State Special Ed Office Earns Federal Seal of Approval

John Mooney | July 8, 2013 | Education
For first time in three years office gets clearance, but feds say there's plenty of room for improvement

New Jersey’s special education office and its oversight of local programs have passed muster with the federal government for the first time in three years, although a number of demands for improvements are pending.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services informed the state last week that it had met the requirements of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in several key indicators. They include graduation rates, testing, and placement and identification of students with disabilities.

Based on 2011 data, the review also found that the state had made sufficient progress in many of the indicators in which it had fallen short the year before.

Still, the federal government’s letter listed a number of required actions going forward, especially concerning protection against potentially discriminatory treatment of students with disabilities when it comes to school discipline and identification.

For instance, 24 of 53 sampled districts were found in 2011 to have disproportionately suspended more minority special education students than non-minority. There were also findings of disproportionate identification of minority students as disabled or in specific disability categories.

In each of the cases, the state had been ordered to demand revisions in the local districts’ policies and procedures, and the federal government said the state reported that it had done so. But the latest letter demanded that the state in its next review describe the specific actions that were taken in each case.

It is this kind of detail that goes into the fed’s annual review, all of which are outlined in more than a dozen pages of charts and matrixes. And while the review process may seem to have little impact on local districts and families, it is a key marker for advocacy groups seeking to keep the state accountable.

“As you can see from the chart, ‘meets requirements’ does not mean that the state was compliant with IDEA in all respects,” said Diana Autin, co-director of the Statewide Parent Advocacy Network. “That is why there are required actions that the state must take in response to this letter.”

Nonetheless, Autin also pointed to the federal government stepping back in what it is requiring of states.

“The US DOE is moving towards a ‘results-driven accountability’ process that looks at things like test scores instead of compliance,” she said in an email. “This ‘meets requirements’ findings letter reflects that move away from a focus on compliance, which advocates are very unhappy about.

“While advocates are in strong support of a focus on positive outcomes for children with disabilities, we also believe that the compliance provisions of IDEA are also important,” she wrote.

Beyond the issues of requirements and compliance, the annual review also presents a number of key statistical findings that describe the state of New Jersey’s special education programs in 2011:

  • 73 percent of students with disabilities graduated in 2011, slightly off the target of 75 percent;
  • 15 percent of students with disabilities dropped out;
  • 38 percent of all students with disabilities met the proficiency rate for reading, short of the target of 45 percent;
  • 47 percent met proficiency in math, also short of the target of 53 percent;
  • 48 percent of students with disabilities spent 80 percent of their day in general education classroom, matching the required target;
  • 7.7 percent were in separate classes or schools, also matching the target for the year.