A 'Major Shift' In Oversight Of Special Education : NPR Ed Education Secretary Arne Duncan announces new measures for ensuring that students with disabilities are making progress.

A 'Major Shift' In Oversight Of Special Education

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From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish. There are six and a half million students with disabilities enrolled in American schools today. But according to the Department of Education, the vast majority are not receiving a quality education. And so today, Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced what he's calling a major shift in how the government evaluates the effectiveness of federally funded special education programs. NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: Secretary Duncan began his conference call with reporters by pointing out that most states are in compliance with special education regulations. The problem...

ARNE DUNCAN: It is not enough. It is not enough for a state to be compliant if students can't read or do math. We must have a system that will do more than just measure compliance.

SANCHEZ: The latest government figures show that the dropout rate for students with disabilities is twice that of students without disabilities. Two-thirds of children in special education performed below grade level in reading and math. These are kids with a range of disabilities from ADHD, autism, dyslexia to developmental, emotional or behavioral disorders. Until now, the U.S. Education Department has never required that states show whether these kids actually benefit academically from special education programs. The law has only required a paper trail showing that schools have come up with an individualized education plan tailored to disabled student's needs and that disabled students have full access to the curriculum and to everything else that goes on in school. Now, Duncan says, he'll require proof that these kids are making academic progress.

DUNCAN: We know that when students with disabilities are held to high expectations, have access to a robust curriculum, they excel.

SANCHEZ: Joining Duncan on today's call was Tennessee's education commissioner Kevin Huffman, who challenged the prevailing view that most special education students lag behind because of their disabilities. Huffman said they're behind because they're seldom tested or given more demanding academic work.

KEVIN HUFFMAN: In Tennessee, I think we've seen over time that our students with disabilities did not have access to strong assessments. And so then the results that came back were not providing an honest picture of how those students were doing.

SANCHEZ: Huffman called the new guidelines a step in the right direction.

HUFFMAN: Because it's a step in the direction of reality.

SANCHEZ: To help states, the Education Department is creating a $50 million technical-assistance center. States that don't comply could lose funding earmarked for special education, which to date totals about 11.5 billion dollars. Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

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