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Most special education benchmarks come up short

Special education students in Jackson County joined their peers statewide in failing to meet state academic benchmarks in the 2012-13 school year, according to district report cards released last week.

The report cards for the county's six largest districts showed that too few of their students with individualized education plans (IEPs) met the state objectives, which take into account both student progress and proficiency, as well as participation.

The local districts weren't the only ones to come up short of meeting the state benchmarks. Crystal Greene, a spokeswoman for Oregon Department of Education, said none of Oregon's 197 districts met them.

"These are the targets we've set for all kids, and we know they are ambitious targets, especially for students in special education who aren't always achieving at the same level as their peers," Greene said.

Four of the districts — Medford, Eagle Point, Phoenix-Talent and Rogue River — trailed the state average in the percentage of students with IEPs who met or exceeded grade-level math and language arts standards on the Oregon Assessment of Knowledge and Skills.

The Central Point School District fell short in math but matched the state average of 36 percent in language arts. Ashland schools surpassed the state average in both subjects.

Ashland Student Services Director Samuel Bogdanove credits the district's relative success in special education to its teachers and new advisory program, in which high school students are assigned to a teacher or staff member who meets with them regularly in a class setting.

Although all students participate in the program, it is especially vital for kids with IEPs to get that focused attention and personalized academic support, Bogdanove said.

The district currently has between 320 and 350 students with IEPs, including 105 at Ashland High School.

During the 2011-12 school year, Ashland recorded the highest graduation rate — 71 percent — among students with IEPs receiving a regular, four-year diploma. However, that rate dropped to 52 percent in 2012-13, when Rogue River took the lead with a 58.33 percent graduation rate.

The state target in 2011-12 was 67 percent and in 2012-13 was 69 percent.

In 2007, the State Board of Education voted in favor of more demanding high school graduation requirements. Bogdanove said he is concerned that fewer students with disabilities will be able to attain a regular diploma particularly because of more rigorous math requirements.

Starting in 2010, not only does a high school student need three math credits to graduate, but those credits must be Algebra 1 and higher. In order to minimize the impact of the new regulation, Bogdanove said Ashland schools are starting to teach Algebra earlier. And some students with IEPs may need to take Algebra 1 over two years instead of one, he said.

Eagle Point's graduation rate for students with IEPs getting a regular diploma in four years dropped from 34.3 percent in 2011-12 to 30 percent in 2012-13. The district had 513 students with IEPs in 2012-13.

However, Tiffanie Lambert, Eagle Point's special services director, said the completion rate in 2012-13 for the five-year cohort of students with IEPs was 70 percent and included those who received a modified or extended diploma, GED or certificate of attendance.

"A regular diploma isn't appropriate for all students, and we consider that on an individual basis," she said. "We have students who get modified diplomas, extended diplomas, GEDs and certificates of attendance and we are proud of them as well for their accomplishments."

This year, Lambert said, the district received a student assistance grant of $119,000, as well as a five-year grant as part of the state's Response to Interventions initiative. As a result, schools will be able to implement more intervention programs and offer more credit retrieval opportunities and tutoring for eighth-graders and freshmen.

"It's so they don't have to play catch-up later on and so students will be on track for graduation right from the ninth grade," Lambert said.

"We're always looking at how we can improve services for students with disabilities, and we're not going to rest until all of our students are achieving at expected levels," she said.

The Medford School District had the lowest high school graduation rate for students with IEPs graduating with a regular, four-year diploma — 23.16 percent in 2011-12 and 25.23 percent in 2012-13.

Superintendent Phil Long said special education directors are constantly looking for more effective programs to help meet student needs.

"It's a challenge when the state sets a standard and assumes that eventually all students will meet that standard and applies it to a population of students who are defined specifically by the fact that they have some special need that makes it difficult to learn," said Long.

Although the percentage of these students meeting or exceeding grade-level standards was less than the state average, the percentage of Medford special education students who met or exceeded alternate language arts standards was 1 percent higher than the state average.

Based on a December count, the Medford School District — the state's 12th largest district — provides special education services to 1,609, or 11.9 percent, of its 13,469 students.

The number of special education students in K-12 schools statewide grew from 74,793 in 2012-13 to 75,374 this year.

According to an ODE news release, specific learning disabilities and speech/language impairments are the most common disability categories in Oregon.

Reach education reporter Teresa Thomas at 541-776-4497 or tthomas@mailtribune.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/teresathomas_mt.