Three years after the U.S. Department of Education started requiring states to collect and report extensive data on students with disabilities, it is still tweaking the rules that states are expected to follow when gathering the information.
What hasn’t changed, however, is the scope and depth of the information that states are expected to collect. A set of proposed revisions to the data-collection requirements are in a public-comment period that ends Nov. 21, and it’s unlikely any major rewriting will occur, based on comments the Education Department has made in response to earlier concerns.
Although some state officials have complained that collecting the required data diverts time and money away from educating students with disabilities, federal officials have said plainly that they disagree.
Collecting the information does not “in any way negatively impact outcomes for students with disabilities,” the department said in a “comments and analysis” document released after a different round of public comments that was held last year.
In addition, the department said it does not plan to trim down any requirements.
“We believe, in order for the ... process to demonstrate its full impact, it is important to maintain consistency and will, with some minor adjustments, retain the original indicators,” wrote federal education officials.
The Education Department’s stance is disappointing, said Mary N. Watson, the director of the exceptional children division for the North Carolina department of education and the president of the National Association of State Directors of Special Education.
“We are the people who implement this law. Yes, it does divert resources,” said Ms. Watson.
She noted that her department recently was able to squeeze enough money out of a strapped budget to hire an additional central-office staff worker.
“I had to hire a statistician, not a literacy coach,” Ms. Watson said. Some of the data-collection requirements, she said, “are like throwing money in the air.”
The Education Department is not commenting on the proposed changes while they are in the public-comment period, said Jim Bradshaw, a spokesman.
The data-collection requirement was instituted through the 2004 reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. In the law, Congress outlined several compliance areas that states are to monitor.
The U.S. Department of Education is proposing changes to the information states must report on students with disabilities. Two proposed changes are:
Before: Percent of youth aged 16 and above with an [individualized education program] that includes coordinated, measurable, annual IEP goals and transition services that will reasonably enable the student to meet the postsecondary goals.
After: Percent of youth age 16 and above with an IEP that includes appropriate, measurable, postsecondary goals that are annually updated and based upon an age-appropriate transition assessment, transition services, including courses of study, that will reasonably enable the student to meet those postsecondary goals, and annual IEP goals related to the student’s transition services needs. There also must be evidence that the student was invited to the IEP team meeting where transition services are to be discussed, and evidence that a representative of any participating agency was invited to the IEP team meeting with the prior consent of the parent or student who has reached the age of majority.
Before: Percent of youth who had IEPs, are no longer in secondary school, and who have been competitively employed, enrolled in some type of postsecondary school, or both, within one year of leaving high school.
After: Percent of youth who are no longer in secondary school, had IEPs in effect at the time they left school, and were:
Source: U.S. Department of Education
Based on that directive, the department established 34 “indicators” that states must track annually for children eligible to receive special education services.
Twenty of the indicators are specific to students ages 3 to 21, who are covered under Part B of the idea. The other 14 indicators are directed toward infants and toddlers with disabilities, who are eligible for services under Part C of the special education law.
States are required to set “measurable and rigorous” improvement goals for themselves based on the indicators, which are collected annually.
This public-comment session is the second crack the public has had at suggesting changes to the indicators. In July 2007, the department advertised proposed revisions and allowed 60 days for comments.
Late last month, the department released the proposed indicators again, with some additional changes, along with a lengthy document that responded to the concerns that were raised during the public-comment session of more than a year ago.
After the second public-comment period ends, the Education Department is expected to release the final indicators.
Many of the indicators have a clear purpose, state officials say. For example, states are required to track how many students with individualized education programs graduate from high school with a regular diploma. Another indicator requires states to submit data on the percentage of youths with ieps who drop out.
But state officials believe other indicators are less useful. For example, states must submit to the department the “percent of parents with a child receiving special education services who report that schools facilitated parent involvement as a means of improving services and results for children with disabilities.”
Gathering that information means sending out yearly surveys to parents and sometimes resurveying them if the department does not get a high enough response rate.
“You’re asking every year for the same thing,” said Nancy Reder, the deputy executive director of the Alexandria, Va.-based National Association of State Directors of Special Education.
Chris Thacker, the systems consultant for information technology for the Kentucky Department of Education, says the information collection process is “one of the most difficult things to deal with day in and day out, and probably one of the most constructive things we’ve ever done.”
Like other state officials, Mr. Thacker said that it’s a challenge to collect the data, particularly when the federal government makes changes to what it is requesting from states. “But when you step away from that, it’s been a tremendous asset and help,” he said. “There’s been a lot of good that’s come out of it, but it’s been a tremendous responsibility.”
Paul J. Raskopf, the director of the office of financial and data services for the Virginia Department of Education, has a different view. Some some of the proposals present a disruption to a collection effort that is already time-consuming, he said.
“I’m not going to say it’s running smoothly, but we are in more of a routine,” Mr. Raskopf said. “But for the time and the effort that goes in, I’m not sure we see the benefit.”
Some of the monitoring areas have strong support. For example, one indicator requires states to track, by race and ethnicity, suspensions and expulsions of students with disabilities. The department had proposed dropping that requirement, but has decided to reintroduce it.
“We received many compelling comments from disability rights and advocacy groups expressing significant concerns about the elimination” of that particular indicator, the department said in its statement. It has been reworded in a way that should eliminate the concerns, the department said.
Special education officials don’t fear monitoring their efforts, said Robert Runkel, the assistant superintendent of education overseeing Montana’s special education program.
“I truly believe in accountability and the importance of valid and reliable data,” he said. But in its zeal to create accountability, the Education Department may have overshot the mark, he warned. “There’s so many indicators and so many plans, which do you focus on first?” he asked.
“We’re concerned that the baseline is continuously changing,” said Ms. Watson, the president of the nasdse. The data-collection efforts focus attention on compliance, she believes, and away from improving education for students with disabilities.
“Our voices,” she said, “have not been heard.”
A version of this article appeared in the November 19, 2008 edition of Education Week as Ed. Dept. Not Backing Down On Disabilities-Data Mandate