High quality data should be used to inform instruction and monitor progress for all students, whether or not they have IEPs. For special education students, reliable data absolutely must guide educational decisions. This is a legal requirement, not just a best practice. Of legal mandates in special education, this is a helpful one. Present levels should guide goals. The diagnostic-prescriptive model of special education makes sense. What makes less sense is the pressure to use data collection for purposes outside the cycle of assessment, planning, and teaching.
Critics assail the contemporary emphasis on testing. Some have bemoaned the time spent preparing for and taking tests. Others have lamented the stress testing creates for all involved. A few have even questioned the use of testing results in teacher evaluations. Popular criticism focuses on state and district-level standardized testing. When most critics discuss testing and special education, they consider the appropriateness of tests for students with IEPs and effect of their scores on overall results. These critics overlook what might be the most important role of assessment in special education.
The typical concerns about special education and testing are worthwhile, but a deeper issue persists. Special education has become an exercise in data collection. Gathering data is a massive swath of what special education teachers do. Assessment is constant and not just for making instructional decisions, gauging progress, or satisfying state mandates. Special education forces schools to collect data for self-preservation.
Schools need evidence to protect against the threat of litigation. This threat is immediate and has begun to take precedence over data collection for planning purposes. Should parents ever wish to challenge program effectiveness, schools must demonstrate progress. If parents take issue with placement recommendations, suspension decisions, or hesitation about adding services, schools must defend their stance with ample data. Schools must prove goals are based on established levels and progress is measured by reliable assessments. Data must prove the school is doing what the IEP demands.
All of this should happen regardless. Compliance with the IDEA demands data collection, and good instruction requires informed planning. However, the nuanced information needed as litigation protection goes beyond sound pedagogy. Experienced teachers might be able to glean what interventions a student needs through informal interactions and simple assessments. Certainly, more detailed analysis could provide better planning tools. Skilled teachers can turn data into effective plans. Despite this, most teachers genuinely don’t need daily or even weekly progress updates for planning purposes for most students. Frequent data points are helpful until collecting them interferes with instruction or until they’re needed for proof rather than planning.
Some districts purchase commercial data management and progress monitoring programs and mandate their use by all special education teachers. The standardization of data collection is wise, but the real reason for these purchases is to defend against compensatory education loss. Large districts lose millions each year from lawsuits. Some plan for such loss in their budgets. A lack of worthwhile data often loses cases for them. The use of commercial programs forces teachers to collect and keep more data than they need, but enough to use in their defense. Though intrusive, they allow for substantial evidence to be ready when parents seek due process. While better record keeping might result, the motivation isn’t about improving student outcomes.
Teachers could possibly do more with less. A criticism of these commercial products is the massive investment in time. In using them, planning time, instructional time, and even time dealing with special education paperwork is all lost. This is in addition to time used preparing for the tests all students take. Less frequent and regimented collection could allow for more attention specially designed instruction, which is the supposed heart of special education.
The yield from frequent and copious data is often additional proof that students indeed are still struggling to read. Teachers working with these students likely know this, but now they get constant formal reminders. The progress noted might be too miniscule to be meaningful, but for the sake of the school’s defense, it’s still progress. For some students, claiming any real progress could be facetious, though the illusion of progress can be created through these tiny increments of information. The illusion might be enough to use during due process.
Defensive data collection doesn’t stop here. Data must be kept on interactions with parents. This is a wise practice for all teachers, but a requirement for special education teachers. Records must indicate when and how teachers correspond with parents. Teachers must record every interaction with parents, as records of these may be needed later. Attempts to include parents in processes and decisions must be kept by law to protect their rights, but in practice to protect schools from legal attacks.
This data preoccupation provides ammunition in due process battles. It also can be used to retain teaching positions. Administrators sometimes protect positions by demonstrating that staff is needed to continue rates of progress with special education populations. Again, this has little to do with instruction, but at least this affects students more than efforts to stymie lawsuits.
Data collection must happen, but it should relate directly to student outcomes. Testing paranoia mires schools. The insistence on superfluous special education data collection hinders an already convoluted system. Schools having to amass data for self-defense is one of the most troubling by-products of special education.