More States Meet Requirements Under Federal Special Education Rating System

By Christina A. Samuels — July 06, 2015 3 min read
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Nineteen states earned a “meets requirement” rating from the U.S. Department of Education’s office of special education programs for the 2013-14 school year, according the department’s latest report, which reflects the second year of a new, tougher evaluation system.

That was up from 15 states that earned that rating from the U.S. Department of Education last year, the first year the department evaluated states under a new “results-driven accountability” matrix. The states were evaluated last year on 2012-13 data. The system was designed to measure states on special education student performance as well as compliance issues, such as whether states meet various deadlines mandated under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

States have also been asked to create a “state-identified measurable result,” which is intended to be the foundation of a multiyear, comprehensive plan to improve student performance in special education. For example, a state could choose to focus on a goal to improve student literacy, and develop a multilayered plan of how to accomplish that goal.

In addition to meets requirements, states can be rated in three additional categories—needs assistance, needs intervention, and needs substantial intervention. No state has fallen into the lowest category, though the District of Columbia has been in the needs intervention category for nine consecutive years. Each level triggers a different action from the office of special education programs, from referring states to technical assistance to requiring states to use some of their federal special education money to address the areas of deficiency.

This year, 30 states were found to need assistance in the report provided to states June 30, which is down from 32 in the report issued last year. In addition to the District of Columbia, Texas was found to need intervention, for the second year in a row.

Last year, California and Delaware were also in the needs intervention category, but this year, both climbed up one rank, to needs assistance. The Delaware News-Journal reported that the state has implemented new professional development, among other initiatives, to improve its performance with special education students.

Melody Musgrove, the director of the office of special education programs, said that states are being evaluated on different indicators this year than they were last year.

One change is that states will now be measured on the percentage of students with disabilities who drop out of school, and the percentage of students with disabilities who graduate with a high school diploma. Both of these measures come from data that is collected by the office of special education programs, which is different from the newer, adjusted cohort graduation rate. The adjusted cohort graduation rate, now in its 3rd year of being reported, allows easier comparisons among states.

Musgrove said that the department decided to use special education graduation and dropout data because of discrepancies in how states are calculating the cohort graduation rate. That calculation requires that students earn a diploma that is “aligned” to academic standards. The special education data collection, however, asks states to count students who earned a diploma “identical” to that earned by students in general education. (I explored the complexities in graduation rates for students with disabilities in an article for Education Week‘s annual Diplomas Count publication.)

“It becomes clear that some states were seeing ‘aligned’ as not the same thing as meeting the same standard,” Musgrove said. “We need to understand better what’s happening there.”

The department also dropped a requirement that states be evaluated on the gaps in state test scores between students in special education and students in general education. So many states received waivers because they were pilot-testing the common core assessments that calculating gaps didn’t make sense for 2013-14 data, she said. The department could decide to use state test-score data to measure growth among special education student performance at a later time.

The Education Department usually publishes on its website the special education office’s “state determination” letters, which outline exactly where states not in the top category have fallen short and what they need to fix their problems. Those letters are expected to be published on the Education Department’s website later this week.

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