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Impact of Missed Special Ed. Evaluations Could Echo for Years

The rocky onset of remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic halted special education evaluations in most schools. Four years later, a new study hints at the massive scale of the impact.

In Washington state, about 8,000 elementary school-aged students missed identification for special education services between March 2020 and March 2022, according to a new study from researchers affiliated with the Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research at the American Institutes for Research. That’s about a 20 percent drop over what would be expected given previous years’ trends, researchers found.

The practical consequences for individual students are significant: students with undiagnosed dyslexia lacked needed supports during the crucial years of early literacy instruction, while students with unrecognized emotional disability went without interventions to help them constructively respond to challenges. And while schools are working to provide compensatory education for gaps in special ed. services for identified students before the pandemic, their obligations to those who missed identification altogether are far less clear.

The estimate, which builds on similar research from other states, echoes the concerns of advocates who’ve sounded alarms about the pandemic’s effects on students with disabilities. Such students, they say, missed precious opportunities for earlier interventions because of stalled evaluations.

“Given prior evidence on the substantial negative impacts of previous restrictions to special education access on student outcomes, these students—who otherwise may have been identified for specialized services—may face negative, long-term outcomes or increase the demand on school districts for identification and assessment in the future,” the CALDER researchers wrote.

Were special education evaluations delayed or denied?

Researchers may never be able to fully account for students who would have received more timely special education evaluations in the absence of a pandemic, said Roddy Theobold, the deputy director of CALDER and co-author of the study.

It will take a few years to see if there are spikes in evaluations, which could suggest schools have cleared backlogs, he said. But factors like declining public school enrollment will complicate efforts to fully account for the pandemic’s effects on students seeking special education services.

“You could imagine that perhaps the state is catching up on identification, in which case, those students have missed a couple years of special education services they probably should have gotten,” Theobold said. “Or maybe there are students who just aren’t being identified at all who historically would have. If that’s the case, we just don’t know that.”

Previous research suggests backlogs are a problem around the country. A May 2023 working paper on Michigan schools published by the National Bureau of Economic Research documented a steep drop in special education identification rates in 2019–20, followed by lower-than-typical rates in 2020-21 and a return to pre-pandemic levels by the 2021–22 school year.

CALDER researchers expanded on that study’s methodology by analyzing month-by-month Washington state data going back to 2010 to identify trends in K-5 special education determinations, and using it to more accurately model how those trends were disrupted when schools abruptly closed in March 2020.

Washington schools enrolled 1.15 million students in the 2019-20 school year, about 506,000 of them in kindergarten through fifth grade. About 90 percent of the state’s special education identifications occur during elementary school, CALDER researchers found.

The data show that 2019-20 special education identification rates stayed close to previous year’s trends until March, when they fell dramatically. Rates improved slightly in 2020-2021, when many schools remained closed for in-person learning. By 2021-22, rates returned to pre-pandemic levels, but it would take rates of identification above pre-pandemic levels to suggest schools had fully addressed any delays.

Schools faced challenges with special education during the pandemic

Schools faced unprecedented challenges in delivering special education services at the onset of the pandemic. Support staff like physical therapists couldn’t meet with students in person, educators were stretched thin trying to adapt in-person learning materials for a remote environment, and some students lacked internet access.

On top of those practical challenges, teachers missed chances to notice patterns in children’s in-person behavior and classroom discussions that might suggest an undiagnosed disability, school leaders told Education Week at the time.

In response to those challenges, some groups like AASA, the School Superintendents Association, pressed then-U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to waive some requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the nation’s primary special education law.

But DeVos and her successor, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, instead repeatedly emphasized that schools must meet requirements in IDEA and in Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 to provide all students a free appropriate public education, or FAPE, regardless of disability status. The laws include an array of specific requirements for identifying, supporting, and equitably educating children with disabilities.

Even as schools reopened to a “new normal,” they lacked adequate support staff like psychologists and social workers, who are often involved in the identification process. The existing support staff reported challenges keeping up with students’ emotional and behavioral needs.

Federal officials have insisted schools work urgently to address gaps in services and lags in evaluations.The Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second largest, agreed to a list of changes after a 2022investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s office of civil rights found it failed to provide services required by students’ individualized education programs during remote learning, failed to adequately track special education services, and provided inadequate compensatory services to repair those gaps.

That agreement served as a wake-up call for other districts. But most discussions have focused on compensatory services for students who had been previously identified for special education, rather than those who who missed evaluations altogether.

Educators and policymakers have reason to be concerned about those missed opportunities for intervention, the CALDER study said.

It cites a 2021 study published in the American Economic Journal: Economic Policy that explored the effects of a 2005 Texas policy that impermissibly denied many students access to special education services. Those denied services, the research found,s’ were about 50 percent less likely to graduate from high school.

“There’s really good evidence that each additional year of special education services you receive has positive impacts on student outcomes,” Theobold said. “This shows really profound downstream negative consequences on outcomes for kids who probably should have been receiving services.”

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