A recent Consortium on Chicago School Research study painted a dire picture for the vast majority of special education students who, as freshmen, fall off-track to graduate on time. The report also sheds light on another group: Students who are not even on their school’s radar as needing extra help.

recent Consortium on Chicago School Research study painted a dire
picture for the vast majority of special education students who, as freshmen, fall
off-track to graduate on time. The report also sheds light on
another group: Students who are not even on their school’s
radar as needing extra help.

Researchers decided to look at the path of students who enter high
school two years behind grade level in both reading and math. Some of
these students should have been in special education, but, for one
reason or another, never were identified as having specific needs.
Others are slower learners, or could have some outside issue that is
complicating their learning, like mobility or excessive absenteeism.

These students also were never placed in one of the district’s
Achievement Academies, the small schools within eight large high
schools that are reserved for overage students who failed 8th grade.

Although the number of students is not large—only about 2.5 percent of
incoming 2004 freshmen—these young people had, in very real terms,
“fallen through the cracks,” says Julia Gwynne, one of the authors of
the study, which was done in conjunction with the National High School
Center at the American Institutes for Research.

The poor outcomes surprised even the researchers.

Students two years behind grade level had a D average and failed more
than four courses each semester during their freshman year (one-third
of all their courses). They missed between three and four weeks of
school each semester. Only about one in three of these students ended
their freshman year on-track to graduate; students are considered
on-track if they earn at least five course credits and no more than one
F per semester in a core course.

Five years later, barely one in four of these off-track students earned
a high school diploma. Districtwide, the graduation rate is about 50

“We had not anticipated how poorly they performed,” Gwynne says. “They were among the worst tier of students.”

Another interesting thing to note is that the majority of these
students are black and female. Meanwhile, black boys dominate the
numbers of students who are identified with learning disabilities.


Gwyne says that perhaps girls don’t cause as much trouble and therefore
don’t elicit the attention that could lead to their being diagnosed
with a learning disability. “The thinking is that they are more likely
to fly below the radar,” she says.

Consortium researchers analyzed test scores for incoming freshmen from
2004, in order to establish a cohort of students two years below grade
level. The numbers of students in that category had increased slightly
since 2001, although now it is difficult to tell whether the numbers
have leveled off.

Researchers also delved into the question of why so many students—particularly those with learning disabilities, emotional
disorders and those two years behind—fall off-track. Nearly half of
students with learning disabilities, and 62 percent of those with
emotional disorders, fall off-track.

Several factors are at play, including the generally lower quality of
the schools attended by the students, their performance in 8th grade
and high mobility.

But once they reach high school, these young people struggle with two
of the most important things: showing up to class on a regular basis
and studying effectively.

The research “suggests that they put in a lot of hours studying, but
they aren’t taking as much away from it,” Gwyne says. “It suggests that
they would benefit from help understanding how to study.”

The big elephant in the room (and I always say this) was absenteeism.
Students with emotional disabilities were absent on average 20 days a
semester; those two years behind grade level averaged 14 days absent;
and those with learning disabilities, 12 days.

Absenteeism is a big problem in high schools in general, but it’s
surprising that special education students are gone so many days, if
only because they should have some extra support that regular students
do not. These students are, after all, part of someone’s caseload and
only 20 students are allowed in high school special education classes.

But Deborah Duskey, the director of special education for Chicago
Public Schools, says that it is the role of every teacher, regular and
special education alike, to reach out to students who are not in
school. The only place where chronic absences might be paid extra
attention is in annual meetings on a student’s Individual Education
Plan, or IEP, which involves special education caseworkers, parents and

Because out-of-school suspension shows up as an absence, some of these
high numbers might be due to punishment, Gwyne says. Figuring out why
these students don’t come to school more regularly is the next step.

Some students aren’t, and shouldn’t be, in special education because
they only learn more slowly than other students, Duskey says.

But Duskey says that students who are behind benefit in particular by
being in classes with special education students who have a teacher or
aide assigned to them. She also says that they should be placed in a
process called Response to Intervention, which allows students to
receive extra help and avoid being identified as learning-disabled.

A new initiative by Duskey’s department could also help these students.
The initiative is focused on teaching high school teachers how to teach
reading. The ability to read and understand grade-level content is an
essential for high school students, but many freshmen have below-level
reading skills.

“We want to help the teachers,” Duskey says. “They are struggling with what to do with these students.”

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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