Special Education

La. Bill Would Empower IEP Teams

By Christina A. Samuels — May 30, 2014 6 min read
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In an effort backed by state advocacy groups and families of children with disabilities, Louisiana lawmakers approved a bill last week that would give teams of teachers, administrators, and parents wide latitude in determining grade promotion and graduation requirements for students with disabilities.

This would be a new power in the state for the teams that normally draft students’ individualized education programs, or IEPs, but which do not create graduation requirements. Supporters of the bill said that if it is signed into law by Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican, it could improve the state’s dismal record of graduating students with disabilities in four years with a standard diploma. In 2011-12, the most recent year for which statistics are available, the four-year graduation rate for those students was 33 percent, compared to 72 percent for the general student population.

Under the measure, IEP teams would be empowered to create performance requirements for students with disabilities who have not been able to pass state-mandated tests. The bill requires the state board of education to develop guidance and suggest assessments that the IEP teams could use, but the teams would not be required to follow those recommendations.

Philosophical Rift

The debate over the bill exposed a philosophical rift between groups that advocate for students with disabilities. While a large contingent of bill supporters said that the measure’s passage meant students could demonstrate what they know without being derailed by high-stakes tests, others said that the bill represents a lowering of standards for students with disabilities. The bill eventually won support from state Superintendent John White after language was added that offered the pathway only to students who have failed Louisiana’s high-stakes tests.

Alternative Path

Louisiana legislators passed a bill that would allow a team of parents, teachers, and other professionals to create grade-promotion and graduation requirements for some students with disabilities, instead of requiring those students to pass state-mandated tests. Among the provisions:

• Flexibility would be allowed for “twice-exceptional” students—those who are gifted and who also have a disability—unlike an earlier version of the bill that excluded gifted students.

• The alternative pathway for grade promotion would be available to students who have not passed state mandated tests in the previous year. The student must have failed to meet standards for any two of the three most recent school years, or must have failed the two most recent administrations of any state-established tests required for graduation.

• The state board of education would be required to offer guidance to individualized education program, or IEP, teams, including a list of other assessments and minimum scores that could be used instead of the regular state tests, but the team would not be required to follow that guidance.

• Diplomas granted to students under this flexibility would be counted the same as diplomas issued to any other student, for the purposes of calculating state school-performance scores.

SOURCE: House Bill 1015

Mr. White said in an interview that the bill had been changed from “one that would have recused adults from their responsibility to serve children with disabilities, to a way to serve children who need an alternate assessment program.”

It’s not known whether IEP teams in other states are operating with more or less latitude than what Louisiana is considering, said David R. Johnson, who has researched graduation requirements for students with disabilities as part of his work as the director of the Institute on Community Integration at the University of Minnesota.

An April 2012 report co-authored by Mr. Johnson found that 23 states, among them Louisiana, allowed alternate courses to be used to earn the required course credits in order to graduate with a standard diploma. Three states—Missouri, Nebraska and Pennsylvania—allowed the reduction of credits. Nine states allowed the lowering of performance criteria, and 15 states allowed extensions.

Aside from the policy, the actual practice among IEP teams in deviating from state requirements is not widely studied, Mr. Johnson said.

“We really do not know how extensively IEP teams really do intervene for students with disabilities,” Mr. Johnson said. Nor is there any way to tell what this change in Louisiana, if signed by the governor, may ultimately mean for students there, he said. Those students may graduate with a high school diploma that does not have the same meaning for them as it would for students who followed a standard pathway to graduation, he said.

Federal Response

It also remains to be seen how this change will be perceived by the U.S. Department of Education, which said that an early version of the bill appeared to violate both the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. As of last week, the department had not yet weighed in on the newest version of the bill, which has the more restrictive amendments.

Mr. Johnson and Martha Thurlow, the director of the National Center on Educational Outcomes, also at the University of Minnesota, co-authored a 2013 paper on ensuring meaningful graduation requirements for students with disabilities. Only about 10 percent to 15 percent of students with disabilities have impairments that would merit a different set of standards for them, the paper said. The other students should be able to meet the same requirements as any of their peers, as long as they have appropriate instruction and support.

Graduation Gap

Nevertheless, federal data collected specifically on students with disabilities show that they drop out of high school in large numbers. In 2010–11, 64 percent left school with a standard high school diploma, according to the report. Fourteen percent of students with disabilities exited with a certificate of attendance or other alternative diploma. About 20 percent dropped out. Because this rate is calculated specifically for students covered under the IDEA, there is no direct comparison for the general student population.

“As the pressure to increase graduation requirements aligned to states’ college- and career-ready standards grows, consideration of diploma options will once again come to the forefront of discussions in states and districts,” the paper says. “The standard diploma and any alternative diploma option established by high school exit credentials must have explicit and well-understood meaning and value.”

Testing Problems

As the Louisiana measure made its way through the legislature, garnering unanimous votes in both the House and the Senate, advocacy organizations released dueling letters and press releases revealing a clash over what it means to provide a rigorous and appropriate education for children with special learning needs.

Liz Gary, a bill supporter whose 11-year-old son, Dustin, has Down syndrome, said the bill ultimately will lead to higher standards for children like him. He did not pass the test required to move into 5th grade in the fall, but the bill would allow an alternate pathway for him.

“I’m still numb, is the best way to say it, because it all happened so quickly, and it’s so positive,” said Ms. Gary, who lives in Mandeville. “Right now I think we’re just going to enjoy the fact that such a monumental education bill is about to be signed.”

A group of Louisiana-based special education and disability advocacy organizations, including the Louisiana Developmental Disabilities Council, the Louisiana Association of Special Education Administrators and a network of 10 family-directed and -staffed regional resource centers, had sent the state superintendent a letter in November asking for some of the same changes to state policy that are a part of this bill.

“I’m expecting kids to get more education out of this,” said Shawn Fleming, the deputy director of the council. “Are IEP teams doing everything that they’re supposed to do? We know they’re not. It’s not going to fix all the things we know are happening. But it will make it so that kids will have achievable outcomes, meaningful outcomes that will enable them to get employment in the future.” The pathway is better than just dropping out of school, Mr. Fleming said.

Changing Standards

But allowing IEP teams to come up with an ad hoc set of grade-promotion and graduation requirements is a slippery slope to low expectations, said Lindsay Jones, the director of public policy and advocacy for the National Center for Learning Disabilities, a New York City-based advocacy organization.

“What amazes me about this, and what makes me so sad, is that I keep having conversations with people about how can we best lower the standard,” Ms. Jones said. “It’s never about how can we best improve the instruction so they can meet a high standard.”

Elizabeth Marcell, the director of intervention services for ReNEW Schools in New Orleans, a network of charter schools, told a Louisiana Senate education committee on May 22 that her experience has been that many IEP teams are either “misinformed or unsophisticated” about drafting education plans.

“Allowing an IEP team without any checks and balances to make alternative pathways is very problematic,” she said. “I think the low expectations are a bigger problem than the pathways to a diploma.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 04, 2014 edition of Education Week as La. Bill Would Give IEP Teams Promotion, Graduation Say

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