Moving Forward: How compliance and data will improve Special Education

Blog Post

If we really want to move the needle on special education outcomes in U.S. schools, then we have to change the conversations we’re having. Too often, these focus on compliance instead of results.

Part of the problem is how states measure success under Part B of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The Education Department’s Office of Special Education Programs uses 17 indicators to measure the success of special education programs, but these are largely “counts” that measure quantity and compliance, instead of evaluating the quality of instruction in classrooms. We assume that schools with favorable numbers on these indicators are doing a good job of teaching students with disabilities, but we don’t know this for sure—and we don’t know what they’re doing well in order to replicate those practices in other schools. Conversely, if schools are doing poorly on these indicators, we don’t have enough information to know why that’s the case—or what educators should do about it. This makes it hard for state employees to provide the right kind of technical assistance to school systems to improve their special education outcomes. To shift the focus onto what truly matters, states and school systems should be looking at what they can do to measure and improve the actual quality of instruction for students with disabilities, and not simply keep track of compliance indicators. The key to doing this effectively is having better visibility into all aspects of special education programs, and then using the knowledge gained from this visibility to apply an improvement process that actually works. Though states are required to measure and report on the 17 indicators under IDEA Part B, they aren’t limited to these areas when collecting information from school systems. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) gives states the latitude to create their own school accountability systems within a framework defined by the law. State education leaders should use this as an opportunity to develop robust, data-driven systems that focus on improving the quality of special education instruction. Here are three steps that state and local education leaders can take to strengthen special education programs through data-driven improvement.

Collect more fine-tuned information about the performance of special-needs students

“Students with disabilities” is such a broad designation. The needs of students who have visual or hearing impairments, for example, are very different from the needs of children with cognitive disabilities. Although state accountability systems are only required to track students with disabilities as a single subgroup, state leaders would be wise to create sub-subgroups for students with different kinds of disabilities and then analyze the performance of these smaller groups separately from one another. That way, state and school district leaders can more easily determine where schools need the most technical
assistance—and they can address the needs of students more effectively.

Use assessments that better measure the skills of students with disabilities

ESSA is very particular about how states must test students, including those with disabilities. For instance, just 1 percent of students can take an alternate exam, which covers only those students with the most severe cognitive disabilities. While legislators had good intentions in creating the law, 1 percent is an arbitrary number that might not align with the needs of all students. And while states can apply for a waiver from this restriction, some students are going to be assessed inappropriately with a tool that doesn’t match their abilities. Although state leaders’ hands are tied when it comes to high-stakes testing, they can work with local school districts to create or identify formative assessment tools that can be used to measure the abilities of students with special needs more effectively. Having a more accurate assessment of a student’s skills allows state and local education leaders to design interventions and instructional strategies that are more appropriate to each child’s learning needs.

Encourage collaboration between general and special education improvement teams

Far too often, the teams responsible for planning special education initiatives and general school improvement programs at both the state and local levels consist of different people working independently from each other. Aligning these efforts should bring new processes that lead to better results. By introducing the opportunity to collaborate and share data, districts can share important insights that result in student improvement.

Making data actionable

If we’re serious about improving special education outcomes, we have to move beyond a compliance-driven mindset where we’re simply counting numbers and checking off boxes. By collecting and using data more intelligently, we can plan instruction and activities that drive real improvement. At Stepwell, our culture of driving system improvement at every level means we’re committed to finding new, innovative ways for educators to utilize data. If these values speak to you, we want to connect. Contact our support team ( today to hear more about how our software can make a difference for your district.