When you combine a steady growth in the number of students receiving special education services with rising expectations for the educators who serve these students, all of whom have very diverse needs, you get a “perfect storm” of challenges for K-12 leaders.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, 6.6 million students in U.S. public schools—or 13 percent—received some form of special education services during the 2014-15 school year, and this number is on the rise. For instance, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the percentage of children diagnosed with a developmental disability rose from 5.76 percent in 2014 to 6.99 percent in 2016—and the number of students diagnosed with ADHD increased from 4.4 million in 2003 to 6.1 million in 2016.

As the number of students who qualify for special education services continues to climb, the high bar for the standard of education for these students has been reiterated by the Supreme Court. In the landmark case, Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, the Court affirmed that school systems must be “appropriately ambitious” in designing an individualized education program (IEP) that meets the needs of every child with a disability.

Ensuring that a growing number of students with disabilities meet appropriately ambitious learning standards can be challenging, especially when you consider that each child’s learning needs are very different. The only way to do this effectively is to have greater visibility into all aspects of special education programs—and then use this knowledge to create an improvement process that works.


Here are three recommendations for how state and local education leaders can make real, lasting improvements to special education outcomes.

1. Collect more granular information about the achievement of special-needs students. “Students with disabilities” is a very broad classification. The needs of students who have emotional issues are going to be very different from the needs of those with cognitive disabilities.

Although the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) requires state accountability systems to track students with disabilities as a single subgroup, state and local education leaders should consider creating “sub-subgroups” for students with different kinds of disabilities and analyzing the performance of these smaller groups independently from each other.

For instance, states could share a reporting system with their local school systems that is easy to comprehend and breaks out data by disability type. This will help state and local leaders to identify where schools need the most technical assistance, so they can address the learning needs of students more effectively.

2. Design assessments that accurately reflect the skills of students with disabilities.
ESSA is very specific about how states must test students, including those with disabilities. They are required to provide accommodations on their high-stakes tests for students such as those with IEPs or other mitigating circumstances. However, only up to one percent of all students can take an alternate exam. In the end, this imprecise approach likely covers only those special education students with the most severe disabilities or approximately 10 percent of all students with IEPs.

Although Congress had good intentions in creating the law, and states can apply for a waiver from this one-percent restriction, the fact is that some students are going to be assessed with an exam that doesn’t accurately demonstrate their capabilities.

Though state education leaders have no choice 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 accurately.

Having a more precise measurement of a student’s skills would allow state and local education leaders to design instructional strategies and interventions that are more appropriate to each child’s unique learning needs.

3. Encourage general and special education improvement teams to work together.
Often, the teams responsible for planning special education initiatives and general school improvement programs are made up of different people working separately. This is usually because the budgets that support general school-improvement planning and special education programming come from two different pools of money. The result is a disconnect in which the goals of these activities are not aligned.

Combining general school-improvement planning with the effort to bring results-driven accountability to special education should bring about new processes that lead to better outcomes.

If state and local education leaders are serious about improving special education, then better insight into needs and practices is essential. By collecting and using data more intelligently, state and local education leaders can plan special education activities and strategies that drive real, systemic improvement.

About the Author:

Andrew Henry is the founder of Red Cedar Software Group and the creator of Stepwell, a web-based platform that helps drive continuous improvement in special education with automated best practices and on-demand access to the right data.