With new criteria focusing on student outcomes, the U.S. Department of Education said its latest evaluations found most states are falling short in meeting their responsibilities under IDEA. (Shutterstock)

With new criteria focusing on student outcomes, the U.S. Department of Education said its latest evaluations found most states are falling short in meeting their responsibilities under IDEA. (Shutterstock)

Federal education officials are dramatically altering the way they evaluate compliance with special education law and the change means far fewer states are living up to expectations.

For the first time, test scores and other outcome measures for students with disabilities are a central focus in state assessments conducted under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the U.S. Department of Education said Tuesday.

Under the law, the Education Department determines each year how well states provide special education services and assigns one of four labels: “meets requirements,” “needs assistance,” “needs intervention” or “needs substantial intervention.”

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Data released last year indicated that 38 states met requirements, but using the new criteria focusing on student performance federal officials said just 15 states achieved the top rating in the latest round of determinations reflecting data from the 2012-2013 school year.

“Every child, regardless of income, race, background or disability can succeed if provided the opportunity to learn,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. “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. We must be honest about student performance, so that we can give all students the supports and services they need to succeed.”

For this year’s IDEA determinations, the Education Department looked at participation by students with disabilities in state assessments, their performance in reading and math on the National Assessment of Education Progress and proficiency gaps between students in special education and others.

In future years, federal officials said they will expand the measures they consider to include graduation rates and possibly other factors.

The move marks a significant shift. Previously, the IDEA evaluations focused on whether or not states met procedural requirements like completing evaluations, due process hearings or transitioning children into preschool services within an appropriate timeframe.

For states, the stakes are high. IDEA requires federal officials to take action if a state is classified as needing assistance for two or more years in a row and federal funding can be withheld if a state routinely underperforms.

To help states boost their performance under the updated accountability framework, the Education Department said it will fund a new $50 million technical assistance center.

U.S. Department of Education Determinations Based on 2012-2013 Data:

• Meets Requirements: Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Virginia, Wisconsin, Wyoming

• Needs Assistance: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, Washington, West Virginia

• Needs Intervention: California, Delaware, District of Columbia, Texas