The Texas Education Agency has been working over the last four years to eventually eliminate the Performance-Based Monitoring Analysis System’s special education representation indicator that suggests school districts keep special education enrollment at or below 8.5 percent, the TEA said in a statement released in November.
“Allegations that TEA issued fines, conducted on-site monitoring visits, required the hiring of consultants, et cetera, when districts provided special education services to more than 8.5 percent of their students are entirely false,” said Penny Schwinn, TEA deputy commissioner of academics, in the statement.
In Conroe ISD, the percent of students enrolled in special education has steadily decreased from 10.4 percent to 8.2 percent since 2005—a trend Teresa Canon, the district’s director of special education, credits partly to an overall increase in the student population over the last decade.
“The decrease that we’ve had is due in part to a rapid increase in enrollment, but more so due to a reduction in the number of students identified with learning disabilities,” Canon said. “That’s due largely to a change in the criteria. We used to have a simple formula where if there was a simple mathematical difference, you were called learning-disabled.”
Practices have evolved, affecting who is placed in special education, Canon said. To be eligible, a student must have an identified disability, and that student must need special education because of that disability.
“We have federal and state laws that dictate how students are eligible for special education,” Canon said. “There are disability categories that are identified, and we have to have specially licensed and credentialed individuals who do comprehensive educational evaluations to determine a student’s eligibility for special education.”
TEA is working to implement changes that will address federal requirements for different indicators of special education representation, disciplinary removals and educational placements based on race, ethnicity and disability categories, TEA information specialist Lauren Callahan said.
“We anticipate the PBMAS rule that incorporates these significantly expanded federal requirements regarding special education representation—including a federal requirement that a threshold be set to identify districts with significant disproportionality—will be proposed in the spring,” Callahan said.
With the PBMAS system, school districts would not be looked into until the special education population exceeded a 15 percent threshold, Canon said. At that point, a district may be asked to reassess its methods and set specific goals.
“It’s a little misleading, I think, that there’s some punishment if we go over 8.5 [percent],” Canon said. “That whole performance-based monitoring system has multiple indicators. There are quite a few things they look at, and if a district has multiple issues in multiple areas, then certainly you would be asked to do an analysis.”
Canon, who has more than 30 years of experience in special education, said the 8.5 percent target has never had any effects on the number of students the district identifies as needing special education services.
“The number out there by TEA for whatever reason has never governed our decisions about whether a child is eligible,” Canon said. “If they are eligible for special education, we serve them in special education.”
The goal in CISD is to meet the needs of special education students so they can move into and be successful in general education classes, Canon said.
“There are some students that reach a point where they no longer require special education services and they may exit,” she said. “The majority do continue to need those services throughout their educational career.”