components described in the NGSS performance expectation.

Performance Expectations

MS-ESS1-1 Earth’s Place in the Universe

Develop and use a model of the Earth-sun-moon system to predict and describe the cyclic patterns of lunar phases, eclipses of the sun and moon, and seasons.

MS-ESS1-3 Earth’s Place in the Universe

Analyze and interpret data to determine scale properties of objects in the solar system.

Disciplinary Core Ideas

ESS1.A The Universe and Its Stars

Patterns of the apparent motion of the sun, the moon, and stars in the sky can be observed, described, predicted, and explained with models.

ESS1.B Earth and the Solar System

The solar system consists of the sun and a collection of objects, including planets, their moons, and asteroids that are held in orbit around the sun by its gravitational pull on them. This model of the solar system can explain tides and eclipses of the sun and the moon.

Science and Engineering Practices

Developing and Using Models

Develop and use a model to describe phenomena.

Analyzing and Interpreting Data

Analyze and interpret data to determine similarities and differences in findings.

Students were engaged in a number of science practices with a focus on developing and using models and analyzing and interpreting data. Space science lends itself well to the use of models to describe patterns in phenomena and to construct explanations based on evidence. With guidance from their teacher, students used the ratios of the diameters of Earth and its moon to construct a class model of the relative sizes of the two objects. Using distance and Earth’s diameter or circumference ratios, they also constructed a distance model of those objects. In addition, the relative size of the sun and the relative distance from Earth in this model was calculated and described, although not constructed (due to the constraints of the room and location). Throughout the vignette, a variety of models were used to help students identify patterns in the relative positions of the earth, moon and sun, and to explain moon phases.

Crosscutting Concepts


Patterns can be used to identify cause-and-effect relationships

Scale, Proportion, and Quantity

Time, space, and energy phenomena can be observed at various scales using models to study systems that are too large or too small.

Students made predictions about the data collected and recorded them on the calendar, using the lens of the crosscutting concept of patterns. When analyzing and interpreting the data, they identified the patterns in the earth-moon-sun relationship. The pattern made by the lit portion of the moon was observed and recorded. In addition, students considered the crosscutting concept of scale, proportion, and quantity as they constructed models of relative sizes and distance of the sun and planets.

CCSS Connections to English Language Arts and Mathematics

Students used the text in The Moon Book to label each phase of the moon and summarize information about the surface of the moon in their graphic organizer foldable. This connects to the CCSS for ELA Grade 6 Reading Informational Text RI.6.7.
  • RI.6.7 Integrate information presented in different media or formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively) as well as in words to develop a coherent understanding of a topic or issue.
When comparing sizes and distances, students were challenged to find ways of comparing numbers and apply the CCSS for math MP.1. In addition, students calculated the quotients in the ratios, using estimation and rounding skills developed in earlier grades and again to meet standard 6.RP.1 in 6th grade. Throughout the unit, students reasoned quantitatively as they compared the sizes of the earth and moon, standard MP.2. As students made conclusions about which ball was the moon, they argued for their selection and agreed or disagreed with each other using their calculation, standard MP.3:
  • MP.1 Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them.
  • 6.RP.1 Understand the concept of a ratio and use ratio language to describe a ratio relationship between two quantities.
  • MP.2 Reason abstractly and quantitatively.
  • MP.3 Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others.

Effective Strategies From Research Literature

Students with disabilities have IEPs, specific to the individuals, that mandate the accommodations and modifications that teachers must provide to support their learning in the regular education classroom. By definition, accommodations allow students to overcome or work around their disabilities with the same performance expectations of their peers, whereas modifications generally change the curriculum or performance expectations for a specific student (National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities, n.d.). Special education teachers can be consulted to provide guidance for making accommodations and modifications in order to help students with IEPs succeed with the NGSS.

Two approaches of providing accommodations and modifications are widely used by general education teachers in their classrooms. Differentiated instruction is a model in which teachers plan flexible approaches to instruction in the following areas: content, process, product, affect, and learning environment (Institutes on Academic Diversity, 2009-2012). This vignette highlights Universal Design for Learning as a framework with a set of principles for curriculum development that provides equal access to all learners in the classroom (CAST, Inc., 2012). The framework supplies a set of guidelines for teachers to use in curriculum planning that is organized around three principles: (1) to provide multiple means of representation, (2) to present multiple means of action and expression, and (3) to encourage multiple means of engagement. Teachers identify barriers that their students may have to learning and then use the framework to provide flexible approaches of instruction. While both differentiated instruction and Universal Design for Learning benefit students with disabilities, they also benefit all students.



The number of children and youth aged 3-21 receiving special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) rose from 4.1 million in 1980 (10% of student enrollment) to 6.7 million in 2005 (14% of student enrollment) (National Center for Education Statistics, 2011). By 2009, that number had decreased to 6.5 million (13% of student enrollment). Special education services under IDEA are provided for eligible children and youth who are identified by a team of professionals as having a disability that adversely affects academic performance.

Students with disabilities are also protected under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which covers all persons with a disability from discrimination in educational settings based solely on their disability. Section 504 requires a documented plan in which a school provides reasonable accommodations, modifications, supports, and auxiliary aides to enable students to participate in the general curriculum, although it does not require students to have an IEP.

Since the implementation of Public Law 94-142 enacted in 1975, there has been concern about disproportionate representation of racial and ethnic minorities, economically disadvantaged students, and English language learners in special education programs (Donovan, 2002; U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, 2009). While there continues to be a disproportionate number (both overrepresentation and underrepresentation) of different populations of students identified in special education within general and specific disability categories, determining the factors that affect this inequality is difficult and complex.

Science Achievement

On the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in science, the gap in 12th grade scores between students with disabilities and students with no disabilities has persisted at 38 points in 1996, 39 points in 2000, and 37 points in 2005. The 8th grade gap has continually decreased from 38 points in 1996, to 34 points in 2000, and to 32 points in 2005. The 4th grade gap increased from 24 points in 1996 to 29 points in 2000 before it finally decreased to 20 points in 2005. The results indicate two important points. First, while achievement gaps persisted across the three grade levels, patterns of increase or decrease were inconsistent at each grade level. Second, achievement gaps were wider as students advanced to higher grade levels.

In 2009, the NAEP science achievement gaps between students with disabilities (including those with 504 plans) and students with no disabilities were 32 points at 12th grade, 30 points at 8th grade, and 24 points at 4th grade. This confirms that achievement gaps were wider as students advanced to higher grade levels, consistent with results in 1996, 2000, and 2005 described above.

The NAEP did not allow accommodations for students with disabilities prior to 1996. In 1996, some schools were allowed to use accommodations for students with disabilities while others were not allowed to assess the impact on NAEP results. In a continuing effort to be more inclusive, guidelines were developed that specified that students with disabilities should be included in the NAEP assessment. Despite attempts to standardize the inclusion process, exclusion rates vary across states (Stancavage, Makris, & Rice, 2007).

Thus, all students with disabilities are not included in the NAEP science assessment, making it difficult to identify accurate achievement gaps between students with disabilities and their peers. In addition, the data are not disaggregated according to disability category, further complicating the process to identify specific achievement gaps. The National Assessment Governing Board recommended that NAEP should report separately on students with IEPs and those with 504 plans and should count only students with IEPs as students with disabilities. Prior to 2009, NAEP’s “students with disabilities” category included both students with IEPs and students with 504 plans. In 2009, although students with 504 plans received accommodations according to their plans, their scores were reported in the category of students without disabilities.

Educational Policy

Enacted in 1975, Public Law 94-142 (P.L. 94-142), Education for All Handicapped Children Act mandated the provision of a free and appropriate public school education in the least restrictive environment for children and youth ages 3–21 with disabilities. Public schools were required to develop an IEP with parental input that would be as close as possible to a non-handicapped student’s educational experience. The IEP specifies the types and frequencies of services to be provided to the student, including speech-language; psychological, physical and occupational therapy; and counseling services. It specifies the accommodations and modifications that are to be provided for the student in curriculum, instruction, and assessment. The IEP also described the student’s present levels of academic performance and the impact of disabilities on performance.

Students with disabilities are also protected under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. While special education services under IDEA [IDEA is described in more detail in the following paragraph] are provided for eligible children and youth who are identified by a team of professionals as having a disability that adversely affects academic performance, Section 504 covers all persons with a disability from discrimination in educational settings based solely on their disability. Section 504 does not require an IEP, but does require a documented plan in which the school provides reasonable accommodations, modifications, supports, and auxiliary aides to enable the student to participate within the general curriculum.

In 1990, Public Law 94-142 was revised and renamed Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The most recent revision and reauthorization was completed in 2004 with implementation in 2006. One notable change is the requirement that state-adopted criteria to identify students who have Specific Learning Disabilities (SLD) must not require a severe discrepancy between intellectual ability and achievement; must permit the use of a process based on the child’s response to scientific, research-based intervention; and may permit the use of other alternative research-based procedures.

SLD, as a category, has the largest number of identified students and is defined by IDEA in the following way:

The term “specific learning disability” means a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, which disorder may manifest itself in the imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do mathematical calculations… Such term includes such conditions as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia… Such term does not include a learning problem that is primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor disabilities, of mental retardation, of emotional disturbance, or of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage. (TITLE I / A / 602 / 30)

Under ESEA regulations, students with disabilities are monitored for Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) in the content areas of language arts and mathematics, with increased accountability expected as special education services continue. (ESEA Title 1, Part A, Subpart 1. Sect Data on students’ science progress are also collected and reported once at the elementary school level, middle school level, and high school level. In 2007, final regulations under ESEA and IDEA were released to allow more flexibility to states in measuring the achievement of students with disabilities (34 C.F.R. Part 200) (U.S. Department of Education, 2007).

The U.S. Office of Special Education created the IDEA Partnership to promote collaboration among the many national and state agencies and stakeholders dedicated to improving outcomes for students with disabilities. In response to the growing concern about increasing numbers of students identified with learning disabilities, there has been a call for identifying students at risk and implementing scientific, research-based intervention. The response to intervention (RTI) model is an effort to improve early intervention for students while improving learning outcomes and reducing the number of students identified as learning disabled.


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