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Rate Your State: Determination Ratings

If it's June, it must be time for Individuals with Disabilities Act determination letters!

Never heard of these ratings? I guarantee that your state's director of special education has.

When the IDEA was reauthorized in 2004, the law gave the Education Department the right to monitor how states were spending their special education dollars. The department then turned around and said, OK, states, in order to know how well you're doing, we need all of your districts to answer a few questions. To be more exact, 20 questions, including everything from the percentage of students in special education graduating with a standard diploma to the percentage of students served in regular classrooms to postsecondary outcomes of students with disabilities.

(Another set of 14 questions deals specifically with the part of the IDEA that governs the education of infants and toddlers. But most special education money is spent on school-aged children.)

Each state develops its own targets to meet in these areas, much like an individualized education plan, and is required to post its plan and targets on its websites. Based on how well they reach their goals, states are given a rating in order of severity: meets requirements, needs assistance, needs intervention, needs substantial intervention.

The department can require states that don't reach their goals to use part of their special education dollars to shore up areas of concern. The reports are always a little behind, so the 2010 determination ratings are actually for data collected for the 2008-09 school year.

The letters from the Education Department to the states are choked with legalese and edujargon. So instead, I recommend focusing on the tables that accompany each year's report. In the 2010 table you can see, for example, that Michigan had a goal in that report of having 80 percent of students in special education graduate with a regular diploma. In reality, 58 percent did. The state's most recent determination letter does say, however, that it meets requirements because of its progress in other areas.

These ratings are worth paying attention to. As I mentioned in a previous post, these are among the many factors that the Education Department says it will consider if a state requests a waiver to cut its special education funding because of financial distress. South Carolina (needs assistance in the latest ratings) and West Virginia (meets requirements in the latest ratings) are two waiver-requesting states.

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