The U.S. Department of Education is rethinking the way it determines success in educating the 6.5 million public school students diagnosed with disabilities.
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently announced that instead of tracking school districts on the frequency and timeliness of how states follow procedure and file paperwork, the government will now use practical data such as graduation rates, dropout rates, general inclusive classroom participation and test scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading and mathematics exams to rank how well schools are serving children with disabilities.
"This is the first time the U.S. Department of Education has given ... states a new report card on this new framework," Massachusetts Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education Mitchell D. Chester told The Eagle, after receiving federal documents recently.
The new federal framework, known as Results-Driven Accountability (RDA) is aligned with and will make annual determinations on states under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
At the end of June, Duncan invited Chester and Tennessee Commissioner of Education Kevin Huffman to participate in a national press conference announcing the new approach to accountability. Both Massachusetts and Tennessee are seen by federal education officials as models for educating students who struggle to learn for a variety of reasons, from lack of literacy or emotional disturbance to severe cognitive or physical disabilities.
Massachusetts also has one of the highest percentages of students identified with disabilities in the country.
According to federal data published for 2014, of the nation's 44.9 million children, 13 percent or 5.8 million are identified as youths (ages 6 through 21) with disabilities under IDEA criteria. Of the 857,297 youths in Massachusetts, 17.5 percent or 149,854 have an IDEA-defined disability.
"That's been a challenge for us," Chester said.
He said the majority of children with disabilities in Massachusetts don't have severe disabilities and can be better supported by classroom instruction and other support services.
"The majority of our students are having difficulties learning to read and learning their math," Chester said.
"Most students can achieve high academic standards with the proper supports," Duncan said.
The federal education secretary also announced with the new framework that $50 million in technical assistance funds to support instruction and services will be made available to states over the next five years to help them meet their goals.
"If the nation works hard and works together, we may finally realize the ideals of IDEA," Duncan said.
Commissioner Chester told The Eagle that there is a team of special education experts working in his department to make sense of the new framework and to review the latest report given to the state on its efforts. Massachusetts is currently one of 18 states and U.S. territories that "meets requirements" under the new framework for youths ages 6 to 21, but the state "needs assistance" for one year to fully meet the federal requirements for serving infants and toddlers from birth through age 2.
"We're not asking states to do more. We are asking them to do things differently," Duncan said.
Chester said the commonwealth has taken the lead in figuring out how.
"We have been very much focused over the past several years on better understanding who our own students with disabilities are," he said.
In 2012, Harvard University professor Thomas Hehir and his associates prepared several reports on the status of special education in Massachusetts. Hehir is a former director of the Office of Special Education Programs at the U.S. Department of Education, and the former director of special education for the Boston and Chicago public schools.
"The commissioner was concerned about the relatively high numbers of students with disabilities identified in the commonwealth and the degree to which those identification rates were beneficial to students given the high costs associated with special education," Hehir wrote in his executive summary.
What the report found, and what Chester said is most concerning, is that while students with disabilities are handling assessments well, there is a disparity between the types of students who are diagnosed with disabilities and where they receive instruction.
"Low income students are two times a likely to be identified as students with disabilities," said Chester. "The second thing we found, which is very disturbing, is that low-income children of color are less likely [than their white counterparts] to be included in general education classrooms." This means the latter are being sent outside of the classroom and away from their mainstream peers.
"This means that in most situations, they're not being exposed to the general curriculum, which means they have a reduced opportunity for learning and advancement. We know that this is something we need to change," Chester said.