Education Department considers IDEA accountability updates as more states miss mark – K-12 Dive

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The number of states and other entities categorized as “needs assistance” under federal special education requirements ticked up in fiscal 2022, at a time when the complex system for measuring compliance and student progress is considered by some as overdue for improvements. And there are signs the U.S. Education Department agrees, as officials say changes are being considered.

Some 38 states, territories and the District of Columbia were categorized as “needs assistance” with implementing special education requirements and improving student outcomes for the year evaluated or for two or more consecutive years, according to a list of state determinations issued by the U.S. Department of Education on June 21. That number is up from 35 the year before. 

This year’s determinations were based on fiscal year 2022 data submitted by the states.

For states categorized as “needs assistance” for two or more consecutive years under an accountability framework for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the Education Department must take one or more enforcement actions. Those include requiring the state to access technical assistance, designating the state as a high-risk grantee, and directing the state to set aside funds to improve in lower-performing areas.

No state fell into the lowest-performing category of “needs substantial intervention” for FY 22, and only one entity — the Bureau of Indian Education — was deemed as “needs intervention,” the next-to-last category. These results apply to IDEA Part B for students ages 3-21.

Ed Dept holds states accountable for special ed practices

More than two dozen states are categorized as “needs assistance,” according to a 2024 accountability framework for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, Part B.

Twenty states and the Republic of the Marshall Islands earned the highest rating of “meets requirements.” That total is down slightly from the previous last year’s determinations, when 22 states and the Marshall Islands met IDEA requirements.

Letters to each state explaining their 2024 ranking are not yet publicly available but are expected to be posted to the IDEA website in August, according to an Education Department spokesperson

The annual state evaluations are part of the Office of Special Education Programs’ accountability framework called Results Driven Accountability, or RDA. Annual state determinations are based on State Performance Plans and Annual Performance Reports provided to the Education Department by each state.

OSEP has used this process for the past 10 years to measure each state’s IDEA compliance and student progress. Before RDA, much of state special education accountability focused on regulatory compliance.

The department’s Office of Special Education Programs also issues state determinations for compliance and results for IDEA Part C services for infants and toddlers.

Honing in on student results

According to The Advocacy Institute, a nonprofit organization that tracks IDEA state determinations, only six states — Kansas, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — have been rated as “meets requirements” each year since 2014.

While the theory and intention behind RDA’s inclusion of student-focused data is valid, the approach for state determination calculations is faulty, said Candace Cortiella, director and founder of The Advocacy Institute. 

For example, Cortiella said that while RDA takes into account student participation in statewide assessments, it doesn’t include their performance on those tests. And while the RDA system does use student performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, it does not consider each state’s performance gaps on NAEP between students with and without disabilities, Cortiella said. 

“States could show a tremendous amount of improvement and still not move the needle on their determination given the current RDA matrix.”

Candace Cortiella

Director and founder of The Advocacy Institute

Additionally, state graduation rates should count more in the determination calculation than NAEP participation does, rather than equally as they are currently scored, Cortiella said.

In addition to criticizing specific components of the RDA, Cortiella said it is impossible for all states to earn “meets requirements” status in the same year, because some elements in the accountability system are scored based on how states rank compared to other states.

“States could show a tremendous amount of improvement and still not move the needle on their determination given the current RDA matrix,” Cortiella said.

One of many improvements she would make to the accountability system would be a stronger focus on each state’s progress toward improvement in graduation rates and academic proficiency, as well as measuring gaps in dropout rates between students with and without disabilities.

In comments submitted to OSEP in 2022, the Education Task Force of the Consortium for Constituents with Disabilities recommended the RDA matrix include whether and how effectively states are implementing the Equity in IDEA regulation to reduce racial disparities in special education. The task force also suggested that revisions include a measure of how states are lowering absenteeism rates for students with disabilities compared to those without disabilities. 

OSEP, in past years’ determination letters to states, has indicated a desire to modify the process by centering more accountability on student progress and promoting equity. In 2022, OSEP invited recommendations for ways to improve the process. 

Cortiella, however, said she is frustrated changes have not been made. 

“I am baffled at why they [the Education Department] perpetuate this exercise every year, which is meaningless, which they have over and over and over again promised to address, and they do nothing,” Cortiella said.

OSEP updated the process for this year’s IDEA Part B determinations by reviewing participation on regular and alternate statewide assessments. While no state or entity was labeled as “needs intervention” this year because of this factor, the criteria will be fully incorporated for next year’s determinations, said Valerie Williams, director of OSEP, in an email.

For 2025 and beyond, the department is considering three updates related to IDEA Part B determinations as part of efforts to “incorporate equity and improve results for children with disabilities,” Williams said. These new provisions could include:

  • Whether a state would be prohibited from attaining “meets requirements” if OSEP had identified long-standing noncompliance for at least three or more years.
  • Additional factors for improvement in proficiency rates on regular and alternate statewide assessments. 
  • Whether and how to continue including NAEP participation and proficiency in the state determinations. 

Additionally, the department is looking at two adjustments in IDEA Part C determinations. One would factor in long-standing noncompliance. The other concerns whether and how to consider certain data on results for child outcomes, such as language development and positive social-emotional skills, and on child find, or the efforts agencies take to identify infants and toddlers who may qualify for Part C services.

The Education Department’s annual state determinations are an important part of OSEP’s accountability framework, said Glenna Wright-Gallo, assistant secretary of the Education Department’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, which includes OSEP, in an email. 

“However, compliance with IDEA is not sufficient if children are not attaining the knowledge and skills necessary to fully realize the ideals of IDEA: equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency,” Wright-Gallo said.

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