California ranks in the bottom rung of states in the academic achievement of disabled students, according to new federal rankings released Tuesday.
The new system rates only 18 states and U.S. territories as meeting federal standards, compared with 41 under the old rules for evaluating state programs.
The prior method of ranking looked more at process, such as whether students were being evaluated for disabilities within a reasonable time frame. The new approach looks more at outcomes, such as how well disabled students are doing on math and reading tests.
For now, the changes in the rankings are based overwhelmingly on the addition of test scores to the evaluation. The education department pledges to add other outcomes in the future.
In the bottom group, along with California, are: Delaware, the District of Columbia, Texas, the Bureau of Indian Education and the Virgin Islands.
The states in the top category of are: Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming.
Three territories also achieved that level: Federated States of Micronesia, Marshall Islands and Palau.
“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 in a statement. “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.”
In some respects, states are doing well in special education. Between 2006 and 2010, the number of students who received a timely evaluation of their disabilities rose from 85% to 97%, according to federal data.
Academic achievement, however, is lacking. Over the same period, students judged to be reading at a "basic" level rose only from 36.2% to 36.7%; the numbers for math show an increase from 34.7% to 35.2% over the same period.
School districts already are accountable for the achievement of disabled students. A school can be penalized or even shut down if any group of students lags too far behind or fails to improve.
The revamped system puts new pressure on states to focus on results rather than on whether schools are following established rules for handling the disabled. Under the worst-case scenario, a state could lose some federal funding if its programs do not improve.
California officials on Tuesday said they were reviewing the federal report.
"Like other states, we are concerned that the categorization is more the result of the particular methodology used than of the actual performance of California’s school districts," said Pam Slater, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Education. "We will be working with the [federal] Department of Education to resolve these issues."
Rating special education students and programs has always been controversial. Some states exempt more disabled students from testing than do other states. And some states provide more help to these students on state tests. States also have complained for years that federal funding falls far short of the extra costs of educating the disabled.
The goal of the new system is to balance both results and compliance with rules, officials said. In the current rankings, 30% is based on scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the only nationwide test available, which is given to a sample of students and not at every grade level.
That test "is the best, fair measuring stick for every state in the nation now," Duncan said. "There isn’t another one.”
Officials acknowledged that this is the first time that the national assessment has been used to rank states in a way that could result in sanctions. Up until now, states were assured that the national assessment could have no negative consequences, other than bad publicity, over low scores.