By KIMBERLY HEFLING, AP Education Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) — The Education Department announced Tuesday that it will begin to look at graduation rates, test scores and other measures of academic performance to help determine if states are meeting the needs of students with disabilities.
The department called the change a "major shift" in the way it assesses special education programs, since such benchmarks weren't stringently applied to special education students previously. An estimated 6.5 million children and youth have such disabilities, the department said, and have lower graduation rates overall and don't do as well on average in reading and math as their peers.
"We know that when students with disabilities are held to high expectations and have access to the general curriculum in the regular classroom, they excel," said Education Secretary Arne Duncan. "We must be honest about student performance, so that we can give all students the supports and services they need to succeed."
States that fail to meet the more stringent benchmarks for three or more years could face the loss of some of their federal funding for special education.
Under the old system, 41 states and territories met the requirements, which focused more on meeting procedural requirements. But this year under the new ones, only 18 did so, the department said.
Bill East, executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Special Education, said directors have been seeking a system focused more on student learning and outcomes. He said the decline in states meeting the requirement was expected, but he it anticipates it will go back up as states take measures such as targeting districts with low graduation rates for special education students.
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