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Special education report cards get mixed reviews

Parents of students with disabilities can expect to receive state-issued report cards next month showing the progress of their respective school districts in special education.

A new federal mandate under the reauthorized Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the reports mark the first time the state has publicized the rates of graduation, dropouts, classroom placement for children with disabilities and participation in statewide testing. The reports don't reflect the number of modified diplomas, designed for some students in special education.

Some local school district officials expressed doubt that the reports have significant meaning, as the data is out-of-date, and in some cases inaccurate.

State education officials acknowledged the numbers in the first reports are spotty at best, as the data from 2004-05 were gleaned from other state reports not intended to specifically show the progress of students in special education.

In coming years, however, the reports will be useful to the public in staying informed about what's happening in special education, in providing schools with public oversight and in showing educators where they can improve, state officials said.

"Now that the reports are required they are going to get more accurate," said Nancy Latini, an assistant superintendent with the Oregon Department of Education.

Students in special education represent about 12 percent of pupils in the state. Each one is given what is called an individual education plan representing a set of goals based on the student's abilities and meetings among parents, teachers, administrators and experts in the student's disability.

"It has always been a concern of ours how our students (with disabilities) are performing compared to other students," said Rick Mould, special programs director in the Central Point School District. "We know students are struggling academically, but our intent is to bring that up."

The state requires that districts send the report to parents of pupils in special education.

Officials in the Medford School District plan on producing their own special education report to reflect more accurate data and make it easier to understand for parents and other community members.

The numbers reflect data about students who are enrolled in special education for reasons ranging from a minor learning disability to multiple handicaps.

"Students in special education have different needs, and under the No Child Left Behind Act, they have been lumped together," said Julie York, Medford School District student services director. "NCLB expects 100 percent of students to graduate. You cannot tell me a student whose only goal is to hold his head up, swallow and eat is going to graduate after 12 years of education."

In Jackson County, the margins in each category are wide from district to district.

For instance, the percentage of pupils in special education graduating with a regular diploma run the gamut from 7.7 percent in the Medford district to 80 percent in the Ashland district.

York said ODE officials couldn't explain the discrepancy.

"We don't know where the numbers came from," York said.

One factor could be that Medford district requires more credits for graduation with a regular diploma, or the data could be incorrect, she said.

Monitoring the placement of students is important to prevent districts from entirely excluding special education students from classes that could benefit them in the regular education program.

The percentage of students spending time outside of regular classes is often higher in larger districts because they tend to offer more specialized programs.

The Medford district, for example, has classrooms for students with similar needs, such as social training for pupils with autism.

"We integrate those classes with their regular education peers in art, recess, lunch and physical education as opposed to a pull-out program," York said. "The special classes operate the same as a regular classroom.

"The goal is the least restrictive environment," York said.

Some parents lauded the report cards.

Lisa McGowan, who has three children enrolled in special education in the Medford and Phoenix-Talent school districts, said, "I think everyone should know what's happening in special education and the outcome of the programs."

Reach reporter Paris Achen at 541-776-4459 or pachen@mailtribune.com.