New NEPC Review Examines Testing, Students with Disabilities, and Causal Confusion

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Scholar finds report wrongly ties test-based accountability policies to better student outcomes.

A recent report from the Center for American Progress (CAP) claims that the quality of education for students with disabilities has improved and that stringent accountability measures are somehow behind those improvements. Yet a review published today explains that, while some student outcomes have improved, the report’s data and analyses are far too weak to provide any causal evidence.

Edward G. Fierros and Katherine Cosner of Villanova University reviewed "ESEA Reauthorization: How We Can Build Upon No Child Left Behind’s Progress for Students with Disabilities in a Reauthorized ESEA" for the Think Twice think tank review project. The CAP report was authored by Chelsea Straus. The review is published today by the National Education Policy Center, housed at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education.

Dr. Fierros is an Associate Professor and Chairperson in the Department of Education and Counseling at Villanova University. Katherine Cosner is a graduate assistant at Villanova.

As Congress considers the reauthorization of the ESEA, the new CAP report tries to convince legislators that they must continue a test-based system designed to hold students with disabilities to high standards. Reviewers Fierros and Cosner find, however, that the argument is based on superficial comparisons—the year 2000 versus the year 2013—of NAEP performance outcomes (average NAEP scale scores), graduation rates, and dropout rates for students with disabilities.

While the report correctly states, “We cannot demonstrate causality” (p. 2), it then proceeds to strongly imply causality (i.e., that NCLB-like policies must be continued in order to sustain increases in educational outcomes for students with disabilities), the reviewers observe. Professor Fierros explains, “This report tries to have it both ways. Its entire reason for existence is to convince readers of a causal link between these policies and the improved outcomes. But it carefully includes a statement saying that it can’t do just that.”

The reviewers point out that aggregating national data over a 14-year period obscures a number of possible other interpretations and variations. There was “not a single reference to a peer-reviewed or generally accepted research report” that would have provided a more complete picture of the performance of students with disabilities, Fierros and Cosner write. Education Week’s Diploma Counts 2015 Report, released last week, finds a great deal of state variation in the percentage of students with disabilities graduating with a standard diploma. Moreover, states use a variety of ways to determine what constitutes “graduating” for students with disabilities, the reviewers write.

Because of the failure to use all available data, consider intervening variables, or utilize a more focused research approach, the report’s interpretations and conclusions are unjustified and cannot be used to advance public policy, Fierros and Cosner conclude.

Find Fierros and Cosner’s review on the NEPC website at:

Find ESEA Reauthorization: How We Can Build Upon No Child Left Behind’s Progress for Students with Disabilities in a Reauthorized ESEA by Chelsea Straus on the web at:

The Think Twice think tank review project ( of the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) provides the public, policymakers, and the press with timely, academically sound reviews of selected publications. NEPC is housed at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education. The Think Twice think tank review project is made possible in part by support provided by the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice.

The mission of the National Education Policy Center is to produce and disseminate high-quality, peer-reviewed research to inform education policy discussions. We are guided by the belief that the democratic governance of public education is strengthened when policies are based on sound evidence. For more information on the NEPC, please visit

This review is also found on the GLC website at

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William Mathis

Edward Fierros

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