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Students with Learning Differences

Leanna Stiefel, Syeda Sana Fatima, Joseph R. Cimpian, Kaitlyn O’Hagan.

There has been an explosion of special education research and new policies surrounding the topic of racial and ethnic disproportionality. Some recent research shifts focus to whether school context moderates findings (e.g., is a Black student less likely than a White student to receive special education services as the proportion of a school’s Black students increases?). We extend this emerging literature using eight years of elementary student-and school-level data from NYC public schools, examining more school contextual moderators, expanding racial categories, and distinguishing between cross-sectional and over-time differences. We find that student racial/ethnic composition, teacher racial composition, school size, concentration of poor students, and teachers’ perceptions of school climate all moderate disproportionality. These school context factors appear to be particularly salient for the classification of Black students, and most of these associations are driven by differences across schools, suggesting new avenues for researchers and levers for policy.

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Kaitlyn O'Hagan, Leanna Stiefel, Amy Ellen Schwartz.

Students with disabilities (SWDs) educated in traditional public schools alongside general education students (GENs) typically move to middle school in sixth grade, rather than continuing in a K-8/12. The documented negative effects of this move on GEN academic outcomes suggests similar negative—and perhaps larger—effects on SWDs. Using an instrumental variables strategy and NYC data on nine cohorts of students, we find the middle school transition causes a 0.30 (0.16) standard deviation decline in SWD math (ELA) performance and increases grade retention. Low-income SWDs and SWDs with a specific learning disability or emotional disturbance fare worse. However, the move does not widen the SWD-GEN gap, suggesting the need to ease the middle school transition for all students.

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Hernando Grueso.

In this paper, I study the causal relationship between violence and human capital accumulation. Due to a power vacuum left in conflict zones of Colombia after the 2016 peace agreement, large spikes in violence were reported in the municipalities of the country dominated by the rebel group FARC. I compare student test scores in municipalities that experienced the increase in violence to the ones that did not, before and after the national peace agreement. I find that a 10 percent increase in the homicide rate reduces average high school test scores by approximately 0.03 standard deviations. However, this impact is greater in the case of poor students who suffered a reduction of about 0.1 standard deviations per subject area, equivalent to 3.3 percentage points out of the final score. I also consider heterogeneity by gender finding a slightly larger negative impact on female students. This disparate effect on women and on the poorest students adds new evidence to the literature on the effects of armed conflict on learning outcomes.

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Ethan Scherer, Christopher Cleveland.

A growing body of research shows that students benefit when they are demographically similar to their teachers. However, less is known about how matching affects social-emotional development. We investigate the effect of teacher-student race and gender matching for middle school students in six charter management organizations. Using a student fixed effects strategy exploiting changes over time in the proportion of demographic matching in a school-grade, we estimate matching’s effect on self-reports of interpersonal and intrapersonal social-emotional skills, test scores, and behavioral outcomes. We find improvements for Black and female students in interpersonal self-management and grit when they are matched to demographically similar teachers. We also find demographic matching leads to reductions in absences for Black students and improved math test scores for females. Our findings add to the emerging teacher diversity literature by showing its benefits for Black and female students during a critical stage of social-emotional development in their lives.

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Amanda P. Williford, Pilar Alamos, Jessica E. Whittaker, Maria R. Accavitti.

We documented (1) the use of strategies, beyond suspensions and expulsions, that exclude young students from learning opportunities and (2) how teacher-reported use of these strategies varied according to student racial/ethnic composition. In a sample of 2,053 teachers and 40,771 kindergarten students, teachers reported on their use of five exclusionary strategies including isolated seating, removal from an activity, and loss of recess. Teachers reported substantive use of all exclusionary strategies and use varied depending on strategy. Teachers reported using certain exclusionary practices (break outside of classroom, loss of recess or free time, and limit talking) more frequently when they rated more Black versus White students to be lowest on self-regulation and social skills. Findings illustrate the value of looking beyond suspensions and expulsions in the early years to advance equity in young children’s opportunities to engage with teachers, peers, and learning tasks at school.

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Mark J. Chin.

In this paper I study the impact of court-mandated school desegregation by race on student suspensions and special education classification. Simple descriptive statistics using student enrollment and outcome data collected from the largest school districts across the country in the 1970s and 1980s show that Black-White school integration was increasing for districts under court order, but not for a set of comparison districts. Similarly, Black student suspension rates were increasing at faster rates in integrating districts relative to comparison districts, and their classification rates as having an intellectual disability were decreasing at slower rates. Differences-in-differences and event study models confirm these patterns I observe in the raw data: after integration, school districts experienced statistically and practically significant reductions in racial isolation across schools and growth in racial disparities in discipline and special education classification. The impacts of integration are immediate, sustained, and robust for student suspensions in particular. My results thus provide causal evidence confirming prior descriptive and theoretical work suggesting that the racial composition of schools may influence measures of categorical inequality by race.

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Michelle L. Lofton, Martin F. Lueken.

Education savings accounts (ESAs) are education funding mechanisms that allow for families to receive a deposit of public funds to a government-authorized savings account. Using student-level longitudinal data, this paper examines how families participating in the Florida Gardiner Scholarship Program use education savings account funds. Results indicate that families use an increasing proportion of ESA funds the longer students remain in the program. The longer students remain in the program, the share of ESA funds devoted to private school tuition decreases while expenditure shares increase for curriculum, instruction, tutoring, and specialized services. Students in rural areas not only use a greater portion of their ESA funds than families in urban and suburban areas, but they also spend smaller portions of their funds on tuition and appear to customize more.

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Angela Johnson, Elizabeth Barker.

Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, schools are required to provide a free and appropriate public education to students with disabilities and show that the students are making academic progress. This study compares within- and across-years academic growth from kindergarten to 4th grade for students who were ever in special education (ever-SPED) to students who were never in special education (never-SPED). We follow one cohort of about 4,200 students for five years and assess the students up to three times per year. Although ever-SPED students started kindergarten with lower math and reading test scores and grew less in both subjects than never-SPED students during the kindergarten school year, ever-SPED students grew more than never-SPED students during the 1st and 2nd grade school years in math and 1st, 3rd, and 4th grade school years in reading. However, ever-SPED students lost more learning during every summer than never-SPED students. This led the test score disparities between the two to grow from under 0.5 standard deviations in kindergarten to 1.0 standard deviation in 4th grade. These findings suggest that summer learning opportunities are crucial for improving educational outcomes for students with disabilities.

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Scott J. Peters, James S. Carter III.

A wide research base has documented the unequal access to and enrollment in K-12 gifted and talented services and other forms of advanced learning opportunities. This study extends that knowledge base by integrating multiple population-level datasets to better understand correlates of access to and enrollment in gifted and talented services, seventh-grade Algebra 1, and eighth-grade Geometry. Results show that states vary widely with some serving 20% of their students as gifted while others serve 0%. Similarly, within-district income segregation, income-related achievement gaps, and the percent of parents with a college degree are the dominant predictors of a school offering these opportunities and the size of the school population served.

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Benjamin W. Domingue, Heather J. Hough, David Lang, Jason Yeatman.

Education has faced unprecedented disruption during the COVID-19 pandemic; evidence about the subsequent effect on children is of crucial importance. We use data from an oral reading fluency (ORF) assessment—a rapid assessment taking only a few minutes that measures a fundamental reading skill—to examine COVID’s effects on children’s reading ability during the pandemic in more than 100 U.S. school districts. Effects were pronounced, especially for Grades 2–3, but distinct across spring and fall 2020. While many students were not assessed in spring 2020, those who were seemed to have experienced relatively limited or no growth in ORF relative to gains observed in other years. In fall 2020, a far more representative set of students was observed. For those students, growth was more pronounced and seemed to approach levels observed in previous years. Worryingly, there were also signs of stratification such that students in lower-achieving districts may be falling further behind. However, at the level of individual students, those who were struggling with reading prior to the pandemic were not disproportionately impacted in terms of ORF growth. This data offers an important window onto how a foundational skill is being affected by COVID-19 and this approach can be used in the future to examine how student abilities recover as education enters a post-COVID paradigm.

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