Education Secretary Lauds Revised Special Education Evaluation System

By Christina A. Samuels — June 25, 2014 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Evaluating states on the academic performance of students with disabilities—rather than focusing on how states comply with deadlines and paperwork—is an important shift away from “complacency,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in a press call Tuesday.

The department is continuing its media rollout of a revised evaluation process that it calls results-driven accountability. The 2004 reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires that states submit data to the Education Department about how students with disabilities are doing. But before this year’s annual report, states were only graded on what are called “compliance” indicators, such as whether students were evaluated for special education in the appropriate amount of time, or whether due process complaints were resolved in a timely fashion.

Under that assessment regime, most states were meeting the department’s standards.

But now, states are being checked on factors such as test scores of students with disabilities, and the gap between those scores and the scores of children in the general population, in addition to compliance, Duncan explained. The effect has been to put many more states in the category of “needing assistance” to meet achievement goals, as shown in a map released by the Education Department.

Duncan said that states should not look at the change as an additional reporting burden, but as a chance to focus on the changes that really matter for students with disabilities. “Our department is not asking states to do more, we’re asking them to do things differently,” he said .

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

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

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 students in Tennessee that receive special education services, he said, “We can’t duck the results for 14 percent of our students. We have to own the results for 14 percent of our students.”

States are being evaluated, in part, on their scores for the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which is a new use for that particular test, administered every two years in reading and math. The NAEP administrators have been working to ensure that more students with disabilities take the test, but states still have discretion to exclude some students with disabilities. In 2013, Maryland excluded 60 percent of students with disabilities from the 8th grade reading test.

In an interview, Nancy Reder, the deputy director of the National Association of State Directors of Special Education, said that the organization was on board with the changes. “But I wish there had been a little more discussion about what outcome indicators to use,” she said, referring to NAEP.

Kim Hymes, the senior director of policy for the Council for Exceptional Children, said the shift was “significant” for states. The department noted that under the previous method of evaluating states, most would have fallen into the “meets requirements” category.

“The approach the department has taken is a step in the right direction,” she said. “But we want to make sure we do something really useful with the information that was released today, and that it serves as a trigger to look deeper into the data.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the On Special Education blog.