Fewer Indiana students were evaluated for disabilities that would qualify them for special education services in the 2019-2020 school year than in previous school years, according to data provided by the Indiana Department of Education. Under federal law, an individualized education program (IEP) evaluation must be conducted to determine whether a student has a disability and is therefore eligible for special education services.
These stats come as the state prepares to release standardized testing results that show a drop in scores — data that highlights the impact of the pandemic on students.
The total number of IEP evaluations completed in the 2019-20 school year — just more than 25,000 — dropped by about 16% compared to the 2018-19 school year, when nearly 30,000 evaluations were completed. The total number of evaluations initiated also dropped by about 13% over that period.
Data showing the number of IEP evaluations started and completed during the 2020-21 school year are not yet available, according to the Indiana Department of Education.
A spokeswoman for the Indiana Department of Education, Holly Lawson, attributed the drop in IEP evaluations to a slight decline in overall student enrollment, as well as school closures during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Students have experienced a reduced in-person connection with school staff, and even as schools were directed to continue IEP evaluations virtually, the numbers show this led to fewer evaluation referrals,” Lawson wrote in an email.
Students can be referred for IEP evaluations by school staff, including teachers and counselors, their parents or guardians, or another individual involved in the education or care of the student.
In addition to the drop in IEP evaluations, the number of preschoolers with diagnosed disabilities also decreased by about 11% this school year — or 1,800 students — compared to the 2019-20 school year. The Indiana Department of Education attributed that decrease to COVID-19 disruptions.
Both the drop in IEP evaluations and the number of students with diagnosed disabilities is unusual given that the state’s special education population increased each year between 2016 and 2020.
With many students back in the classroom during the 2020-21 school year, Lawson wrote that the department expects the number of IEP evaluations and the number of special education students to stabilize in the coming year.
‘We Didn’t Receive A Lot Of Referrals’
Jenny Smithson, director of special education and high ability services for Muncie Community Schools, said she’s not surprised by the drop in IEP evaluations. Smithson is also a co-chair for the governmental affairs committee for the Indiana Council for Administrators of Special Education (ICASE).
“With the governor ordering our schools to be closed through the end of June , that year, and with everybody's fears of the pandemic, and everything like that, I don't think referring their child for special ed was the first thing on parents' minds during that time. We didn't receive a lot of referrals,” Smithson said.
Smithson said students who already qualified for special education services continued to receive those services throughout the pandemic.
But school closures limited the district’s ability to complete IEP evaluations that were in progress in the spring of 2020, Smithson said. State data shows that the number of IEP evaluations that weren’t completed rose slightly — from about 4,000 to nearly 4,500 — in the 2020 school year compared to the prior year.
Under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), schools have a responsibility to identify children with disabilities who need special education services. Margaret Jones, executive director of Disability Legal Services of Indiana, said it’s clear that the COVID-19 pandemic added challenges to that process. But she said many Indiana students, particularly elementary-aged children, returned to school this year.
“So, I think some of those children that may have been either dropped or missed during 2019-2020, hopefully, the school system caught them [during] 2020-21. And we'll see those kids, if need be, enter the system,” Jones said.
Jones said it’s important to identify children with disabilities as early as possible.
“If you can catch a child early on with a reading difficulty or reading disability and remediate appropriately, then that student hopefully will catch up, learn those skills and be able to eventually… not need services anymore [and] exit the program,” she said.
Smithson, with Muncie Community Schools, said her district is gathering data on the IEP evaluations that were done in the 2020-21 school year and will soon report that to the state.
Smithson said there wasn’t a flood of IEP referrals this year, and she doesn’t anticipate that number to be much higher than it was during the 2020 school year. Smithson said that’s due to a screening process called “multi-tiered system or supports,” or MTSS, that the district used at the start of the school year to identify children who were struggling. She said students who were identified received extra support from math and reading interventionists. If those interventions didn’t work, that’s the point at which a student would be evaluated for an IEP, Smithson said.
“And so we are trying to prevent too many referrals to special education,” Smithson said. “A delay is different than a disability. A delay can be made up. And so we'll work with those kids and attempt to make up those delays. And if it's not working, that's when we refer to special ed.”
Jones said she hopes that schools continue to closely evaluate students over the coming school year to identify those who need extra support and those who may have a disability. She said the influx of federal COVID-19 relief funding may allow schools to hire more psychologists to conduct IEP evaluations or trained interventionists, for example.
“I am encouraged by the additional funding,” Jones said. “I hope schools will use that funding to make sure that kids are being educated and being evaluated to make sure that they are getting the services that they need.”