With American special-needs students performing dramatically lower than their peers in academics, President Barack Obama's administration is shifting to a new results-driven system in grading states' special education programs.
Tennessee education officials are rallying behind the overhaul, billed as a "a long-overdue raising of the bar for special education."
The new accountability replaces one that looked primarily at issues such as meeting timelines for evaluations, due-process hearings and transitioning children into preschool services.
Though these metrics will remain, federal education officials plan to also review special-ed students' participation in state assessments, proficiency gaps between students with disabilities and all students, as well as performance in reading and math on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
Marks will be used in setting each state's federal funding under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
"We know that when students with disabilities are held to high expectations and have access to a robust curriculum in the regular classroom, they excel," U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Tuesday.
Duncan, who unveiled the framework in a teleconference that included Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman, stressed that the vast majority of special-needs students are not limited in cognitive abilities, but instead have speech, learning or physical disabilities. Yet fewer than 10 percent of American eighth-graders with disabilities received proficient marks in reading in NAEP last year.
The shift in metrics lowers the number of states meeting federal special education benchmarks from 41 to 18.
Though Tennessee is not among the states meeting benchmarks, Duncan said Tennessee is the fastest-improving state on "virtually every measure" and lauded Huffman's courage for saying the "status quo simply isn't good enough."
Huffman, who hosted Duncan at a high school last month, said he and others in Tennessee are excited about the shift because it complements the special-ed work the Tennessee Department of Education has been undertaking. He said many special-needs students simply need accommodations and support to achieve at higher levels.
"We can't duck the results for 14 percent of our students. We have to own those results and drive them to a better place," Huffman said.