Special Education

Louisiana Slow in Rolling Out New Authority for Spec. Ed. Teams

By Christina A. Samuels — January 20, 2015 6 min read
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A new Louisiana law giving school-based teams the power to develop course-completion and graduation standards for certain students with disabilities has bogged down over worries that it may run afoul of federal regulations.

The supporters of the measure, which was approved unanimously by both the state House and the Senate and was signed into law by Gov. Bobby Jindal in June, say the concerns are overblown. From their perspective, Louisiana is simply following in the path of many other states that allow individualized education program, or IEP, teams to develop alternative ways for students with disabilities to demonstrate what they know.

To help IEP teams with their new responsibilities, the state education department last week signed a $251,000 contract with the Louisiana State University Human Development Center in New Orleans to provide statewide training.

But other education officials in the state say that correspondence from the U.S. Department of Education has had a chilling effect on the implementation of the law, called Act 833. And the most recent letter from the Education Department, also sent last week, didn’t clear things up, said a state representative who led a push for the policy change.

New Approach

After Act 833 passed, federal education department officials wrote a letter to Louisiana schools chief John White saying they had “significant concerns” that the law could be implemented in a way that violates the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—known as the No Child Left Behind Act in its current form—and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Currently, most students in Louisiana must pass tests in 4th grade and 8th grade to progress through elementary and middle school, and a series of end-of-course tests to earn a diploma. For students with disabilities who repeatedly fail the tests, the new law would allow, as one example, teachers to pull out individual content standards and create tests or assignments that gauge a student’s knowledge, in lieu of passing the state assessment. In 2012-13, about 37 percent of Louisiana students with disabilities earned a diploma in four years, compared to 74 percent of the state’s students overall.

New Pathway

A Louisiana law passed last year changes the requirements for graduation for certain students with disabilities who have shown persistent difficulty passing grade-promotion exams or end-of-course tests. A student’s individualized education team can now create an alternate pathway for promotion to the next grade, or earn a standard diploma by demonstrating mastery.

• An IEP team must establish minimum performance standards for an eligible student with disabilities within 30 days of the student enrolling in a course.

• The teacher of record makes the decision about whether a student has met the performance criteria outlined in the student’s IEP and can earn credit for a course.

• Grade-promotion decisions are made by teachers in consultation with the student’s special education teachers. If any member of the IEP team disagrees with a decision, the entire team can meet and determine if promotion is appropriate.

• The IEP team cannot change achievement level definitions. A student who scores “unsatisfactory” or “approaching basic” on a state test cannot be counted as “satisfactory” for purposes of state accountability. However, the team can determine that passing the test is not necessary in order to earn credit.

Source: Louisiana Department of Education

Rep. John M. Schroder, a Republican and one of the state lawmakers who fought for the bill, wrote to the Education Department soon after it passed, asking how the new rules could be adopted in a way that passes federal muster.

Five months later, he got a reply. The Jan. 12 letter explained that the U.S. Department of Education expects that IEP teams will make sure that students get the special education and supplementary services they need “to meet the academic content standards that are applicable to all other students in the jurisdiction of the [school district].”

The letter came from Michael K. Yudin, the acting assistant secretary for the office of special education and rehabilitative services. In an interview, Mr. Yudin said that the state has to be careful that students with disabilities are not treated in a way that violates the idea, which calls for individualized plans that meet that student’s needs, provide access to the general curriculum, and offer an educational benefit to the student. The state’s recently passed regulations appear to address some of the federal government’s concerns, the letter said.

“We want them to ultimately do this well for kids,” Mr. Yudin said.

The Louisiana Department of Education, on the other hand, has been telling districts that they’re clear to move forward—and those mixed signals have been a problem, said Scott M. Richard, the executive director of the Louisiana School Boards Association.

Parent Complaints

Districts are now at varying levels of carrying out the new law, he said. Some are choosing to focus on older students poised to graduate, while others have adopted the new provisions more fully. Still others have chosen not to proceed at all until they get a clear signal that they won’t face federal sanctions, even though the law was supposed to go into effect for the 2014-15 school year, now more than half over.

The delays have prompted complaints from some parents. But, “special education directors are very, very leery about moving forward when, at the state level, our official IEP documents have not been revised to include new language that reflects 833,” Mr. Richard said. Plus, “no one wants it to end up in litigation because there are mixed signals coming from the feds and from our state department,” he said.

Mr. White, the Louisiana state superintendent of education, said the state needs to make policy that works best for its student population. “Louisiana should set laws that are responsive to the needs of its kids. And if the federal government has problems with that, they will tell us,” he said.

Implementing the law has been a major undertaking, he said—one that he predicted when the bill was under consideration.

“We’re going to take it head on and keep working on it,” Mr. White said. “I am extremely optimistic about the potential of that bill to focus our attention on students with the most significant disabilities and get to a point where we’re really providing good services.”

Much of the work in implementing the bill has been handled by a 22-member steering committee, which has already had five meetings about the new law and is scheduled to meet at least three more times.

Rep. Schroder, the chairman of the steering committee, said the most recent letter from the U.S. Department of Education is “still not very clear,” he said. But he also put an optimistic spin on the process, saying that the committee is “definitely moving in a right direction.”

He added: “The thing I’m pleased about is there’s a lot of people showing up at the meeting, and I think the kids will benefit overall. But it’s no question it’s a lot of work, and it’s a big task in front of us.”

Course-Credit Issue

Act 833 has exposed “implementation issues and curriculum issues” in special education, Mr. Schroder said, and that point was also addressed by Shawn Fleming, the deputy director of the Louisiana Developmental Disabilities Council and a strong proponent of the new law.

For example, Mr. Fleming, who is also a member of the steering committee, said the panel learned that more than 1,000 students in the state are taking noncredit English and math courses that are intended for students with severe cognitive disabilities, but they don’t appear to be categorized as having that level of disability. Another issue of concern is that Louisiana has tied the earning of course credits in high school to passing the end-of-course test. If a student was not required to pass the test, does he or she still earn the credits?

“A lot of the things that have caused consternation and concern don’t really have anything to do with Act 833,” Mr. Fleming said.

But the larger discussion, though complicated, has been worthwhile, Mr. Fleming said. “I’m absolutely, 100 percent confident that what we did [in passing the law] is the right thing.”

So is Laureen Mayfield, the president of the Louisiana Special Education Association, a coalition of district special education administrators.

Ms. Mayfield said her district, the 2,300-student Bienville Parish schools in Arcadia, has embraced the new provisions. The new law does not change accountability rules for the state; a student who earns “below basic” on a state test will still be counted as below basic. But that score will not be a permanent barrier for that student progressing and ultimately earning a diploma, Ms. Mayfield said, if he or she meets the goals developed by the IEP team.

“And that’s why we have 833,” Ms. Mayfield said. “It’s taking away those arbitrary lines that we draw.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 21, 2015 edition of Education Week as La. Struggles in Rolling Out New Authority for IEP Teams

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