When state officials this week released new data showing how much students had grown academically year-to-year on state tests, one statistic jumped out.

The gap separating students with special needs from other students had grown dramatically, leaving educators and advocates searching for answers.

Colorado’s student growth report calculates how much students learn year-to-year compared to students who start in a similar place academically. Students with special needs not only lag behind other students, but this year’s data showed they are learning at a slower rate than two years ago.

Before we get to possible explanations, an important note about these students, who have individualized education plans that define goals and services each student should get.

Students have these plans for a variety of reasons. They include speech impediments, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and emotional disabilities. A very small number have cognitive disabilities, experts say.

That means the overwhelming majority of students with such plans should be just as likely to score well on standardized tests as their peers without special needs if they have the right help, experts say.

While state officials and experts we spoke with are concerned about this year’s results, most cautioned that it was too early to reach firm conclusions or know whether this is the start of a trend or an outlier.

Here are some possible explanations for the growing growth gap for students with special needs:

Students with individualized education plans may not have enough access to inclusive classrooms with the critical thinking they need to do well on tests (and in life).

With the adoption of the Common Core State Standards in English and math, teachers and students have been asked to make fundamental changes in the classroom.

A greater emphasis has been placed on critical thinking over rote memorization. Students are being asked to read longer and denser passages and cite evidence in written responses.

Students with disabilities aren’t getting that opportunity, experts say.

“Too often kids with disabilities just don’t have the opportunity to learn,” said Sheryl Lazarus, a senior research associate with the National Center for Education Outcomes, which focuses on underserved students. “The reading and writing (on the assessments) were real challenges. Students need the opportunity to learn the grade-level content. Once they do that, they’ll do much, much better on these assessments.”

A report Lazarus co-authored surveyed teachers in states that used the PARCC exams or another multi-state test, Smarter Balanced. It found:

  • Students with special needs were not used to reading long passages like those found on the tests.
  • Those same students were not used to writing extended responses and lacked basic computer skills.
  • They also had difficulty using evidence to justify their answers and lacked basic research skills.

Angela Denning, the state education department’s special education chief, said state monitoring found only about 60 percent of students with special needs spent 80 percent or more of their time in classrooms with the general student population.

That’s not enough, she said.

“My bet is that schools with small or no growth gaps have students with disabilities receiving good instruction in those core areas in the regular education classrooms” with help and instructional strategies tailored for them, she said.

Denver Public Schools, which has one of the largest growth gaps between students with disabilities and other students, is focusing more on including all students in regular classroom work. Ten schools are part of a new pilot program seeking to better incorporate students with disabilities in general classrooms.

The district is also training teachers to write better learning plans for students with special needs to include more data, and goals for improvement and meeting academic standards.

“We need to have our results translate to all kids,” said Josh Drake, DPS’s executive director for exceptional students.

Pam Bisceglia, a coordinator for AdvocacyDenver, which champions the rights of students with special needs, said both special education and general education teachers need more cross-training on how to better meet the needs of students regardless of what classroom they are in.

“There always has to be a shared responsibility to meeting kids’ needs,” she said.

While the new computer-based state tests have features meant to put students with special needs on a level playing field, that doesn’t mean students and teachers know how to use them.

The PARCC exams, which are mostly taken on computers, come with plenty of bells and whistles. A 200-plus page manual describes in detail what can be done to help students, including larger fonts, having passages read aloud and more.

“PARCC has tons of stuff built in for accommodations, but that doesn’t mean that’s better,” said Ann Morrison, an associate professor at the School of Education at the Metropolitan State University of Denver. “What we should look for is high degrees of ease of use … My sense about PARCC is that there is not an ease of use.”

Teacher and student frustrations with technology could put the results in question, Morrison said.

“Anxiety gets in the way of learning and demonstrating learning,” she said.

A PARCC spokeswoman said the group tests the tools used by students and is adding new ones. In 2016, PARCC included a function that allowed math problems to be read aloud in both English and Spanish, and in 2017 PARCC will offer a Braille version of the test.

Bisceglia said that while there was some confusion about how schools provided accommodations to students during PARCC’s first year, she heard of no complaints this year.

Kids with special needs opted out of the tests at a higher rate than their peers.

Colorado’s PARCC scores have been called into question because of the large number of students choosing not to take the tests in higher grades — mostly in high-performing schools.

Opt-out rates also are slightly higher for students with individualized education plans, state data show.

Derek Briggs, director of the University of Colorado Boulder’s Center for Assessment, Design, Research and Evaluation, suggested that within that group, students more likely to score well were the ones who skipped out.

“It’s a relatively small group,” Briggs said about the number of students with education plans. “It doesn’t take that much [to skew results].”

Denning, the state’s special education chief, said she’s asking an advisory council of parents and educators to examine why opt-out numbers are higher in the special education community.