Published Online: July 8, 2014
Published in Print: July 9, 2014, as Fewer States Hit Mark Under Revised Spec. Ed. Framework

Fewer States Hit Mark Under New Spec. Ed. Framework

Student achievement key federal priority

Fewer states are fully meeting federal requirements for serving students with disabilities now that the U.S. Department of Education is focusing less on state compliance with voluminous special education rules and more on how well those students are being taught.

The department released the results of its new evaluation process on June 24. Only 15 states fell into the "meets requirements" category, based on data collected for the 2012-13 school year. More than half the states, 32, were categorized as "needs assistance." The other three states—California, Delaware, and Texas—plus the District of Columbia fell into the "needs intervention" category. In 2013, 38 states were in the "meets requirement" category.

The results reflect a departure from previous years, when states were evaluated on compliance factors, such as how quickly they evaluated students or resolved due-process complaints.

Now, half of a state's ranking is based on such factors as the performance of students with disabilities on the National Assessment of Educational Progress and the achievement gap between such students and their typically developing peers. The other half is based on the compliance indicators used in previous years.

Evaluating states on the academic performance of students with disabilities is an important shift away from "complacency," U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a press call announcing the evaluation results June 24.

"That complacency is not in our students' best interest," Mr. Duncan said. "In too many states, the outcomes for students with disabilities are simply too low."

He added that states should not look at the change as an additional reporting burden.

"Our department is not asking states to do more; we're asking them to do things differently," he said.

Added Support

The Education Department plans to finance a new, $50 million technical-assistance center called the Center on Systemic Improvement, to help states better use their federal special education money to improve student performance. States are also being asked to craft comprehensive plans to boost student achievement and submit them to the department, rather than focus on fixing individual indicators.

The results-driven accountability framework has been in the works for some time. Last year, Melody Musgrove, the director of the office of special education programs, said that the monitoring the department had been doing up to that point didn't seem to be moving the needle on student achievement.

"We've been looking at the data that shows that even though we have been improving in terms of compliance, because that's what we've been focusing on, we were not seeing that same type of improvement across reading, and math, and graduation rates, and post-school outcomes for students with disabilities," she said at a special education leadership conference last August. "We need to focus our energies on the areas that are most in need of improvement."

The stakes can be high for states: Under both the previous system and the revised framework, if a state falls into the "needs assistance" category for two years in a row, it could be identified as a high-risk grant recipient and required to accept technical help. A state in the "needs intervention" category for three years in a row could be required to prepare a corrective-action plan, enter into a compliance agreement, or, ultimately, have a portion of its federal special education aid withheld.

The District of Columbia, for example, has been in the "needs intervention" category now for eight years in a row; the department has required it to spend about $500,000 in its federal aid on student-evaluation programs—above and beyond money already earmarked for that purpose—that would otherwise be designated for administrative costs.

Persistent Gaps

The lack of progress that the revised system is intended to address particularly visible when examining the scores of students with disabilities on NAEP, known as "the nation's report card." The score gap between students with disabilities and their typically developing peers remains wide: In the 2013 test of 4th grade reading, for example, 69 percent of students with disabilities scored below basic, compared with 27 percent of students without disabilities.

Kim Hymes, the senior director of policy for the Council for Exceptional Children, an advocacy group based in Arlington, Va., said the shift was significant for states.

"The approach the department has taken is a step in the right direction," Ms. Hymes said after the release of the data. "But we want to make sure we do something really useful with the information ... and that it serves as a trigger to look deeper into the data."

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State Perspective

Mr. Duncan was joined on the press call by state education chiefs Mitchell D. Chester of Massachusetts and Kevin S. Huffman of Tennessee. Massachusetts has the highest performance of students with disabilities, while Tennessee is seeing the fastest improvement, Mr. Duncan said.

"We've done a better job at ensuring procedural compliance," Mr. Chester said, "but it was never clear to me we were doing as well as we can in preparing students well for their future."

Mr. Huffman added: "We don't want students winding up in special education just because we did not do a good job in teaching them in their early years."

Referring to the proportion of Tennessee students receiving special education services, he said: "We can't duck the results for 14 percent of our students."

Vol. 33, Issue 36, Page 25

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