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Senate Republicans Question New Criteria for Special Ed. Evaluations

UPDATED

Senate Republicans on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee are upset about the U.S. Department of Education's recent decision to evaluate states' special education systems based on the academic performance of students with disabilities.

"This is clear influence and coercion, if not direct control," the GOP committee members wrote to U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan in a letter dated Aug. 4. "It is troubling that the department made unilateral changes to the [Individuals with Disabilities Act] compliance framework without seeking legislative approval, disregarded congressional intent, and appears to have violated the clear letter of the law."

In June, the department rolled out of a revised evaluation process that emphasizes results-driven accountability. As my colleague Christina Samuels reported over at the On Special Education blog, the 2004 reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, requires that states submit data to the Education Department about how students with disabilities are doing.

But before this year's annual report, states were only graded on what are called "compliance" indicators, such as whether students were evaluated for special education in the appropriate amount of time, or whether due process complaints were resolved in a timely fashion. Now, states are being checked on factors such as test scores from the National Assessment of Education Progress, or NAEP, and the gap between those scores and the scores of children in the general population, in addition to compliance.

"The changes spelled out in your 'Results-Driven Accountability' framework clearly amount to federal influence on the standards and assessments states and school districts use to direct the education program of students with disabilities and would give the federal government authority to use students proficiency as measured by the NAEP to evaluate and either reward or sanction school districts," the Republicans wrote.

You can read the full letter here.

[UPDATE (5:20 p.m.): The Education Department plans to use NAEP scores only temporarily until all states adopt new assessments, according to a department official. Once states have transitioned to assessments that are aligned with college and career standards, the department will discontinue the use of the NAEP scores and participation rates and use state assessment data instead. The official also said that the department has considered multiple measures of student performance in addition to the procedural compliance with IDEA.

In fact, out of the 42 possible points a state may receive on the results and compliance matrices, only 12 are related to NAEP, less than 30 percent of the total.]

The letter, which specifically asks the Education Department for the exact statutory language that allows it to shift the special education evaluation, comes just one week after House Republicans cleared a resolution authorizing a lawsuit against President Barack Obama for his use of executive authority.

And it joins in a long list of Republican charges that the administration has overstepped its legal authority on a variety of education initiatives, including No Child Left Behind waivers and its signature competitive grant program, Race to the Top.

"We have received the letter and look forward to responding," said Education Deparment spokeswoman Dorie Nolt, in response. "The Department's Results Driven Accountability framework focuses on improving results for children with disabilities while continuing to ensure compliance with the requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Our goal is to work with states and school districts to improve educational results for all children with disabilities."

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