Clumsy Special Needs Framework Falls Short

By MIKE FORD | July 8, 2014

As the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel recently reported, on June 24 the U.S. Department of Education announced the creation of a new accountability framework for special needs students.

“The good news,” according to the story: Wisconsin is one of just 15 states and territories already meeting the new “results-driven accountability” measures that tie federal funding, at least in part, to student outcomes.

At first glance, the change does appear to be good news. However, Wisconsin policymakers should not be content to rest on their laurels. The new framework contains several limitations that I fear will lead it down the same path as No Child Left Behind: a well-intentioned effort that is too broad and too clumsy to have a significant impact on student performance.

How does the new federal framework work?

According to documents released by the Department of Education, states will be evaluated on the percentage of special needs students taking the official state assessment, test score gaps between non-special needs and special needs students in reading and math, and overall proficiency rates for special needs students on the federal reading and math NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) tests in grades 4 and 8. So, the goals of the Department of Education are to:

  1. Increase the percentage of special needs students taking state standardized tests;
  2. Minimize test score gaps between special needs and non-special needs students; and
  3. Improve reading and math proficiency levels for special needs students.

None of these goals are bad. Conceptually, the new framework is consistent with the outcomes-based framework for special needs accountability that Mike Nichols and I proposed in a 2014 WPRI report. The Department of Education is also creating a technical-assistance center to help states target the funding they receive from the federal government. This, too, is consistent with our recommendation for targeted assistance to districts struggling in specific areas.

But the new approach is too broad and lacking in nuance to ultimately make much of a difference in the performance of special needs pupils in Wisconsin or elsewhere. Several key elements are missing.

First, there is no consideration of post-high-school outcomes. Test scores are important, but so are the life trajectories of special need students.

Second, the measurables in the framework do not address the severity of special needs among the special needs population, the socio-economic status of students, or their geographic location. Nichols and I found that each of these factors impacts achievement levels and test score gaps, and hence should be part of an improved special needs accountability system.

Third, the new framework does not consider changes in student performance over time. Many state governments (including Wisconsin) and school districts (including many in Wisconsin) have wisely begun including value-added and/or student growth measures in their accountability systems to ensure that school/district performance is defined through the impact of schools/districts on learning, rather than through snapshot test scores that may merely reflect factors beyond the control of schools/districts. This omission means that states may be rewarded and penalized for factors outside their control, which makes little sense.

I suppose the good news is that the new framework is unlikely to have any negative impact on Wisconsin. We are already on the list of states meeting the new requirements. Hopefully, the stability of being in compliance in year one, as well as the new technical assistance center included in the new framework, will help Wisconsin build an improved approach to accountability for special education. Such an approach would better identify the severity of needs of special needs students within districts, make public in an easily digestible format the percentage of IEP (Individualized Education Program) goals being met by districts, and include consideration of the opinions and preferences of parents of children with special needs.

Accountability in K-12 education is increasingly being defined in terms of student outcomes. Accordingly, it is logical for the Department of Education to include outcome measures in its new accountability framework. While these changes are unlikely to do any harm, there is little to suggest that they will spur improvement in Wisconsin’s approach to special education.