Endrew (or Drew), a young boy with autism, received special education services in Douglas County, Colorado. After watching Drew’s progress stall in fourth grade, his parents became concerned with the plan the school used to address Drew’s needs. When the school returned with essentially the same plan the following year, Drew’s parents rejected the plan, enrolled Drew in a private school, and sought reimbursement from the school district for the tuition. In considering this case, the courts weighed a critical question: How much progress is required under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)? After the lower courts ruled in favor of the school district, highlighting that Drew had satisfied the “minimal progress” requirement, known as “merely more than de minimis,” the Supreme Court decided to hear the case.

In its ruling on Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, just over a year ago, the Supreme Court unanimously rejected the “merely more than de minimis” standard for determining whether students with disabilities are making sufficient progress in school. This standard had permitted schools to be considered as meeting their obligations under IDEA even if a student was making only the smallest advances from year to year. In the opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts called out this standard: “a student offered an educational program providing ‘merely more than de minimis’ progress from year to year can hardly be said to have been offered an education at all… The IDEA demands more.” Chief Justice Roberts explicitly noted that “every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives.” Although the Court did not specify a particular standard, it clearly raised the bar for demonstrating compliance with IDEA.

Under IDEA, students with disabilities are entitled to a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment (LRE), meaning that, to the “maximum extent appropriate,” students are educated in classes with non-disabled peers. The entitlement to FAPE is guaranteed through an Individualized Education Program (IEP) requirement, in which a plan must be made for each student with a disability, outlining the special education and related services that each student needs to access in order to make progress in the general education curriculum. For students with a disability like dyslexia, special education may mean intensive reading interventions with a specialist along with accommodations like text-to-speech software in the general education classroom. For a student like Drew, special education may include the development of a behavior intervention plan which identifies Drew’s most concerning behaviors along with explicit strategies to address them, as did the private school which he later attended.

Prior to the Supreme Court ruling in Endrew F., disability advocates, parent advocates, the National Education Association, and members of Congress wrote the Court in favor of rejecting the low standard. When the ruling came down, those advocates and many more across the country celebrated.

Yet, with the recently released National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) scores, it is evident that the country has a long way to go before achieving in practice what the Endrew F. decision accomplished in spirit.

On the 2017 NAEP, nationally, students with disabilities lagged thirty-two points behind their non-disabled peers in fourth grade math and forty-three points behind in fourth grade reading. The eighth grade assessments showed equally large gaps, with students with disabilities scoring forty-four points behind in math and forty-two points behind in reading. Fourteen states have gaps of fifty points or greater on the fourth grade reading assessment and eleven states have gaps of fifty points or greater on the eighth grade math assessment.

Figures 1-4. Gap in average scale scores for grades 4-8, mathematics and reading, between students identified with disabilities and not identified with disabilities
Gap in Average NAEP Grade 4 Mathematics Scores
Gap in Average NAEP Grade 4 Reading Scores
Gap in Average NAEP Grade 8 Math Scores
Gap in Average NAEP Grade 8 Reading Scores
IEP2009 NOTE: The category “students with disabilities” includes students identified as having an Individualized Education Program (IEP) but excludes those identified under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
Note: Some apparent differences between estimates may not be statistically significant.
Source: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 2017 Reading Assessment. Full test scores can be downloaded here.

The overall low performance of students with disabilities who are also students of color, students with disabilities from low-income families, and students with disabilities who are also English learners is also alarming. For instance, on the fourth grade reading assessment, African American students with disabilities scored forty-four points below African American students without disabilities and sixty-nine points below white students without disabilities. Students with disabilities eligible for free or reduced priced lunch scored forty-one points behind non-disabled students eligible for free or reduced priced lunch and sixty-seven points behind non-disabled students from non-low-income families. These gaps remained consistent across all the subjects and grades assessed.

Figure 5

Figure 6

Figure 7

Importantly, the average performance for students with disabilities across the different assessments falls well below the benchmark for the “proficient” level and, in most cases, below the benchmark for the “basic” level on the NAEP. For instance, the average scale score of 212 for students with disabilities on the fourth grade mathematics assessment is well below the proficient benchmark score (249) and just below the basic benchmark score (214). In fact, 51 percent of students with disabilities scored below basic on the fourth grade mathematics assessment and only 16 percent scored at or above proficient.

The low performance for students with disabilities across the country should not be taken as a given. We should do more. And, as Justice Roberts said, “The IDEA demands more.”

To better support students eligible for special education, we must work to shift expectations for what students with disabilities can achieve. All too often, when students with disabilities do not perform well, people assume that, because of their disability, they simply cannot perform well. Making this assumption all but assures that he or she will not achieve. The vast majority of students eligible for special education have disabilities, such as dyslexia or speech impairments, that should not preclude them from achieving grade-level expectations; and even those with greater educational challenges should have adequate opportunity and resource to excel.

High expectations, along with effective supports and accommodations, can help students with disabilities reach the highest levels of academic success. In fact, I co-authored a book profiling the educational stories of students with various disabilities, including dyslexia, cerebral palsy, blindness, deafness, emotional disabilities, and ADHD, all of whom have graduated from Harvard University. Although all of these students had people along the way who tried to lower expectations because of their disability, they were also fortunate to have parents and educators fight for high expectations, thereby increasing their opportunities for success.

Initially, with No Child Left Behind in 2001 and now with the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), passed into law at the end of 2015, policy has paved the way to ensure students with disabilities are held to the same expectations as their non-disabled peers. The Department of Education continued to push for higher expectations, issuing guidance in 2015 that emphasized that in order to make FAPE available to students with disabilities, IEPs must “be designed to enable the child… to be involved in, and make progress in, the general education curriculum based on the State’s academic content standards for the grade in which the child is enrolled.”

Students with disabilities eligible for special education are general education students first. Most students with disabilities spend most of their day in the general education classroom. Acknowledging this, to effectively ensure that students with disabilities are held to and meet high expectations, all teachers, both general and special education teachers, need additional support.

Universal design for learning (UDL) can provide a powerful framework to support teachers in meeting the diverse learning needs of students in their classrooms. The UDL framework assists educators in predicting the different learning needs of their students. It offers strategies to provide students with multiple means of engagement, multiple means of representation, and multiple means of expression. And it supports teachers in maintaining consistent goals for their students and providing different pathways for students to achieve those goals.

To apply UDL effectively, teachers need to understand the framework. Teacher preparation programs, both traditional programs at colleges and universities and alternative pathways (including programs like Teach for America), should ensure teachers entering the classroom are ready to teach all of their students, including students with disabilities. They should learn how to anticipate the diversity in their classroom and remove barriers to learning. As a corollary, consider medicine, wherein doctors are trained to consider the background and context of each patient. If they did not know how to approach variability in blood pressure, family history, current medication, weight, and more, the medical treatment they pursue could be ineffective or in some instances damaging. In training, doctors must learn how to anticipate patient variability and develop different strategies based on that variability. Our teacher preparation programs must do the same.

ESSA provides several opportunities to support the application of UDL in schools, and states and districts should take advantage of these funds for that purpose. Specifically, ESSA requires that state assessments embed UDL principles and that states receiving Comprehensive Literacy Development Grants (funded at $180 million for FY18) incorporate UDL as well as comprehensive literacy instruction. UDL can also be an allowable use of funds for the Title II Supporting Effective Instruction Grants (funded at $2 billion FY18) and the Title IV Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants (funded at $1.1 billion for FY18).

We also must ensure that our schools and our classrooms are designed to support all students. Reports of schools being out of compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) are concerning and must be addressed. Educators, school leaders, and policymakers should continue to support curricula and assessments that intentionally embed accessibility features in all instructional materials. Leveraging, and teaching students how to use, accessibility features like text-to-speech software can remove barriers and provide greater opportunities to expose more students to higher-level content.

Creating accessible learning environments for all students and providing greater opportunities for students with disabilities in school will not be easy. The performance of students with disabilities will not change overnight. It will require a commitment on behalf of parents, educators, and policymakers to do more to support these students. Making this commitment can help to narrow the performance gaps, lift the achievement of students with disabilities, and fulfill the promise of the Endrew F. decision—that “every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives.”

Editor’s Note: As of June 12, 2018 the Title IV Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants funded amount was corrected to $1.1 billion from $400 million.