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VDOE Found Inadequate in Addressing Special Education Disparities

Presentation
In their examination of the state's special education performance, JLARC found VDOE was not adequately meeting the needs of students with disabilities who continue to lag behind their peers. (Graphic from JLARC presentation)

A new report by the state’s Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission found the Virginia Department of Education is not doing enough to meet the needs of students enrolled in special education, whose achievement rates lag behind those of students without disabilities.

The report found that because local school districts determine their own eligibility requirements for special education enrollment, the proportion of students with certain disabilities enrolled in special education varies widely from one district to another. 

“The wide variation could indicate that the division is under or over-enrolling students because of problematic identification or eligibility determination processes,” said JLARC’s Drew Dickinson, who led the project, during a virtual meeting with legislators Monday. He called on VDOE to take a more active role in creating eligibility criteria to reduce variation.

JLARC found that graduation rates among students with disabilities are improving, but still lag compared to those of students without disabilities by about 30 percentage points. Among  students with disabilities, graduation rates for Black students are 13 percentage points lower than those of non-Black students.

Likewise, SOL  pass rates continue to improve, but students with disabilities still underperform in comparison to students without disabilities. The report found a 34 percentage point gap for math SOL test results during the 2018-2019 school year, and a 39 point gap for reading SOLs. Again, Black students with disabilities were the least likely to pass their SOL tests.

Dickinson also said that one out of three individualized education programs lack descriptions of students’ academic and functional needs, and half lack goals for academic progress -- both of which are required by federal law. 

He said parents often report not having enough time to review IEPs before consenting to them. Drafts of IEPs are often prepared at meetings with parents, but can also be prepared before the meeting, which the report says hinders parental participation. JLARC recommends legislators require schools to provide those pre-meeting drafts with parents ahead of holding a meeting, so they can come prepared.

The report mentions several factors that contribute to noncompliant IEPs, which mainly center around a shortage of special education teachers and staff. A JLARC survey found that in half of responding school districts, a majority of teachers lack skills to support students with disabilities.. About 95% of students with disabilities are taught in general education settings.

He added that some Virginia school districts have become too reliant on provisionally licensed and substitute special education teachers, rather than recruiting fully-licensed educators. Dickinson says special education directors attribute hiring difficulties to a lack of qualified applicants and low compensation.

“The shortage of special education teachers is by no means new, and VDOE lacks even the most basic information to understand the magnitude of the shortage or where to target the state’s support of divisions,” Dickinson said. 

“For example: At this time, VDOE does not know how many special education teachers there are in Virginia,” he continued.

The report also found that students with disabilities are half as likely as students without disabilities to get a bachelor’s degree and are twice as likely to be unemployed. JLARC says school divisions do not consistently provide transition services to prepare students for life after high school. More than 23,000 students with disabilities will exit high school in the next two years.

JLARC says about one-fifth of students with disabilities receive applied studies diplomas, which only ask that they meet the requirements of their IEPs. Community colleges and universities do not recognize applied studies diplomas as equivalent to high school diplomas. 

The report also mentions that while a majority of parents surveyed voiced satisfaction with schools’ efforts to include students enrolled in special education in the classroom setting, many were not as satisfied with inclusion efforts in extracurricular activities.

“VDOE’s handling of complaints against school divisions does not ensure that problems are resolved, and its monitoring is too limited to identify significant problems in special education,” Dickinson said.

The commission began its research for the report in 2018. Dickinson says JLARC analyzed a decade of student-level data, conducted interviews and surveys of parents and staff, and reviewed IEPs and complaints.

“We are absolutely committed to making the enhancements in this report,” said VDOE Superintendent James Lane following Dickinson’s presentation of the JLARC report and recommendations.

“We have been waiting for some time for this report so that we could begin enacting new policies at the DOE. We certainly look forward to those actions that require the General Assembly or the Board of Education as it relates to regulations to be made, so that we can implement those pieces as well,” he said.

Lane said VDOE historically takes a “need-based approach,” but will now get more involved in every school district. He added that this new approach will require increased funding to the VDOE and to local school districts.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misstated a JLARC recommendation around providing IEP drafts to parents. It has been corrected to note that draft plans are only recommended for parents before meetings if they were produced before the meeting.

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