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Outcomes for Students With Severe Disabilities Can, Must Improve

Students who have the most severe disabilities aren't often enough being prepared well for work or more education beyond high school, and Congress has an opportunity to change that when it gets around to renewing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

The Collaboration to Promote Self-Determination today shared a set of recommendations that target reform of the tests taken by students with severe cognitive disabilities and the instruction these students receive. The group's goal is to better prepare students with significant disabilities for the workforce and continue their education after high school.

The Collaboration notes that the employment rate of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities is low: Only 26 percent work in integrated settings. The rest work in settings strictly with others who have similar disabilities or don't work at all.

But in its report, the group said, "the focus of education for children with disabilities at the high school level isn't on job development or post-secondary education, despite the fact that paid, integrated employment should be the ultimate goal of the transition process."

The problem stems in part from the state assessments students with severe cognitive disabilities take, as required by No Child Left Behind (the current version of ESEA), which are distinct from their peers. There are issues with who takes these tests. The tests aren't always rigorous enough. Some students are tested on standards that are not on grade level. And students who take these tests are sometimes derailed from earning a standard high school diploma, limiting their options after high school.

"High quality assessments can drive high quality instruction," said Madeleine Will, chairwoman of the Collaboration and a former assistant secretary of the office of special education at the U.S. Department of Education. However, she said, the language and implementation of the regulations for tests for students with severe disabilities are actually undermining special education law in many school districts.

Improving tests can't address all the skills students need to master to prepare for the workforce. The group wants students with severe disabilities to be taught self-advocacy, independent work behavior, competency with computers and other technology, and social skills practiced in settings with typical peers. In turn, teachers must be prepared to promote all of these skills.

The Collaboration also recommended ways to improve accountability systems and teacher and principal evaluations. Schools should never have an incentive to focus on a single group of students whose growth will improve the schools' performance or be rewarded in their performance rating by having more students take the alternate test for students with severe disabilities. Teachers and principals should be evaluated on whether they use evidence-based practices for teaching academic content and on whether students are competent communicators.

While it's a good thing that there are new plans to reform how special education quality is monitored, the plans for what that new system will look like are still in the works.

The group has specific recommendations for what the new system should look like, including that it must be transparent and hold school districts accountable for whether their students with disabilities find success after high school. Also, the organization wants data about students with intellectual disabilities to be disaggregated so these students' success, or lack thereof, isn't masked.

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