Special Education

Report: SPED Classification Rates Vary Widely

A new report from the Frontline Research and Learning Institute finds that a majority of educators around the country agrees with the number of students classified to receive special education services within their organizations.

Fifty-six percent of respondents told researchers the number of students classified was appropriate, and only 21 percent said somewhat fewer students should be classified within their system. Seventeen percent said somewhat more students should receive classification. At the extreme ends of the spectrum, only 3 percent said far fewer students should be classified, the same rate that respondents said far more should be classified.

"Notably," according to Frontline, "when respondents disagreed about their state's classification rate, participants in high classification states advocated for reductions, while those in low classification states advocated for increases in classifications."

The survey polled more than 3,600 education professionals holding 19 different positions across 12,000 education organizations and paired it with data from the United States Department of Education to explore questions related to the variation of special ed classification rates around the country, educators' perceptions about how appropriate classification rates are in their organizations and factors contributing to inappropriate rates of classification.

The total number of students served by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 2014-2015 was 6.6 million, 13 percent of public school students. Classification rates ranged from 8.6 percent in Texas at the low end to as high as 17.8 percent in New York.

States with the highest classifications, New York, Massachusetts (17.6 percent), Maine (17.5 percent) and Pennsylvania (17.1 percent), were clustered in the Northeast. States with the lowest rates, Texas, Idaho (9.8 percent), Colorado (10.4 percent) and Hawaii (10.5 percent), were scattered across the country.

Other key findings of the report include:

  • Principals and special education teachers were more likely than people in other roles to report that more students should be classified;
  • Administrators and directors of special ed were more likely than other respondents to say that fewer students should be classified; and
  • In the four states with the lowest classification rates, 2.9 percent of special ed administrators far fewer students should be classified, while in the four states with the highest rates, 8.3 percent said the same thing.

The authors noted that the variance in classification rates may reflect different tools in use in different states. "For example," they wrote, "the 2004 reauthorization of IDEA strongly promoted Response to Intervention (RTI). RTI, as a multi-tiered approach to the early identification and support of students with learning and behavior needs, is a possible contributing factor in fewer students identified with specific learning disabilities."

And, indeed, many survey respondents did point to RTI as a reason fewer students were classified in their organizations.

Similarly, a lack of differentiation and specialized support from general education teachers might lead to a higher classification rate. This is common with English language learners, who may be mistakenly classified as special needs students without an English as a second language specialist to determine English proficiency.

"A low or high classification rate does not necessarily indicate inequitable practices but, rather, reflects local resources and varying contributing factors that contribute to possible over- or under-classification," the report concluded. "Some questions to support a deeper understanding of your local district include: What measures in place are working successfully to address the needs of students? How do you know they are working successfully? What story does your data tell and with whom are you sharing your story?"

To view an interactive map of classification rates across the nation, or to download the full report, visit frontlineeducation.com.

About the Author

Joshua Bolkan is contributing editor for Campus Technology, THE Journal and STEAM Universe. He can be reached at jbolkan@gmail.com.

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