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How States Are Failing Students with Disabilities

Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced a new grading system to evaluate whether states are meeting the requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act -- and the first year's results aren't good.

The number of states out of compliance with a federal law to protect students with disabilities has more than tripled under a new U.S. Department of Education grading system that now emphasizes student performance.

Under the Department’s new evaluations, released June 24, the number of states meeting the requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act dropped from 41 last year to 18 this year. With a shift from a focus on administrative compliance to enforcement based on standardized tests, the results demonstrate there’s lots of room for improvement, said Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in a conference call with reporters.

“This change in accountability represents a significant and, frankly, long-overdue raising of the bar in special education,” he said.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is an $11.5 billion program that gives states money to help educate students with special needs, who are considered about twice as expensive as those without individually tailored instruction plans. The program is divided between Part B, which goes to fund K-12 education, and Part C, which offer grants for pre-kindergarten programs and earlier development services. Every state receives a base level of support, but most of the funding is distributed according to a state’s share of the 6.5 million students with disabilities in the U.S., with some money specially allocated for states with large percentages of students living in poverty. 

The program covered only 16 percent of the estimated “excess” cost of teaching children with disabilities in the 2014 fiscal year, according to the New America Foundation. Underfunding combined with opposition to policies that emphasize the use of test scores--particularly for a population of widely varying needs and abilities--are bound to anger some groups. 

Previously, the Department determined states were in compliance based on whether or not they were meeting procedural deadlines for performing student evaluations, having hearings over disputes and putting in place individualized education plans. Under that system, states have dramatically improved compliance, from just nine states in 2007 to 41 in 2013.

While the Department will likely add more academic performance measures in the future, for 2014 officials also included the level of participation in state assessments, achievement gaps between students with disabilities and the general population as well as scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a standardized test used to gauge academic growth across the country. 

Both compliance and performance were given equal weight, but final scores shifted dramatically. The only states meeting requirements under the new system are Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming. Micronesia, Palau and the Marshall Islands also met compliance.

Many others now find themselves in the “need assistance” and the more severe “needs intervention” categories. The Department can require technical assistance or withhold money for states with “need assistance” status for two years in a row. The Department can mandate specific actions, prepare an action plan and take more forceful measures for states under “intervention” for three years in a row. But the possibility of totally losing funding is somewhat remote, said Ron Hager, senior staff attorney at the National Disability Rights Network. 

“I don’t believe they’ve ever withheld money, and I don’t think anyone would want them to withhold money,” he said. “Their emphasis has been [on] helping the states do better.”

Department officials noted that they’re setting aside $50 million in technical assistance that states can call upon for help. But they argued that research shows students with disabilities can achieve at similar levels as the general student population with the right support and access to the general curriculum. Besides, they said, many people erroneously believe that “disability” means a student has some sort of cognitive impairment.

Only about 7 percent of the 6.5 million students with disabilities in the U.S. have an “intellectual disability,” according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Far more have different types of learning disabilities or a speech or language impairment.  

A National Governors Association spokeswoman said the organization isn’t yet prepared to respond to the change. The Council of Chief State School Officers did not return messages seeking comment, though school chiefs from Massachusetts and Tennessee spoke in favor of the change during the conference call. 

“I think it’s important to move to a system that prioritizes outcomes for kids just as much as it prioritizes getting compliance down,” said Kevin Huffman, Tennessee’s education chief.

For more on the mechanics of the change and past years of evaluations, see here

Chris covers health care for GOVERNING. An Ohio native with an interest in education, he set out for New Orleans with Teach For America after finishing a degree at Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism. He later covered government and politics at the Savannah Morning News and its South Carolina paper. He most recently covered North Carolina’s 2013 legislative session for the Associated Press.
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