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Disability Group Pushes Government to Better Understand COVID’s Impact on Students with Disabilities

Submitted testimony will help inform Department of Education efforts to collect better disability data.

Washington, D.C., March 22 – As the nation continues to grapple with the lessons learned from one year of lockdown, virtual education and the other results of the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. Department of Education solicited new ideas to support the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) 2021 School Survey. In response to this opportunity, the RespectAbility team rapidly solicited insights from board members, partner organizations and self-advocates to push for the collection of better disability data as part of the NAEP. 

“Distance learning has been a disaster for teachers, parents and students alike. Over time, some of the impacts are recoverable,” said Jaime H. Pacheco-Orozco, who serves as the Assistant Executive Director of the City of Los Angeles Department on Disability and on RespectAbility’s Board of Directors. “It won’t be easy, but there is a path forward. That path must include capturing clear data that will help future generations of students with disabilities.”

Learning during the COVID-19 pandemic created incredible challenges for all students and their families, but this is especially true for students with disabilities. The gap in graduation and drop-out rates between students with and without disabilities continues to undermine their futures. In the class of 2018, only 66 percent of Black students with disabilities completed high school compared to 79 percent of Black students without disabilities. 71 percent of Latino/a students with disabilities completed high school compared to 81 percent of Latino/a students without disabilities. 79 percent of Asian-American students with disabilities completed high school compared to 92 percent of Asian-American students without disabilities. And 77 percent of white students with disabilities graduated, compared to 89 percent of white students without disabilities.  

RespectAbility’s full testimony is presented below: 

Re: ED Docket No. ED-2021-SCC-0023 Agency Information Collection Activities; Comment Request; NAEP 2021 School Survey

Dear Ms. Valentine:

On behalf of RespectAbility, we are writing to provide feedback regarding the U.S. Department of Education’s (ED) solicitation of comments on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) 2021 School Survey. RespectAbility strongly supports the goal of gathering “vital data on the impact of COVID-19 on students and the status of in-person learning.” There is also a significant need to understand the academic, social, emotional, mental, and behavioral impact this pandemic has had on students with disabilities and the educators that work closely with them. As such, we respectfully request the following information also be collected as a part of the survey:

Collect Data on Time Spent in General Education Settings

RespectAbility is pleased that ED will collect data on the “Average number of hours of synchronous instruction for students in remote instruction mode.” However, it is particularly important to know how the trends for students with disabilities compared to their non-disabled grade level peers. Federal law requires that students with disabilities be educated alongside their nondisabled peers to the greatest extent possible. Prior to the pandemic, most students with disabilities spent the majority of their time in general education classrooms. We would expect that students with disabilities continued to participate at the same rates during the pandemic, but we know that districts faced major challenges in serving all students well during this time. Therefore, we request that ED collect data on how much time students with disabilities participated in synchronous instruction alongside their general education peers.

Collect Data on the Type, Frequency and Efficacy of Communications with Parents and Families

RespectAbility requests that ED collect data on the frequency of communication between schools and parents, families, and other caregivers and that this data be disaggregated by race, ethnicity, disability status, EL status of the student, as well as whether or not the parent is an English Language Learner.  The survey must be conducted in multiple languages. Conducting these surveys in parents’ native languages will allow for a direct between comparison between how non-English monolingual parents (e.g., Spanish-speaking, Vietnamese) and English-speaking parents affects students with disabilities’ learning. 

We know that virtual learning has been largely dependent on support from caregivers, especially for younger students and students with disabilities. It is important to know how and if schools are effectively engaging with families and whether that varies by student population. Beyond frequency, the depth and efficacy and engagement varies depending on the caregiver’s primary language, and the ability therefore to effectively interact with the teacher and convey the material to the student. RespectAbility urges for the survey to reflect the diversity within students with disabilities and those of their caregivers as well. The survey must also capture the level of family partnership, for example how many interactions did the teacher have with the parent or guardian in course of preparing instruction and answering their concerns, also needs to be included in the survey structure. 

Importantly, this data should not only include frequency, but both parental and teacher perception of efficacy of communication. Measuring the difference between how effectively schools engage English and non-English speaking caregivers and parents is important as we strive for greater equity.

Collect Data on  the Accommodations Provided to Students with Disabilities in Virtual Settings

RespectAbility urges ED to collect data on the kinds of accommodations that schools have provided in virtual learning settings. While virtual and remote learning created many barriers to learning for all students, there was a unique challenge facing students with disabilities who needed access to accommodations in order to have equal access to learning. In order to effectively evaluate how equitable and accessible learning was for students with disabilities, we need to have data on the types of accommodations provided and for whom. 

Publicly Report Data on Learning Loss for Students with Disabilities

RespectAbility urges ED to collect and report pre-pandemic and post-pandemic drop-out rates for students with disabilities. Additionally, a measure of loss must be collected in regard to education-related support services in Individualized Education Programs (IEP) for students with disabilities. Together, these measures should quantify a need of summer school, after-school, or extra year of services and supports for students with disabilities. 

Publicly Report Data Disaggregated by Disability Category and Multiple Minority Status

We are pleased that previous NAEP surveys have publicly reported data that is disaggregated by disability status—specifically whether a student was identified under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) or under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (Section 504). However, NAEP data is not publicly reported by the 13 disability categories under IDEA, so it is not clear how outcomes may differ by disability type. We are also keenly aware that multiple minority status, including race, income level, gender identity, and sexual orientation can all affect outcomes. Thus, we strongly urge ED to publicly report data that is disaggregated by disability type, as well as these other minority statuses, and ensure robust, representative, and descriptive sampling for each subpopulation. 

The unique challenges faced by students with disabilities can differ based on their identified disability, and other minority statuses. The learning opportunities offered to them also differ. We urge you to make the data collection more robust by publicly reporting data that is disaggregated by disability type, and other minority statuses wherever possible. This request falls in with President Biden’s January 20th, 2021 Executive Order demanding the release of disaggregated data throughout the federal government.

Disaggregate by American Community Survey Race/Ethnicity Categories

In conducting the disaggregation of the previous paragraph, RespectAbility urges ED to disaggregate data by the categories of race and ethnicity that are included in the American Community Survey. Existing disaggregation categories obscure significant diversity within communities. Asian Americans and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders (AANHPIs) are tremendously diverse. The US Census Bureau reports data annually on at least 22 distinct, self-identified AANHPI groups, each with unique linguistic, cultural, and historical differences. When government agencies report only averaged aggregate data under the “Asian” or “Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander” categories, the agency conceals significant differences and inequities among the many distinct AANHPI groups. For Southeast Asian Americans, the mass collective trauma from war, genocide, displacement, and the stressors associated with relocation — like English language difficulties and cultural conflicts — affect student outcomes.

Disaggregate by Disability Status and English Learners (ELs)

RespectAbility urges ED to disaggregate the data by English Learner (EL) students who are also identified as having a disability either through IDEA or Section 504. It is a widespread misconception that a student cannot be both an English learner receiving services through an EL program as well as a student with a disability receiving special education services. In fact, an English Learner enrolled in an EL program cannot be denied special education services, and a student can be enrolled in both types of services at the same time. It is essential that we attempt to collect data that examines how well schools are serving the more than 700,000 public school students who are both English learners and students with disabilities. 

Data Should Give a Clear Indication of the Efficacy of Virtual Education 

COVID-19 disrupted in person teaching and disproportionally and adversely affected students with disabilities by removing programs, services, physical, occupational and speech therapy accommodations, and teachers with training from their learning environment. Retention of any leaning was potentially lost due to the lack of access to computers and the internet which further had the potential to exacerbate disparities in students with disabilities’ academic performance. This would have been even greater in those districts with fewer resources. The survey should also measure parental and teacher perception and understanding of the impact on achievement outcomes for the student with the of services lost during the year due to virtual instruction. Ultimately, this data is necessary to understand whether states are truly meeting their obligation to provide a free and appropriate public education, or whether we need to explore the universal option of the 13th year for students with disabilities who were unable to receive effective education during this time of virtual learning. Not only is the free and appropriate public education legal right, but a merit-based high school graduation will affect income and equity for the rest of the students’ lives. 

As an organization that advocates on behalf of students with disabilities and their families, we believe the collection of this specific data is essential to ensuring that all students have equal access to a high-quality public education. Without this critical data — disaggregated to help us better understand the unique experiences of each student subgroup — communities and policymakers cannot direct appropriate resources to the places that need them most, particularly in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. If you have any questions or would like to discuss these matters further, please contact me at


Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi 

President, RespectAbility  

Paul Luelmo, Ph.D. 

Assistant Professor, Special Education, San Diego State University

Published inCOVID-19Education

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