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Special Education

Advocates Hope Common Core Will Rub Off on Special-Needs Students

By Catherine Gewertz — May 29, 2015 7 min read
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As nearly all states adopted college- and career-ready standards in the past five years, many advocates in the special education community crossed their fingers, hoping that the trend would press the K-12 world to extend those higher expectations to students with special needs, too.

But whether high schools are doing a better job building those expectations into their postsecondary-transition plans for students remains an open question.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires schools to work with students with disabilities who are 16 and older, and their families, to craft plans for finishing high school and moving into college or the working world. The 2004 version of the law emphasizes that transition planning should set “appropriate, measurable postsecondary goals,” prepare students for “further education,” and define courses of study that will help them meet those goals.

States must report annually to the U.S. Department of Education on the percentage of their individualized education plans, or IEPs, that comply with those transition-planning requirements, including the mandate that students themselves participate in it. Those state reports show an improving picture.

In 2012-13, the most recent year for which data are available, states reported that on average, 87 percent of the IEPs for students in transition planning met the law’s requirements. In some states, that number was as low as 23 percent. But the overall average is 7 percentage points higher than in 2009-10.

Melody Musgrove, the director of the Education Department’s office of special education programs, said she believes that the common core is among the forces influencing a shift in transition planning.

“I think it is driving up expectations for students with disabilities,” she said. “We see more interest in that secondary transition in states and districts.”

More states are beginning to embrace standards-based IEPs as a way to ensure that special-needs students have access to the general education curriculum for their grade level, she added.

And while the trend lines are positive for IEPs that reflect the requirements of transition planning, Ms. Musgrove said, states must start focusing more on outcomes than on compliance. The department is trying to bring that about with its “results-driven accountability” initiative, which requires states to craft comprehensive plans for improving student achievement for students with disabilities. In the first phase of those plans, which states submitted in February, 13 states chose graduation rates as their focus, and two chose postsecondary outcomes, Ms. Musgrove said. She sees that as a promising sign that students with special needs will be included in states’ plans to improve those indicators.

Shift Underway?

Whether the program will strengthen transition planning, however, remains to be seen. And a lot rides on those plans, since they have the potential to bolster students with disabilities at a crucial juncture of their lives.

Jen Leitzke is pinning high hopes on the process, which begins this spring for her 16-year-old daughter, who is deaf and blind and a student at the Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf in Faribault. Marissa runs track and spends many hours a week volunteering in camps and outdoor education programs. But she needs concrete plans to help get her over some key hurdles.

“She is college-bound, so those transition goals should go along with helping her graduate and be college-ready,” Ms. Leitzke said. “She’s a big reader, but she’s still not passing state standardized tests. And she needs help with her study skills. So we need to discuss what she needs to help her with those things.”

The process of transition planning has come in for its share of criticism.

“Many plans lack depth, breadth, and personalization; have low expectations for students with disabilities; do not include plans for postsecondary education; and do not map out how the K–12 education system should connect to other systems, such as postsecondary, vocational rehabilitation, workforce training, or independent services,” says a 2013 report from the American Institutes for Research. “As a result, many students with disabilities leave high school with amorphous and generic plans that fail to address their individual circumstances or interests.”

Transition plans have limited value in the effort to gauge how well students with disabilities are progressing toward postsecondary goals, said David R. Johnson, the co-director of the National Center on Secondary Education and Transition at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on Community Integration. All too often, schools lack the resources or focus to meet the plans’ goals, he said.

“It’s easy to sit down and say, ‘Yes, Mary should go to college.’ But then you look at the curriculum, and there are no acceptable courses to get her there,” Mr. Johnson said. “The proof in the pudding would be to ask, ' To what extent have the goals in those IEPs been attained a year or two out?’ ”

To set more meaningful goals, he said, it’s crucial to offer appropriate coursework that leads to a regular diploma. Schools must do a better job, too, of integrating self-determination skills into the curriculum, instead of simply stating in an IEP that they’re a goal, he said.

David W. Test, the co-director of the National Secondary Transition and Technical Assistance Center, a federally funded group at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, said that while IEPs are “not an exact measure” of how well schools are preparing students with disabilities for their postsecondary lives, he sees states focusing much more intently on meeting those goals than they did before. They’re providing better professional development on that planning process, and working with districts to do a better job at providing services, he said. Mr. Test doesn’t attribute that trend to the common core, since he saw it taking shape before most states adopted the standards in 2010 and 2011.

Starting Earlier

Joanne Cashman sees an improving picture that predates the common core, too. As the director of IDEA partnerships for the National Association of State Directors of Special Education, Ms. Cashman says she sees states helping districts get an earlier start in planning students’ futures, and taking steps to build in the right skills.

She singled out Pennsylvania as a state that’s done a particularly good job at using standards-based IEPs, and embracing the necessary accommodations to enable students with disabilities to learn the same curriculum as their peers.

Virginia, through its I’m Determined program, is working to get students prepared for the decisionmaking skills needed in charting a successful postsecondary life, Ms. Cashman said. Starting in elementary school, the program teaches students how to organize their time, reflect on their choices, and make decisions.

States are increasingly presuming that college is part of the future for students with disabilities, and that can bring about a shift in transition planning in high school, said Debra Hart, the principal investigator of Think College, a project at the University of Massachusetts Boston that works to expand higher education options for people with intellectual disabilities.

“What I’m hearing more teachers say in high school is, if these kids can be supported to take authentic college courses, why can’t they be supported in general ed[ucation] courses in high school?” she said.

Think College is the national coordinator of a program that provides supports for students with intellectual disabilities at 27 two- and four-year colleges in 23 states. Four years into the program, 39 percent of its students are in “integrated, competitive” jobs that pay minimum wage or higher, offer promotions, and include workplaces that blend adults with and without disabilities. That’s more than double the national average rate for that kind of work for that student group, Ms. Hart said.

She pointed out another positive development: Seven states now offer endorsements that recognize a specialization in transition planning for school-based personnel, including teachers and counselors. The AIR report notes that a dearth of such expertise often “contributes to [the] inadequate outcome” of most transition plans.

Even as states and districts take steps to improve postsecondary plans for students with disabilities, however, the heavy burden they’re shouldering to implement the common core can sideline that process, Mr. Test said.

“Because of the pressure to give kids access to the general curriculum, to help them pass the assessments, transition services are sometimes becoming secondary,” he said. More and more, he sees districts setting up programs for 18- to 21-year-old students, to allow more time to meet the goals in their transition plans while students still qualify for services under the IDEA.

That can be beneficial if the programs simultaneously launch students into the work world, or expose them to the rigors of a college campus, he said, but weak programs can simply warehouse students for too long in high school.

Coverage of efforts to implement college- and career-ready standards for all students is supported in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, at www.gatesfoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.

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