February 22, 2024

Changes are underway in the delivery of special education services to Arkansas students.

The 2021-22 school year is the final year in which Arkansas students who receive special education services can graduate based on meeting the requirements of their individualized education programs.

Beginning in 2022-23, there will be two paths to high school graduation for students who are eligible for special education services:

• Students with the most severe cognitive disabilities — no more than 1% of all students — can graduate based on an alternate pathway to graduation.

• All other students who receive special education services must have instruction in and complete the 22 courses that the state requires at a minimum for high school graduation.

Matt Sewell, special education division manager for the Arkansas Division of Elementary and Secondary Schools, said in a recent interview that the shifts away from using an individualized education program as a student’s graduation plan and from a reliance on resource room courses are required by federal laws — the Every Student Succeeds Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

“It’s something that has been mandated, a direction in which we have to move,” Sewell said, “but it’s not just about doing something that is federally legislated, it’s about doing the right thing for kids.”

About 14% of Arkansas’ kindergarten-through-12th grade students are identified as eligible for special education services because of conditions such as autism, deafness, blindness, speech impairment, orthopedic impairment, specific learning disability, intellectual disability and emotional disturbance.

Arkansas has about 473,000 public school students.

“There are the 22 required courses for credit that a student must have to graduate high school,” Sewell said about Arkansas. “Those courses do not include Resource Math 9, Resource English 11, Resource Biology 10, or Resource Oral Communications.”

Those kinds of resource courses have been allowed to count for high school graduation, but they are not credit-bearing courses, he said, and will not be allowed going forward.

Instruction in the graduation credit-bearing academic courses for the students who are identified as needing special education services can continue to be delivered by special education teachers in resource and self-contained classrooms, Sewell said.

The state agency has told school districts in training sessions over the past year that districts are still allowed to provide core instruction in special education pull-out settings, but they are encouraged to move toward practices that place students with disabilities in regular classes.

Eventually — at a date not yet set — special education students will have to be taught by teachers who are appropriately licensed in the academic subject they teach, be it geometry, biology, English, or something else. The special education teachers at that point will continue to provide support to the students who need it within the general eduction classrooms or in short pull-out sessions.

“[The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act] is really specific,” Sewell said. “It says supplementary services and supports such as resource room [for instruction] should be delivered in conjunction with the general course placement.

“‘Resource’ was never meant to supplant general education. It was meant to supplement the core instruction that students were receiving from content-certified teachers,” he continued. “Over time it has [supplanted it]. There has been this separate but equal system re-established in this realm of education — these two separate silos by which we educate students and graduate them from high school.”

Sewell and Robin Stripling, a curriculum and assessment coordinator for the state agency, said data on students with individualized education programs shows that a shift to instruction by teachers certified in subject areas and aided by special education teachers is warranted.

While Arkansas at 83% has the highest graduation rate in the nation for students with disabilities — a rate close to the state’s overall graduation rate of 88% — the achievement scores for students with disabilities “are just terrible,” Stripling said.

She cited Arkansas’ 2019 results on the eighth-grade National Assessment of Education Progress, a test given to a representative sample of students in every state in math and literacy every two years.

“Our kids with disabilities are just scoring at a fraction of what students without disabilities are scoring,” Stripling said. “And the vast majority of these kids have no cognitive impairment.

“They do not have an intellectual disability, so their expectation should be the same,” she said, “but the outcomes for them are just terrible.”

About 15% to 20% of Arkansas students with individualized education programs have cognitive disabilities, Stripling has said, calling that a high number when compared with other states.

On the national exam, 28% of Arkansas eighth-graders receiving special education services scored at or above the “basic” level in reading. In contrast, 74% of students who did not have an individualized education plan for special education services scored at a “basic” or better level on the 2019 test.

In math, 21% of Arkansas students identified as eligible for special education services scored at or above the “basic” level on the test as compared with 70% of students who did not receive the services, Stripling said.

In another measure, Sewell and Stripling said fewer than half — about 48.5% — of Arkansas’ Class of 2019 graduates who received special education services had gone on to competitive employment of at least 20 hours a week, or some other kind of employment, or to post-secondary education or training. That percentage is low and has declined since 2014 when it was 63%.

Sewell highlighted elementary schools — including Raymond Orr Elementary in Fort Smith — that are taking steps to include students with disabilities in regular classroom instruction.

Dawn Childress, Orr Elementary principal since 2018, observed in her first year that students who were pulled out of the regular classrooms to receive remediation in the special education resource classroom were missing core content. The school also had a self-contained special education classroom.

That information was used when Orr was selected for a pilot program on how to use teacher collaboration — or professional learning communities — to provide support needed by students while also increasing the inclusivity of special education pupils with general education pupils as much as possible.

“We have moved to the point this year that all of our students are with their peers at least 80 percent of the time,” Childress said.

“The great thing that has come from that is that students have a higher level of self confidence. It also has ensured that they are receiving grade level content that they were missing in the past. It has resulted in some great gains.”

Childress said children with disabilities improved in every category included in the school’s Every Student Succeeds Act score from 2019 to 2021.

Changes at Orr include a paraprofessional who rotates through classrooms to provide support to children who previously were in a self contained special education room. The school’s two special education teachers do some co-teaching with general education classroom teachers. Other times the two teachers “push in” to regular classrooms to help individual or small groups of students, and there are other times they “pull out” students for targeted interventions.

“It’s really about what specific supports the kids need,” she said.

Kathy Haaser, director of special education services for the Fort Smith School District, said that teachers are more aware of the changes than parents. But as parents and school representatives have conferences such as individualized education program conferences about students, the changes are being explained.

“We had lot of conversations with parents to make sure what we were doing and the reasoning behind it” Childress said about her school. “We didn’t have any resistance to the changes. I think it was because of front-loading the communication. And it didn’t hurt when our children had great success.”

Tiffany Bone, Fort Smith’s assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, said that inclusive practices for students are the way to see achievement gains.

“You can never expect achievement to improve for students who are being assessed on standards that they have never been exposed to,” Bone said.

“These are our students and they are entitled to some specialized supports based on some needs that they have. If we think about it that way, it’s not such a big deal,” Bone said. “Co-teaching or any kind of inclusive practices are just common sense. You just want to support the students, whatever their needs may be.”