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Ed. Dept. Releases Results of New Special Education Evaluation Process

Fewer states are meeting requirements for serving students with disabilities now that the U.S. Department of Education is focusing less on compliance with voluminous rules and more on how well those students are being educated, the department said Tuesday. 

The move toward what the department's office of special education is calling "results-driven accountability" began last year and has already had an effect.

Last year, 39 states were found to be meeting department requirements under the compliance-focused evaluation framework, which graded states on such things as whether children were tested for special education needs in the appropriate time frame. 

This year, when rated under the new evaluation framework, only 15 states  fell into the "meets requirements" category, based on data collected for the 2012-13 school year, the department said. An additional 32 states were categorized as "needs assistance." Three states—California, Delaware, and Texas—plus the District of Columbia fell into the "needs intervention" category. 

The department plans to release reports about each state Tuesday. 

If a state falls into the "needs assistance" category for two years in a row, the state could be identified as a high-risk grant recipient and required to accept technical assistance. A state in the "needs intervention" category for three years in a row could be required to prepare a corrective action plan, enter into a compliance agreement or, ultimately, have a portion of its federal special education funding withheld. The District of Columbia has been in the "needs intervention" category now for several years in a row; the department has required it to spend about $500,000 in federal funds on student evaluation programs—above and beyond money already earmarked for that purpose—that would otherwise be designated for administrative costs. 

The results-driven accountability framework has been in the works for some time. Last year, Melody Musgrove, the director of the office of special education programs, said that the monitoring the department had been doing up to that point didn't seem to be moving the needle on student achievement. 

"We've been looking at the data that shows that even though we have been improving in terms of compliance, because that's what we've been focusing on, we were not seeing that same type of improvement across reading, and math, and graduation rates, and post-school outcomes for students with disabilities," she said at the IDEA Leadership Conference in August 2013. "We need to focus our energies on the areas that are most in need of improvement."

That lack of progress is particularly visible when examining the scores of students with disabilities on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the nation's report card. The score gap between students with disabilities and their typically developing peers remains wide: In the 2013 test of 4th grade reading, for example, 27 percent of students without disabilities scored below basic, compared to 69 percent of students with disabilities. 

As part of the move to the new evaluation framework, the Education Department plans to fund  a new $50 million technical assistance center called the Center on Systemic Improvementto help states better use their federal special education money to improve student performance. The department also will be working with each state to develop improvement plans.

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