FARGO — North Dakota and Minnesota were two of just 21 states that met requirements for educating students with disabilities last year.

But both states have room for improvement.

“Although we received a ‘meets requirements’ this year that does not mean that we have met our targets for each of the indicators and the work continues,” Gerry Teevens, North Dakota Department of Public Instruction's director of special education, told The Forum.

Federal law requires schools to identify and evaluate students suspected of having disabilities. If a student is found to have one of 13 qualifying disabilities, schools must provide them with special education and related services. Services may include speech therapy, counseling or occupational therapy. Students from birth to age 21 may qualify to receive these services.

To ensure that districts are providing quality and appropriate special education, each district is evaluated annually on 17 factors, including academic performance, participation and discipline. Each state sets a target rate for each goal.

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The U.S. secretary of education uses the annual report and several other factors to evaluate each district’s performance to come up with a state rating: Meets requirements, needs assistance, needs intervention, or needs substantial intervention.

If a state fails to receive a meets requirements designation for two or more years in a row, the U.S. Department of Education can implement a corrective-action plan, involve the inspector general or U.S. Department of Justice, withdraw education funds, or direct how a state uses such funds.

District performance

The Fargo School District met less than half of the goals for the 2017-2018 report. The district did not meet goals for math and reading proficiency, graduation rates and what's known as least restrictive environment, a mandate that students with disabilities be educated alongside nondisabled peers.

In the district, less than 19% of special education students were proficient in math, and less than 18% were proficient in reading. However, these rates were higher than the average across North Dakota districts.

Fargo’s four-year graduation rate for students with disabilities was 60%. In comparison, North Dakota had an average graduation rate of 88% for all students, and 46% of all students were proficient in reading and 43% proficient in math.

Fargo met requirements for keeping dropouts low and was found to not disproportionately expel or suspend students with disabilities.

"We tend to have our students enrolled in higher education courses after their first year of graduation, and our dropout rate is typically below state," said Patricia Cummings, director of special education in Fargo. “But there’s always room for improvement."

Schools across North Dakota performed similarly to Fargo. Bismarck, Grand Forks and Minot also had students with disabilities performing below goals in reading and math proficiency. Bismarck schools did not meet goals for graduation and dropout rates. Proficiency in math and reading was below 15% in Grand Forks.

West Fargo schools also performed similarly to Fargo.

West Fargo met goals for parental involvement, enrollment in higher education and employment within 12 months of high school graduation.

“We can attribute our success to the hard work of all staff, a continued dedication to intentional staff training, partnerships with parents and guardians, and a commitment from community agencies in supporting students to be successful,” said Rachel Kjonaas, special education director for West Fargo Public Schools.

West Fargo did not meet targeted goals for four-year graduation or dropout rates, or math and reading proficiency. In West Fargo, 19% of students with disabilities were proficient in math, and 16% were proficient in reading.

Moorhead schools performed similarly to North Dakota schools.

Moorhead schools met the requirements for four-year graduation rates and dropout rates. The district did not meet goals for math and reading proficiency but had higher levels of proficiency than North Dakota schools, with 21% proficiency in math and 25% proficiency in reading.

North Dakota received a performance rating of “needs assistance” for early education students, birth through age 3. Minnesota met requirements for this age group.

Moving forward

Using the performance report, states set specific goals for the next school year.

In the upcoming year, North Dakota schools' biggest focus will be on social-emotional strategies to help students. The Fargo and West Fargo districts plan to provide additional staff training on social-emotional practices and interventions. North Dakota schools will also focus on improving graduation rates and decreasing suspensions.

In Moorhead, the district plans to focus on increasing the time students with disabilities spend in general education classrooms and to continue to improve learning, graduation rates and post-graduation outcomes, according to Duane Borgeson, executive director of learner support services in Moorhead.

Readers can reach education reporter Emma Beyer, a Report For America corps member, at 701-241-5535 or ebeyer@forumcomm.com.