Supporting Student Success: A Key Role for Special Education Data

Education data play many important roles, but none more significant than the role special education data play in informing policy and practice. To understand the importance of special education data, we have to look back to a time when the public commitment to the education of students with disabilities was quite limited. We can trace modern special education practices back to the 1950s, but the availability of services varied tremendously from state to state, with the majority of students with disabilities unserved. Although availability grew gradually throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, it wasn’t until the late 1970s that special education became universally required in this country.

The enactment in 1975 of transformative civil rights legislation, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (PL 94-142), provided a national mandate requiring that states serve all children with disabilities, that they serve them in the least restrictive environment, and that they ensure that each child eligible for special education services has his or her own individualized education plan. The law provided students with disabilities new rights while assigning responsibilities to schools that went beyond those for other students. These responsibilities included requiring that parents participate as equal partners in planning for their child and mandating data collection and reporting that would facilitate federal monitoring of states’ implementation of the law.

By including requirements for local and state data collection and reporting to the U.S. Department of Education and to the public, special education law set the stage for ongoing monitoring activities to ensure that states and schools respect the rights of students with disabilities and that states productively spend the funds the federal government allocated to them. For a number of years, data reporting and related monitoring focused on access—whether states faithfully implemented the law. But later iterations of the law, including the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) enacted in 1990, placed an additional focus on student outcomes. Therefore, over many years, special education data have been useful in ensuring that states and schools respect the civil rights of students with disabilities and, more recently, in developing and implementing plans that offer students the greatest promise for their success.

For more information, view our IDC overview video.

–Tom Fiore