September 26, 2022, Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) released the final report for its two-year “independent” audit of its special education program. The audit, done by American Institutes for Research (AIR) paints a bleak portrait of a broken system.
The report comes as no surprise to parents or educators. It confirms what parents have experienced for decades. Students’ needs are not being addressed pursuant to IDEA, Section 504, and state implementing regulations, teachers are undertrained and under supported, and leadership encourages teachers to be quiet rather than proactive in helping to ensure the needs of students are met. For example, one staff member commented about a lack of consistency in decisions to move forward with the local screening process:
I think it often depends on the number of reevaluation or evaluation cases in the school in general. And just the logistics are what’s driving some of the decision making at some schools about to test or not to test.
Yet another staff member shared the following comments:
One of the things that I wish that we could have input for is if we believe and data show that a student does need to go to local screening, that we could advocate for that student without getting our hand slapped. Because there is definitely not equity when it comes to who goes to local screening, I believe. And sometimes parents may not understand the process. I’ve talked about this with others. Parents may not understand the process, so really it’s up to myself or the teachers to advocate…. Where, if a staff member says, “We’ve tried this, this, this, and this, why not take it to that next level?” “No.” But then, if a parent reaches out, then, “Yes.” They get to go.
Unfortunately, it samples just 300 IEPs of the almost 28,000 students in FCPS who have IEPs. Thus, the data sampling was small and there is a question about how those 300 IEPs were chosen for sampling.
Findings from AIR’s report include the following:
- FCPS students with a disability (SWDs) perform substantially lower on state exams than FCPS students without disabilities across all subjects and all racial-ethnic groups. . .
- SWDs disproportionally receive in- and out-of-school suspensions compared with peers without disabilities.
- Subgroups of students vary in the likelihood of identification for special education.
- FCPS does not meet the Virginia state targets for percentage of time SWDs are included in the general education setting.
- Most present levels of performance statements rely on subjective information rather than objective, measurable terms
- Annual IEP goals and short-term objectives include measurable behaviors and a criterion, but most goals lack conditions under which the behavior will occur.
- While most parents report having adequate input in their child’s IEP development, some IEPs lack documentation of parent input and collaboration.
- IEPs do not consistently document detailed rationales for placement decisions.
- IEP transition goals and the transition services students receive may lack alignment
- The quality of transition planning and programming varies by disability category
- Processes to facilitate transitions between grade levels and schools are not clearly defined at the district level.
- IEP progress reports do not provide sufficiently detailed, data-based information.
- Special education services are implemented inconsistently across the district.
- Publicly available information about special education career pathways lacks important details needed by prospective employees
- Staff identify workload and compensation as interrelated factors with substantial influence on FCPS’s ability to recruit, hire, and retain special education personnel, especially when competing with neighboring school districts.
- Staff perceive inefficiencies in the staffing allocation process.
- Novice teachers lack preparation to adequately support SWDs and need tailored professional development opportunities.
- Professional development opportunities related to educating SWDs are not sufficiently aligned with staff roles and identified areas of need.
- Use of explicit instruction varies across classrooms.
- Access to evidence-based practices for SWDs varies.
- FCPS staff have limited knowledge about and understanding of MTSS.
- Implementation of MTSS procedures is inconsistent across schools.
- Communication from the district about special education can be inconsistent and difficult to access
- At the school level, communication challenges include a lack of timely information from administrators, insufficient time to collaborate, and demanding workloads for special education teachers.
- Parent satisfaction with the amount and quality of communication from staff varies by parent subgroup and school level.
- Parents and staff have different opinions about the quality of parent–staff communication.
- Although offered by FCPS, translation services are not widely or easily accessible for all who need them
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