Friday, November 19, 2010

Imperfect Understanding

At this month's CACSE meeting, part of the Director's Report included a statement on the overidentification of students with disabilities.  Of the 17,000-plus students in our school system, over 1,700 (or approximately 10%) of them are IEP carriers; this is a big reduction in our percentage, which had been about 20%, I think she said.  (But don't quote me on that.  She might have said 12%, and I had it stuck in my head that it was 13%!)  Our "numbers" now align with the national percentage, giving us "proportional representation."

On so many levels, this strikes me as just plain wrong.  If a child has special needs, then by gosh and by golly, he should have those needs identified, and he should have an IEP to address those needs if an IEP is appropriate.  You don't say, hey, you don't really have a disability, and I'm taking away your services just to make our "numbers" line up.  And that's my knee-jerk, emotional response to hearing that my school system has "overidentified" children with special needs and will work to "bring those numbers down."

Thank goodness another representative at the CACSE meeting asked for clarification.  (I couldn't even formulate a question.)  The Director was able to provide more information about what the federal requirement is and how the school system has to deal with it.  (It's the party line, but I understood it.)  To the best of my memory, these were the points:
  • The  federal government requires that school systems maintain representation of students in school districts to levels proportional to the national average.  If they don't, federal dollars will be withdrawn.
  • They have this requirement for many different subgroups, at a minimum, all the subcategories that make up the groups for determining Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP).
  • School systems must create an action plan to address the disproportionality. 
  • Students in the Special Education subgroup must have their cases reviewed to determine if they do indeed have the proper educational label and whether their needs require an IEP or other interventions.
  • An example is the fact that a huge number of African American boys -- a disproportionate number -- are educationally labeled as having an emotional disability.  I get this example and want to see proportionality.
  • Another example is that our school system had too many students identified as having a speech/language disability.  Upon examination, noted the director, a fair number of those students were receiving speech/language services for issues that fell within "normal" parameters for their ages.  The specific example given was that having a lisp does not become developmentally outside the norm until about age 8-9, so children who lisp at age 7 are within developmental ranges and should not be receiving services for that issue.  While I get this example, I don't like it.
It seems to me that there are some problems:
  • The first problem is semantics.  The first time, the second time, the third time I heard the Director say, "We have overidentified children with special needs and will work to bring those numbers down," I really did think she meant to take away services from children who needed them, and I couldn't make sense of that.  And for heaven's sake, if there's a reason for higher numbers of certain disabilities, then they are what they are.  (Our county is home to the Patuxent River Naval Air Station, a 30,000-person employment center, or, as we in the Autism Spectrum Support Group call it, Geek Central.  It wouldn't surprise me at all if we had a higher-than-the-national-average number of children with the educational label of "autism.")  But that wasn't the meaning of "overidentified."  The Director's explanation showed that the plan was to examine professional standards and to train Special Education staff to a standard for evaluating cases.
  • The second problem is trust.  I have to trust that our Department of Special Education is in fact doing exactly that:  Examining professional standards, training all evaluaters to those standards, and consistently applying those standards without skewing those standards to  ensure that the numbers come down, to the detriment of our children.  I have to trust that children yet to be identified are fairly identified and not passed over so that "the numbers" stay down.  Both are problems, the latter since we know children who are being denied the educational label of autism here in our school system despite having the medical documentation of a diagnosis of autism, and the former since we know children with autism here in our school system who are being mislabeled as emotionally disturbed, and the school teams are adamant.
The Director is not in an enviable position.
Neither are our children.  Trust is not easily given anymore.

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