Half of New Hampshire Students with Disabilities are Dropping Out;
Legislature Considering Bills to Address “Crisis in Special Education”

April 30, 2007
For Immediate Release
Contact: Richard Cohen, Esq., Executive Director, 603-228-0432

Students with disabilities in New Hampshire schools drop out of school at nearly three times the rate of their non disabled peers. According to recently released figures from the U.S. Department of Education, almost half the students with disabilities between 14 and 21 dropped out before completing their education. A 47% drop out rate puts New Hampshire at 52nd in the country and US territories. (see Footnote 1 and Attachment A). This dismal statistic comes in spite of the requirement that students with disabilities are to be provided with support services and individualized education programs designed to promote a successful educational experience. The figures were based on 2004-05 statistics reported by each state to the U.S. Department of Education.

New Hampshire also earned the unenviable rank of 55th worst in the country for the percentage of increase in its drop out rate among students with disabilities. Between 1998 and 2003, the drop out rate increased by 36%. See Attachment B. The worsening trend continued between school years 2004-05 and 2005-06 as the drop out rate for this population continued to increase while the drop out rate for all students decreased statewide. See Footnote 2.

“When one considers the implications of these numbers on children, their families and society, this is very troubling,” said Mike Skibbie, DRC policy specialist and former director of the New Hampshire Public Defenders. “High unemployment, crime, and incarceration rates are all directly associated with dropping out.”

According to Richard Cohen, the Executive Director of the Disabilities Rights Center, the Legislature is currently studying six bills (see Footnote 3) designed to address the causes behind the high drop out rate and another equally disturbing disparity--student performance on the NECAP assessments. These bills were recommended by a special legislative task force whose purpose was to review state special education statutes to make sure that they complied with federal law. The NECAP test (or New England Common Assessment Program) measures how well schools are educating students on core subjects such as reading and math. Students with disabilities score between 40 and 50% and more below other students on the NECAP and the previous NHEIAP assessment, which began in the mid 1990s. See Attachments C-C-3. On average, only about 30% of students with disabilities statewide perform at the minimally acceptable standard as compared with 70-80% of all other children. See Attachments C-C-3. As these are statewide averages, the track record in some school districts is even more abysmal. In some grades and subjects not a single student with disabilities achieved the minimum standard. See Attachments D-1-2.

Cohen, who also sits on the NH Department of Education’s State Advisory Committee on special education, says he hears the tragic stories behind these numbers every day. “The drop out and statewide assessment scores confirm that most children with disabilities in this state are not getting an ‘appropriate education’ as guaranteed by federal law nor do they receive the “adequate education” promised by state law,” Cohen said. “These statistics not only jeopardize the schools and state’s status under NCLB, IDEA, and the state accountability law, but more importantly continue to translate into poor life outcomes for thousands of New Hampshire’s children and future adults.”

Cohen acknowledged that it might be impossible to close the assessment gap completely, however he pointed out that experts in the field and most government officials believe the performance gap could be narrowed substantially. That consensus is one of the principles behind the federal special education law, IDEA, and NCLB. According to Dr. Jan Nisbet, Director of the Institute on Disability at UNH, the majority of children with IEPs have learning and other disabilities, which do not impair their intellectual abilities. “With appropriate accommodations, most students should perform significantly better on the NECAPS,” Nisbet said. Proof of this can be found in the school districts in and out of New Hampshire where this is occurring. See Attachment E. In one example, Cohen pointed to Hooksett, where 8th graders with disabilities scored just about as well as children without disabilities in reading—72% proficient or advanced vs. the statewide average of 74% for all other students.

One of the major issues the task force believes the legislature needs to address is the lack of accountability, said Cohen.

“Official assurances are made by local school districts to the state and by the state to the U.S. Department of Education every year. Every year action plans are developed to close these gaps or bring about other improvements, with little result. In fact we seem to be going backwards.” Cohen said. “No one is holding any one accountable -- neither the state over the local districts, nor the federal government over the states. Given the importance of education and the amount of money spent for special education—some $475 million per year in combined federal, state and local funds--children, their parents, and society have a right to expect far more.”

Chaired by Representative Nancy Stiles, the legislative task force was composed of legislators and non legislators, including parents, professionals and government officials. According to Carol Burmeister, a member of the task force with a background as a special educator and former special education director, the six bills recommended by the task force provide “an essential framework” to address what she characterized as “a crisis in the education of children with disabilities that has been kept under the radar.”

The House Education Committee recently voted to retain five of the bills for further study. While Cohen was disappointed that the House Education Committee retained five of the six bills, thus delaying possible passage for a year, he was encouraged by Commissioner Lyonel Tracey’s general support for the contents of the bills and Tracey’s call for action to narrow the unacceptably wide gap on NECAP assessments between students with disabilities and other New Hampshire students. Tracey also supports the sixth bill, HB 661, which addresses the chronic personnel shortages in special education and the training educators receive in special education. That bill passed the House and is currently before the Senate Education Committee.

Burmeister praised Representative Nancy Stiles and other legislative members for their year-long study of the multiple issues facing the state in its responsibilities in special education and their specific recommendations for change. She expressed the hope that their fellow legislators will see “the critical importance of these bills in ending the lack of accountability which pervades system.” “Without that accountability in law and in actual practice, the support and training teachers and schools need, and ultimately and most importantly that children need, will not happen. The unfortunate result is that we will continue to deny to thousands of students with disabilities each year a most cherished right—the opportunity for a decent education.”

1 47% is the cumulative drop out rate. See Attachment A.
2 April 2007 NHDOE report to the federal government reported that the “annual drop out rate” for 16 through 21 year old children with disabilities was 8.4% as compared with 7.9% for the previous year., NH Department of Education IDEA Part B Special Education Annual Performance Report for FY 2005, p. 6. This occurred at the same time the drop out rate for all students had decreased from 3.4% to 3.2%. NH DOE’s goal had been to decrease the drop out for students with disabilities to 7.0% in year 1 of a 6-year plan. Id.
3 The bills—HBs 661, 677, 678, 679, 765, & 766.

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updated July 20, 2017