Federal oversight changes for special needs students

Oregon falls short under new rubric

By Tyler Leeds / The Bulletin

The U.S. Department of Education last week adjusted its expectations for how states serve students with special needs, and under the new rubric, Oregon — along with 34 other states — misses the mark.

In 1990, Congress passed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act — or IDEA — which requires public schools to serve students regardless of their disabilities, covering impairments ranging from blindness to autism to dyslexia. This most recent change affects how the federal government determines which states are in compliance with IDEA, shifting the focus from adhering to certain policies to measuring how well states educate special-needs students. To meet the law’s requirements, states must now demonstrate progress in shrinking the performance gap between students with disabilities and those without. Despite failing to meet the new outcomes-based goals, administrators at the Oregon Department of Education say there will be no effect on Oregon’s roughly $125 million share of the $11.5 billion awarded to states annually from the federal government to help serve this population.

“It won’t change funding, but it does reaffirm the work we are already doing in tracking these outcomes,” said Oregon Assistant Superintendent Sarah Drinkwater. “What we’re asked to do now is review the resources the (federal government) has shared with us and to take advantage of the technical assistance they have made available in areas we think would be helpful.”

In 2013, Oregon and 37 other states were told they met requirements for serving students with disabilities ages 3 and up, but now most of those states have been told they need “assistance,” while California, Delaware, Texas and the District of Columbia have been told they need “intervention.” For those states, Drinkwater said federal assistance will be directed by the U.S. Department of Education, as opposed to in Oregon, where the state will have a say in where help is taken.

Oregon’s demotion is a result of the state’s performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, a test given to a representative population of students from each state. State outcomes were measured by looking at how each state performed on NAEP and the gap between IDEA-identified students and those without disabilities. With multiple scores for different age groups and academic subject areas, Oregon earned a one on a zero-to-two scale in the majority of categories. Those ratings were added up and combined with a state’s compliance with certain federal regulations, such as developing a plan for special needs students by their third birthday.

Based solely on compliance to federal rules, Oregon meets the federal government’s standards for IDEA. But when combined with outcomes, the state just barely missed meeting expectations.

Locally, school leaders are committed to shrinking the performance gap, but there are questions about the usefulness of the new rules.

“We haven’t heard much about the change, and it seems everybody is still trying to sort out what it means for us,” said Bend-La Pine Schools Superintendent Ron Wilkinson. “We’ve monitored the achievement gap (between those with special needs and those without) for quite a while, and we’re aware there’s a gap. The toughest part is figuring out how to close it. We tend to make progress, and then it tends to open up again.”

Wilkinson took issue with the federal government’s use of NAEP scores, saying it’s better aligned with curriculums from states on the East Coast than West Coast.

“Some state curriculums are closely aligned with NAEP, and they tend to do quite well on it,” he said. “Colorado made an effort to align with NAEP and immediately its scores went up. That effort has not happened in Oregon, Washington, Idaho or California.”

ODE Communications Director Crystal Greene said “NAEP is a little problematic but is also probably the best tool we have right now,” adding that as most states align their standardized tests with the Common Core, tests aligned to those new standards will provide a better alternative to NAEP.

Martha Hinman, Redmond School District’s executive director of student services, suggested a better way to track the outcomes of special needs students would be to focus on individual student growth.

“I think we need multiple measures, especially something that can look at the growth of a child while they’re in the school,” she said. “As opposed to a one-time shot, we should look at growth models, especially for special education students, where growth is not always a nice line or trajectory.”

Tying IDEA to outcomes has raised questions over more than just what should be used to measure student success. Wilkinson noted the percent of students identified as having special needs has been decreasing in his district, a trend he attributes to effective early interventions for students.

“To help this population, we believe you have to try to catch them early and get them on track,” Wilkinson said. “The irony is that if you drop the (number of identified students), those who remain are actually the most significantly handicapped. As we do a better job of intervening and catching kids before they are identified, it could have repercussions for our scores.”

Regardless of the problems of measuring and rating the outcomes, there was a consensus that more can be done to serve special needs students. In Redmond, there is an especially strong commitment to keeping such students in classrooms with the rest of the student body.

Last year, Redmond was selected as one of 16 districts nationwide to participate in a grant aimed at integrating the education of all learners. The program is run by SWIFT — the School-Wide Integrated Framework for Transformation Center — and is the product of a five-year, $24.5 million grant to the University of Kansas from the U.S. Department of Education Office of Special Education Programs. Integrating different kinds of learners is already a statewide goal, but SWIFT attempts to increase the amount of time special needs students spend with other kids.

“We’re really looking at how do school systems support fully integrated models of education for all students, not just (special needs), but talented and gifted, low-socioeconomic, English language learners, and any other subgroup you could put a student in,” Hinman said.

Part of the benefit of mixing students, Hinman said, derives from placing students with special needs in a setting where they will be expected to perform the same as other students.

“We had set a really low bar for so many kids and had low expectations,” she said. “We know from research if you have higher expectations, kids know right when they walk into the classroom, and they really quickly adapt to those expectations. When we say a student has a disability, we get a picture in our mind that the child should not be able to do what every other child can. But time and time again, we see children with significant disabilities being very successful.”

— Reporter: 541-633-2160, tleeds@bendbulletin.com