The U.S. Department of Education’s first crack at evaluating special education programs in the states appears to be more of an assessment of each state’s data-collection efforts than of the programs themselves, special education officials say.
Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, as reauthorized in 2004, Congress outlined several areas that states are to monitor to make sure they’re providing the best education for students with disabilities. Based on that directive, the Education Department created 34 “indicators” that states must track annually for children eligible to receive special education services from infancy to age 21.
Each state must also develop a performance plan that outlines goals for improvement.
The department released its ranking of the state data last month, giving most states middling grades both on their ability to demonstrate that they are in compliance with the goals of each indicator, and on their ability to provide the information each indicator required.
Some of the information required by the department has been tracked by states for some time, such as graduation and dropout rates. Other indicators were new, such as tracking suspension rates by ethnicity and race and determining postsecondary outcomes for students with disabilities who have graduated from high school.
In addition, the department outlined, in detailed letters, areas for states to work on for the future, Assistant Secretary John H. Hage, who oversees the office of special education and rehabilitative services, said during a June 20 press conference. The determination letters and findings are available on the department’s Web site .
The law’s intent is to shift states away from a focus on compliance to a focus on student outcomes. But the data-collection effort required has been “a tremendous burden” for the states, said Bill East, the executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Special Education, based in Alexandria, Va.
This year’s evaluation, the first, was based on data submitted for the 2005-06 school year. Most states fell into the two middle evaluation categories, “needs assistance” or “needs intervention,” with only nine making the highest grade, “meets the requirements,” for students ages 3 to 21. For infants through 2-year-olds, 15 states and territories met the requirements, with the remaining states and territories ranked as needing assistance or needing intervention. None was in the lowest category, “needs substantial intervention.”
Colorado was in the “needs intervention” category for both infants through 2-year-olds and 3- to 21-year-olds . Ed Steinberg, the state director for exceptional-student services, which includes special education, said he was “disappointed but not surprised” by the ranking.
“We believe the major issue in Colorado is the antiquated data system that we have here in the state,” Mr. Steinberg said. That made it difficult for individual districts to submit the information the state needed to provide to the federal agency, he said. The letter that the Education Department wrote to the state, explaining how the rationale behind the ranking, noted that several pieces of information were missing from the state’s annual performance report.
The positive result from the evaluation, Mr. Steinberg said, is that he believes his department now has the leverage it needs to get an improved data-collection system in place for the next time annual performance reports are due.
“We’re in a whole new era. This is accountability on steroids,” Mr. Steinberg said.
Time to Improve
During the press conference last month, federal Education Department officials said that because this is the first year of evaluations, they made a deliberate choice not to give any state the lowest rank.
But the department was also sparing in bestowing its highest rank: Only four states were rated as meeting the requirements for both infants to 2-year-olds and for 3- to 21-year-olds.
Wyoming, one of those states, has a robust data-collection system that allows for close monitoring of student progress, said Peg Brown-Clark, the state’s director of special education. It still has areas for improvement, however, based on the federal evaluation and the state’s own examination of its efforts, she said.
“We’ve got to make some adjustments to timelines, so that data submissions can be done in time for us to make improvements for the next year,” Ms. Brown-Clark said. She added that the state has to offer more technical assistance to districts so that if problems are noted, they can be fixed.
“That, going forward, is the most daunting task,” she said.
States that were not ranked as meeting the federal requirements for data collection and compliance do not face immediate sanctions. They would have to remain in a lower category for at least two years before the federal department would be required to take action, which could include entering into an improvement agreement with the state or partially withholding special education money. States also can appeal the department’s decision.
The next step for states is to provide similar determinations for each of their school districts. The federal special education law does not mandate a time frame for when such evaluations must be released.
The Education Department has set up a number of technical-assistance centers to provide information to the states, said Patricia J. Guard, the acting director of the office of special education programs.
“We have a vast technical-assistance network,” she said. “We fund a number of centers, and we have aligned these centers with each one of these indicators. We are committed to working with states.”
Rebecca H. Cort, New York state’s deputy education commissioner overseeing services for individuals with disabilities, said the federal Education Department appears to be working hard to get information to states on the evaluation process and ways to improve their standing.
“We’ve gotten a significant amount of information from the Department of Education. I don’t think they’re rushing out to penalize people,” Ms. Cort said.
But some of the indicators states are being asked to monitor aren’t as important for student success as others, she believes. Also, she said there is a concern that some states that set ambitious goals for themselves could be punished for not meeting them, while states with more modest goals end up earning better rankings.
“Everyone within the states knows that this is a work in progress,” Ms. Cort said.
A version of this article appeared in the July 18, 2007 edition of Education Week