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Drowning in Data: Assessmentís Role in Low Retention Rates for Special Education Teachers

by Hope Nye - August 06, 2019

Policymakers are eager to introduce new assessment practices to govern student progress, but often fail to address how the system supports teachers in delivering these promises with fidelity. There is an added demand on special education teachers who must uphold a higher quality and frequency of individualized assessment practices to meet the requirements of constitutional laws. Although assessment is a necessary tool to measure student performance and inform decisions to promote student growth based on those measurements, policymakers must consider how these measures can be carried out in a more sustainable manner. Low retention rates for special education teachers remains a consistent nationwide epidemic, impacting our most vulnerable population. The introduction of a systematic support system aimed at assisting special education teachers in navigating the many demands of their positions such as mandatory individualized assessment practices is necessary to increase the likelihood of special education teacher retention.

The world of special education has a distinctly different internal structure than the typical general education classroom. Special education students receive Individualized Education Programs (IEPs), which outline additional goals, accommodations, and modifications to the traditional general education setting and curriculum that cater to meet their individual needs. IEPs aim to deliver the promise of the Individual with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) to fulfill every students access to free appropriate public education (FAPE). In order to do this, special education teachers have a constitutional responsibility to carry out the ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court by ensuring that each students IEP is reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the childs circumstances (Prince, Yell, & Katsiyannis, 2018). Assessment is a necessary tool to measure student performance and inform decisions to promote student growth based on those measurements.

In addition toand occasionally in lieu ofstate standardized testing and routine assessment practices in the general education classroom setting, special education teachers must assess students on the progress of their individual goals as outlined in the IEP. In direct interviews with special education teachers, there were noted

differences in the assessment techniques used by general and special educators. In special education, assessments were formative in nature and were used to evaluate student progress toward the mastery of IEP goals and objectives. In general education, assessments were summative in nature and used for the purpose of assigning grades rather than instructional decision-making. (Busch, Pederson, Espin, & Weissenburger, 2001)

Assessment within special education is thus more of an active process of collection, reflection, and revision rather than a static method of reporting, requiring the special education teacher to take on a more active role to meet individual student needs.

In addition to simply administering these assessments, a high degree of communication surrounding assessment is expected of special education teachers. Special education teachers spend a relatively large amount of time spent in assessment (Vannest, Hagan-Burke, Parker, & Soares, 2011) and cite biweekly curriculum-based measurements (CBMs) and portfolio assessments as several of the assessment strategies used to monitor their progress toward IEP goals. These efforts are further strained by other responsibilities of a special education teacher, such as eliciting participation in an assessment/summary-team meeting [which] often required many contacts between the teacher and the parents (Busch et al., 2001). Effective assessment implementation requires a significant time and energy demand on teachers to learn, plan, deliver, reflect, and communicate new practices with fidelity.

Complicating the high demand on special education teachers is a noted lack of interventions intended to support teacher success. Although teachers want to learn multiple formative assessment techniques to meet the requirements of their positions and needs of their students (Busch et al., 2001), the lack of systematic support has a negative impact on teacher retention. In an analysis of the assessment requirements in correlation with the recruitment and retention of African American special education teachers, Strosnider and Blanchett (2003) provided strategies offering the promise of recruiting, retaining, and supporting. A closer look, however, indicated a statistically significant number of case studies in which teachers were not given assistance or support to help him/her make satisfactory assessment scores (Strosnider & Blanchett, 2003). This has resulted in attrition rates of special education teachers that are alarmingly high (U.S. Department of Education, 1994). Yearly attrition rates among newly hired special education teachers have been reported to average 10% for the first six years of teaching (Singer, 1993), with figures as high as 30% in some areas of the country (Cooley, 1995).

Thankfully, systematic supports for teachers are effective in increasing retention rates. For instance, California's teacher induction program, the Beginning Teacher Support and Assessment (BTSA), offers beginning teachers a formal structure of support within the school setting during their first and second years of teaching...[including] new teacher development through the use of the California Formative Assessment and Support System for Teachers (CFASST) (Marquez-Lopez & Oh, 2010). This intervention resulted in 92% teacher retention, which is statistically higher than the average. Similar programs exist within different states and districts, but typically do not address or respond to the needs of the niche population of special education teachers, who have a higher demand to maintain individualized student programs and assessments.

The introduction of a systematic support system aimed at assisting special education teachers in navigating the many demands of their positions such as mandatory individualized assessment practices is necessary to increase special education teacher retention. Currently, professional development offerings may be the only way for some in-service teachers to become proficient in research-based classroom and behavioral management techniques such as functional assessment-based interventions (FABIs) (Brunsting, Sreckovic, & Lane, 2014). This presents additional challenges because professional development is often offered as an addition to the daily requirements of a teachers already overly taxing job, and thus is poorly incentivized and at a personal sacrifice to time with oneself or ones family. If resources designed to support special education teachers in delivering the constitutional requirements of education to their students remain inaccessible or sparse, retention rates cannot be expected to improve.

Research shows that teachers want to learn (Busch et al., 2001), want to serve their students (Brunsting et al., 2014), and will go to great lengths in order to do so (Singer, 1993). Special education teachers specifically demonstrate these values by working with some of the most vulnerable youth populations. Policymakers must begin to respond to these clear needs and values by offering funded, systematic assessment supports in addition to the policies they pass to assist teachers, and thus better support our next generations.


Brunsting, N. C., Sreckovic, M. A., & Lane, K. L. (2014). Special education teacher burnout: A synthesis of research from 1979 to 2013. Education and Treatment of Children, 37(4), 681711.

Busch, T., Pederson, K., Espin, C., & Weissenburger, J. (2001). Teaching students with learning disabilities: Perceptions of a first-year teacher. The Journal of Special Education, 35(2), 9299.

Cooley, E. (1995). Teacher support and retention project. San Francisco, CA: Far West Laboratory for Educational Research and Development.

Marquez-Lopez, T., & Oh, D. (2010). Beginning teacher support and assessment (BTSA) progression: A retrospective account of BTSA's response to English learners. Journal of Latinos and Education, 9(1), 4159.

Prince, A., Yell, M., & Katsiyannis, A. (2018). Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District (2017): The U.S. Supreme Court and special education. Intervention in School and Clinic, 53(5), 321324.


Singer, J. D. (1993). Are special educators' career paths special? Results from a 13-year longitudinal study. Exceptional Children, 59, 262279.

Strosnider, R., & Blanchett, W. (2003). A closer look at assessment and entrance requirements: Implications for recruitment and retention of African American special educators. Teacher Education and Special Education, 26(4), 304314.

U.S. Department of Education. (1994). Sixteenth annual report to Congress on the implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Washington, DC: Author.

Vannest, K. J., Hagan-Burke, S., Parker, R. I., & Soares, D. A. (2011). Special education teacher time use in four types of programs. Journal of Educational Research, 104(4), 219230.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: August 06, 2019
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23020, Date Accessed: 1/16/2022 5:00:58 PM

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About the Author
  • Hope Nye

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    HOPE NYE has an M.Ed in Special Education.
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