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Special Education Office Aims to Revise Monitoring Focus

Student performance, not just procedural compliance, is the goal of a revised reporting system proposed by the federal office of special education programs.

The proposed revisions affect both Part B of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which applies to about 6.5 million youth ages 3 to 21, as well as Part C of the act, which affects about 454,000 children from birth to age 3.

In both cases, the federal government has suggested removing some reporting requirements and instead asking states to create a "State Systemic Improvement Plan." This plan is expected to be a "comprehensive, ambitious yet achievable plan for improving results for students with disabilities." States will be asked to use that document to develop a multi-year plan that will improve students with disabilities' performance on tests, high school graduation rates, and post-school outcomes. (For children covered under Part C, the systemic improvement plan would measure how well early-identification systems are implementing evidence-based practices that improve outcomes for babies and toddlers with disabilities.)

For the fed's explanation of its proposed changes, please see the links to "Rationale and Explanation" on the Part B page; there is also a rationale and explanation document on the Part C page. Both links also include a list of "directed questions" that the federal government is asking commenters to address. Comments will be accepted until June 14.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires the federal government to evaluate states on special education performance. A long-running complaint has been that the process of producing annual performance reports and state performance plans was burdensome and focused too much on procedural compliance and not the most important goal—improved education for students with disabilities. States have been asked to provide information on 20 performance indicators under IDEA Part B, and 14 indicators under Part C. The Part B indicators, for example, include data such as graduation rates, dropout rates, suspensions and expulsions, and disproportionate representation.

The federal government then evaluates each state's efforts and releases a determination letter noting if they "meet requirements;" "need assistance," "need intervention," or "need substantial intervention." (Part B determinations are here; Part C here.)

In an interview, Melody Musgrove, the director of the office of special education programs, said that the federal government was sympathetic to those concerns. Part of the rationale behind the changes is to try to ask information from the states the way that states are used to thinking about their own activities. For example, under the current performance system, states are asked to come up with improvement plans for individual indicators. But states generally try to develop improvement plans that could improve the performance of students with disabilities in several areas. The state systemic improvement plan attempts to capture those efforts, she said.

The education department started its work in revising its special education reporting system last year. Some of the current indicators will remain in place because Congress wrote into the law that certain data points have to be gathered; the federal government expects that a new computerized reporting system will help make collection of that data easier to manage.

"We've designed a system that is going to shine a bright light on students with disabilities," Musgrove said. "I have no doubt that five years from now, we'll be seeing some progress."

Nancy Reder, the deputy executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Special Education, said state special education chiefs are generally approving of the changes. The old reporting system didn't allow states to demonstrate easily the work that they were doing to improve student outcomes, Reder said, and some of the reporting requirements were redundant.

This system "is a balanced approach to focuing on both compliance and outcomes," she said.

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