The State of Special Education in the District of Columbia

By Julie Camerata

A wealth of resources share startling statistics about students with disabilities in DC public schools. Looking at, understanding, and acting on data is critical for DC to move forward both at the city level and for each student learning in a DC school. 

This overview of how DC students with disabilities are learning is a starting place to norm on the actionable steps LEA and city leaders can take to close learning, access, and equity gaps.

Teaching and Learning

Learning environment: Too many DC students with disabilities are not learning with their peers. 

Nearly 10% of students attend a separate school (often called a non-public placement). This is three times the national average. 

DC students with disabilities are also less likely to spend 80% or more of their day in inclusive, general education classrooms, compared to their national peers. In 2020, just 58 percent of students spent 80% or more of their day in general education, a modest uptick of 1% since 2019. Research shows both that up to 90% of students with disabilities can learn on grade-level when given the right supports and that the more time students spend outside of a general education classroom, the less likely they are to be on grade level. 

Exiting special education: Special education supports are intended to provide the learning ramps to ensure students are able to access grade-level content with the belief that a majority of students will not need special education supports in perpetuity. 

Yet, in DC, only 17% of all students with disabilities exit their special education for general education; and Black students, already more likely to be identified for special education services, are less likely to exit such services. (One in four Black male students and one in eight Black female students are identified as students with disabilities in DC.) 

In fact, DC is last in the nation in exiting students with disabilities from special education education support after age 14 at 0% of students.

Student Outcomes

A lack of progress on teaching and learning has consequences for student outcomes: Just 8% of students with disabilities performed at grade level in English language arts and only 6% did so in math. According to 2019 data, only 4% of students who have disabilities and are designated as at-risk are on grade level. 

More than one in four students with disabilities will repeat the 9th grade, twice the rate of their peers nationally. Research shows that completing 9th grade in one year is a strong predictor of on-time high school graduation

Students with disabilities lag their peers in both their four-year graduation rates (54% for students with disabilities and 74% among peers) and five-year graduation rates (60% for students with disabilities and 75% for among peers).

The Big Picture

DC is far below the national average in serving students with disabilities and behind similar cities including Miami, Boston, New York, and San Diego, who all have better outcomes for students with disabilities. This is a persistent gap for the 17% of DC students who have disabilities. 

As I noted in the Washington Post, this is the result of a system designed for compliance rather than effectiveness and creativity. 

It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way.

We can build on the pockets of success, using models like Demonstration Classrooms and Intervention Districts. But it starts with knowing what’s happening in your school. Only then can we elevate.

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