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What might the new USDE requiring better special education results actually mean?

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The U.S. Department of Education has announced that it will require states to achieve better academic results with special education students.  The USDE position would be easy to misunderstand, so here are two NPR reports that provide useful perspective.  From the NPR story on education secretary Arne Duncan’s speech announcing the new policy:

Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced what he calls “a major shift” in how the government evaluates the effectiveness of federally funded special education programs.

“It’s not enough for a state to be compliant if students can’t read or do math,” Duncan said. “We must have a system that will do more than just measure compliance.”

The latest government figures show that the dropout rate for students with disabilities is twice that for nondisabled students. Two-thirds of students with disabilities are performing well below grade level in reading and math. By the eighth grade, that figure rises to 90 percent.

And yet, Duncan said, most states are doing exactly what the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act has required until now. School districts are required to create an “individualized education plan,” or IEP, tailored to a student’s needs.

School officials must show that these children are getting instructional support in a timely manner and that they have full access to the curriculum and everything else that goes on in school.

Under the new guidelines, Duncan says he’ll require proof that these kids aren’t just being served but are actually making academic progress.

“We know that when students with disabilities are held to high expectations and have access to a robust curriculum, they excel,” Duncan said.

And then, this story digs into what the policy might mean as a practical matter:

At first blush, isn’t performing below grade level expected for those with a learning disability? And, as expectations rise year after year, isn’t it fair to expect that more and more of these students would fall behind?

To answer those questions, we need to clarify exactly who Duncan is talking about. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 13 percent of public school students receive services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Of those kids, 36 percent have “specific learning disabilities.” Twenty-one percent have “speech or language impairments.” Another 22 percent have autism, intellectual disabilities, a developmental delay, or multiple disabilities. Very few have hearing, vision, or motor issues alone.

So what, exactly, does it mean then to interpret and apply a norm such as “grade level” to students who are manifestly different from that norm?

I spoke to four people charged with making that interpretation: a political leader, a former Department of Education official, a member of one of the Common Core assessment consortia, and Ellis.

….see the whole story here.


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