UO professors receive $11.7 million grant to develop new models for student achievement

Gerald Tindal and Joe Stevens, UO professors of education, are co-principal investigators (PI’s) with Stephen Elliott and Ann Schulte, professors of education at Arizona State University, on a grant worth over $11 million from the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES). The grant—spread across five years—supports the National Center on Assessment and Accountability for Special Education (NCAASE), which conducts research to develop and test new approaches for measuring the academic success of students with disabilities.

NCAASE, which is based at the University of Oregon, is one of six national centers sponsored by the IES that were created to address unique issues in special education through a combination of research, development and evaluation. Research conducted by NCAASE and its fellow national research centers informs national policy decisions and influences how local and state education systems manage their programs.

In addition to its scholarly publications and work with the IES, the center works closely with the Oregon Department of Education and other stakeholders to develop shared databases and to share recommendations and discoveries from their research.

"This award provides a unique opportunity to study the academic performance and growth of students with disabilities at a large scale using entire statewide databases from Arizona, North Carolina, Oregon and Pennsylvania,” said Joe Stevens, co-principal investigator. “We are gaining insight into facets of academic performance that have been hidden from educational leaders and policymakers in prior research and accountability reporting.”

When the No Child Left Behind Act was passed in 2001, state education systems were mandated to implement standards-based tests to create an accountability system that measured school performance. This type of testing—widely known as standardized testing—measures achievement status, which is a snapshot of students' performance in mathematics and reading/language arts at a single point in time. A major change instituted by NCLB was the mandatory reporting of these results by student subgroups (e.g., sex, race/ethnicity, economic disadvantage, special education status).

Many states now report that 70% of students with disabilities perform below expectations on the reading and mathematics portions of these statewide achievement tests. A recent 3-state study found that the most frequent reason schools failed to meet their benchmark goals was the performance of this subgroup of students.

In order to better understand how students with disabilities learn, NCAASE is conducting five coordinated studies designed to ascertain the rate of academic growth for this group of students and to explore alternative accountability models that evaluate how well schools are serving their student populations. One major component of this research involves investigation into how subgroups within the NCLB’s “special education” designation learn and perform.

The research NCAASE conducts emphasizes measuring achievement growth—how much a student improves over time—instead of focusing on performance at a single point in time. Educational scientists have begun to advocate for a shift away from achievement status to achievement growth because it focuses attention on student progress and evaluates schools based on factors they can control, such as opportunities to learn, rather than on students' background or prior knowledge.

Since the start of the grant period in June 2011, NCAASE has made significant progress developing a more complete understanding of how current accountability systems are serving disabled students and their peers. The center recently demonstrated that the “special education” label used by NCLB masks important differences among the subgroups within the category, including rates of achievement growth and patterns of entrance and exit from special education services across grades. In addition, NCAASE has shown that gaps between students with disabilities and their nondisabled peers are not decreasing despite federal and local policy goals.

In the fall, NCAASE researchers will present some of their findings as part of a conference the center is organizing in Washington, D.C. for late October or early November. The conference will bring together NCAASE researchers, state policy makers and national stakeholders to discuss the new research and areas of future research on academic growth.