States Face a December Deadline to Submit Special Education Data
State special education officials are scrambling to meet a massive data-collection deadline, mandated by the 2004 reauthorization of the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, that will change the way the states have traditionally tracked information on students with disabilities.
The federal Department of Education’s office of special education programs has outlined more than 30 separate indicators for infants, toddlers, and school-age children with disabilities that states must begin tracking—and ultimately, publicizing—to ensure their compliance under the federal special education law.
The Individuals With Disabilities Education Act specifies that states must set "measurable and rigorous" targets for several priority areas. States must measure 34 indicators in their "state performance plans" and set a six-year goal for each. Some of the indicators cover data on special education students that states have collected for some time, but other measurements are new, including:
Preschool children: States must measure how many preschoolers with individualized education programs, or IEPs, demonstrate improved social-emotional skills, acquisition of knowledge and skills such as early literacy, and use of appropriate behaviors to meet their needs.
Parental involvement: Districts must ask parents if schools "facilitated parent involvement as a means of improving services and results for children with disabilities."
Disproportionality: Districts must report to the state if they have a disproportionate number of minority students in special education relative to the overall student population as a result of inappropriate identification.
Timeline: States must report the percentage of children who were evaluated and had their eligibility for special education services determined within 60 days of parental consent for evaluation.
Transition: States must measure the percentage of students age 16 or older who have IEPs with interim goals and transition plans that will enable the students to reach postsecondary goals.
Post-school outcomes: States must determine the percentage of students who had IEPs, are no longer in secondary school, and are employed, enrolled in postsecondary school, or both, within a year of their leaving high school.
Resolution sessions: States must report the percentage of IEP-hearing requests that were resolved through settlement agreements.
SOURCE: Federal Resource Center for Special Education
The deadline to submit the “state performance plans” is Dec. 2, a year after the revised IDEA was signed into law. The states received the final list of the areas they are supposed to track during an Education Department seminar in August, leaving them just three months to gather input from interested parties, retool their data-management systems, and gain approval from their state boards of education.
Some of the indicators have been tracked for years, such as graduation rates and dropout data. But other pieces are new, such as the percentage of parents who report that schools “facilitated parent involvement” and the skills improvement of preschool children with special needs.
States are required not just to report the data, but also to create benchmarks that show how they’re going to improve their performance on all the indicators over six years. In some areas, states are expected to strive for perfection. For example, states with minority overrepresentation in special education must develop a plan with a goal to eliminate such overrepresentation by the end of the six-year cycle.
Not all of the benchmarks have to be established and reported by December, but states must notify the Education Department how they plan to gather the information and develop their goals.
“This is one of the biggest requests I’ve seen, and I’ve been in special education for more than 20 years,” said Lalit M. Roy, who oversees the collection of special education data for the California Department of Education. The state has about 700,000 children in special education.
“The underlying argument, I’m sure, is that Congress wants to know, if we’re spending so much money, are the programs working,” Mr. Roy said. “The question is, do we need this much data” to answer that, he said.
Focus on Outcomes
Data collection has always been the backbone of the federal special education law, which was first adopted in 1975 as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act. There have been long-running complaints, however, that the IDEA focuses too much on compliance data—for instance, making sure certain reports are written on time—and not enough on outcomes, such as how many students in special education graduate ready to enter college or the workforce.
The President’s Commission on Excellence in Special Education, established by President Bush in 2001, commented on the “culture of compliance” in its report, released a year later.
“While process compliance two decades ago allowed the federal government to determine whether children with disabilities received any education services, then and now it does little to help parents and teachers judge whether those services lead to student success,” the report said.
The reauthorized IDEA makes an effort to step away from the preoccupation with compliance, by saying that states must set “measurable and rigorous” targets to reach, and that states must focus on requirements that are “most closely related to improving educational results for children with disabilities.”
The law also outlines broad priority areas that states need to monitor in their reporting efforts, with the Education Department developing more specifics.
“We had draft indicators earlier, but one thing you learn in this job is not to work on drafts,” said Mary Corey, the director of data coordination for the Missouri Department of Education’s division of special education.
Previous data requests asked some of the same questions as the latest effort, but in a way that allowed some vagueness in the responses, she said.
“In the state performance plans, the topic areas are the same but it’s asked in a way that’s very quantifiable,” Ms. Corey said. “That is a big change.”
For instance, Missouri, which has about 140,000 students in special education, did not track the number of students with individualized education programs who had appropriate transition plans, Ms. Corey said. All states must now track that data and work toward 100 percent compliance.
Sandra McQuain, the coordinator of data management for the West Virginia Department of Education’s special education office, said crafting the state performance plan in a short time frame has been one of her department’s biggest challenges. The state already has a student-management database, which makes it easier to gather some of the required elements for the state’s 50,000 students with disabilities.
But “it certainly takes a lot of effort in reporting to OSEP,” Ms. McQuain said. “The more reporting you have to do, the more time it takes from other things.”
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