States’ special education services face tighter oversight by the Obama administration


File: U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan. On Tuesday, he announced tighter oversight of oversight of the way states educate special-needs students. (Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

The Obama administration is tightening its oversight of the way states educate special-needs students, applying more- stringent criteria that drop the number of jurisdictions in compliance with federal law from 38 to 15.

Under the new criteria, Maryland is among the states that no longer meet federal requirements, joining the District, which has been out of compliance for the past eight years. Virginia meets the demands of federal law under the new rules.

Congress has guaranteed severely disabled students the right to a “free and appropriate” education since 1975. The 1990 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires public schools to meet the educational needs of students with disabilities, an estimated 7 million students.

The federal Education Department distributes $11.5 billion annually to states to help pay for special education and monitors their performance.

Until now, the agency considered whether states evaluated students for special needs in a timely manner, whether they reported information to the federal government and met other procedural benchmarks.

The U.S. Department of Education altered its criteria today for determining whether states are doing enough to meet the educational needs of students with disabilities. Under the new standards, only 15 states are in compliance with federal law.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Tuesday that his department for the first time will also consider outcomes: How well special-education students score on standardized tests, the gap in test scores between students with and without disabilities, the high school graduation rate for disabled students and other measures of achievement.

“Every child, regardless of income, race, background, or disability, can succeed if provided the opportunity to learn,” Duncan told reporters. “We know that when students with disabilities are held to high expectations and have access to the general curriculum in the regular classroom, they excel.”

Less than 10 percent of eighth-graders receiving special-education services are proficient in reading, Duncan said.

“Compliance with procedural requirements . . . is important, but it is not enough,” Duncan said. “It’s not enough for a state to be compliant if students can’t read or do math at a level sufficient to graduate from high school.”

To calculate how states stack up under the new criteria, the department is using a complex matrix that weighs several factors, including how well students with disabilities perform on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, a test the federal government gives to a sampling of students in every state every two years.

NAEP is designed to offer a snapshot of academic performance. This marks the first time the government has tied NAEP scores to consequences.

Duncan brushed aside the suggestion that the new approach adds to a climate of high-stakes standardized testing. “I wouldn’t call it high-stakes,” he said.

Federal officials also will be looking at the number of students with disabilities who take state standardized tests.

Last year, Maryland led the nation in the percentage of special-education students it excluded from the NAEP. In 2013, Maryland excluded 66 percent of special-needs students from the fourth-grade reading test and 60 percent from the eighth-grade reading test.

In its placing Maryland in the “needs assistance’ category, federal officials have directed the state to seek help from the federal agency and to craft a plan for improving performance. Officials at the Maryland State Department of Education could not be reached for comment.

Under IDEA, the Education Department is required to annually sort jurisdictions into four categories: meets requirements, needs assistance, needs intervention or needs substantial intervention.

If a state needs assistance for two years in a row, IDEA requires the department to order the state to obtain technical assistance or label the state “high-risk,” which means federal dollars could be withheld.

The department has never withheld federal dollars to educate special-needs students, said Michael Yudin, acting assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services.

But in cases of noncompliance, it has told states how to use some of their funds. That has been the case in the District, which federal officials have labeled a “high-risk” jurisdiction for its failure to meet special-education laws, a designation that triggers tighter federal controls.

Yudin said the District “has made pretty significant progress” but is still struggling. “They were in the tank a number of years ago and, frankly, they are significantly better,” he said. “There’s been significant improvement in D.C.’s compliance. But for the first time, today we’re also looking at outcomes, and unfortunately they haven’t made the same kind of progress.”

On Tuesday, a spokesman for the District’s Office of the State Superintendent of Education touted the city’s progress in educating special-needs students. Spokesman Briant Coleman said the office supports federal accountability and shares a “sense of urgency as we work to ensure that youth with disabilities in D.C. receive a high-quality education and are prepared for full and productive lives.”

D.C. Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large), chairman of the Education Committee, has said special education is in crisis in the District. Catania, who is running for mayor, says the achievement gap between special-education students and others has been growing and that special-needs students should get more services. He has introduced several bills regarding special education that will be the subject of hearings this week.

Lyndsey Layton has been covering national education since 2011, writing about everything from parent trigger laws to poverty’s impact on education to the shifting politics of school reform.
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