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Feds Pledge More Focus on Outcomes for Students With Disabilities

Federal special education officials on Monday reaffirmed a pledge to focus more on how special education students are faring, rather than almost exclusively concentrating on whether states are technically upholding the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

At the IDEA Leadership Conference, Melody Musgrove, the director of the office of special education programs, shared trends on students' performance on state assessments and on dropout rates for students with disabilities, which have been largely unchanged for the past few years.

"We're proposing a new way to be held accountable in special ed," Musgrove said.

While federal monitoring of some specific issues has improved states' work in those areas, said Ruth Ryder, deputy director of the office of special education programs, focusing almost exclusively on compliance with the law hasn't made much of a difference where it counts: those test scores and dropout rates, among other measures.

"We've improved compliance," Ryder said. "It hasn't had the effect on results as we'd like to see."

For example, heavy emphasis on whether school districts are evaluating students for disabilities within 60 days of receiving parents' permission to do so and on whether children in early childhood programs for students with disabilities are referred to programs for school-age children by their third birthdays have improved states' performance in those areas, Musgrove said.

"Where we put our emphasis is what improves. We've seen this across many of our compliance indicators," she said. But, "we've got to pay more attention to student outcomes."

Instead of looking only at whether states help students with disabilities plan for life after high school, for example, federal officials could look at how students are faring in postsecondary settings, although that's unequivocally more difficult to capture.

That shift won't mean the federal government will back off from compliance with the law, Ryder said, although the agency won't visit states this coming school year as part of its efforts to monitor that compliance. It will instead spend the year revamping exactly how states will be judged. Any changes must jive with current IDEA regulations.

In addition, the department mentioned one of the changes to state ratings of special education that reflects what Ryder and Musgrove said. The department will stop collecting data about the underrepresentation of students from some racial and ethnic groups in different disability categories.

The change was recommended by states, who said it was labor intensive and took the focus away from the real issue: overrepresentation of students of some racial groups in special education generally and some specific special education categories, an Education Department spokesman said.

Stay tuned to edweek.org and this blog for a story later this week about the most recent special education ratings.

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