U.S. tightens standards for special education

Education Department to weigh outcomes

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WASHINGTON — 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.

Congress has guaranteed severely disabled students the right to a “free and appropriate” education since 1975. The 1990 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or 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.

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,” Mr. 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.”

Fewer than 10 percent of eighth-graders receiving special-education services are proficient in reading, Mr. Duncan said. “Compliance with procedural requirements . . . is important, but it is not enough,” he 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.

Mr. 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.

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.

United States government - Arne Duncan - U.S. Department of Education


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