Has AISD Cleared Its Special Education Backlog, or Not?
After July 1 deadline, 77 evaluations still to be completed
On June 30, Austin ISD made an announcement: Its once egregious backlog of uncompleted special education evaluations was "no more." The backlog, which had prompted a lawsuit and the complete reorganization of AISD's special education department, was "due to be cleared by the district's promised deadline of July 1."
In an update it sent to the Texas Education Agency that same day – June 30 – AISD had a different message. Although the district had made substantial progress toward determining the special education needs of hundreds of students, 77 initial evaluations remained incomplete, leaving dozens of students in limbo. The district told TEA it would aim to finish those by July 15. "The official written document didn't show a complete catch-up," Dustin Rynders, the supervising attorney for education at Disability Rights Texas, told us. "I still think we're seeing a real lack of honesty and candor from the district."
The district has been publicly grappling with its evaluation troubles since the spring, when we reported on the Austin families who have waited, often for months, for AISD to complete the mandated initial evaluations and reevaluations. These assessments determine which specific special education services are best suited for a student – for instance, a child with learning disabilities might need extra help learning to read, or a student with autism could benefit from weekly meetings with a counselor – and the evaluation timelines are strictly regulated by state and federal law. The chronic delays at AISD led to a lawsuit from DRTx, a protection and advocacy agency, alleging that students with disabilities who are entitled to receive services have been denied those opportunities by AISD's failures.
The backlog came about after many of the district's evaluators, such as licensed specialists in school psychology, resigned en masse in late 2019, and it was worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic. To try to catch up this spring despite continued staff shortages, AISD worked with contracted evaluators from AIM (Assessment Intervention Management). It has also made big internal changes: gathering community input in a publicized survey, hiring a new special education director, asking Central Office special education staff to reapply to their positions. "The special education reorganization is 90% complete, and the department looks to enter the school year with no backlog and a clean slate," the AISD website notes.
Although the vast majority of initial evaluations were completed in the district's race to the June 30 finish line, the status of reevaluations, which the district must conduct for students in special education every three years, is unclear. AISD declined to share the numbers of pending reevaluations with the Chronicle, noting instead that "re-evaluations data is in progress and will be analyzed for compliance and monitoring purposes." In February, we reported that around 500 reevaluations were delayed; the DRTx lawsuit estimates that as many as 1,600 students could be impacted.
The initial 77 evaluations remaining after the June 30 TEA report were many months overdue; the TEA report is based on an Oct. 2, 2020, complaint about evaluation delays last summer. When asked about the disparity in initial evaluations completed, AISD wrote, "The evaluations are an ongoing process. Given vacations during the summer months, the district has been responsive to parents' requests and schedules to have their child's initial evaluation completed as soon as possible."
Despite the disparity, progress has been made. The district reports evaluating over 700 students since March, and the report confirms that most student evaluations have either been completed or dismissed. However, Rynders said, DRTx will continue to pursue its lawsuit against the district, as evaluations are only the first step in getting students with disabilities the services they need. Rynders noted that the district has not publicized its progress on holding the meetings with parents and educators that determine each student's individualized education plan and what services it includes. Nor has AISD discussed how it plans to provide compensatory services for students who now need extra assistance because of the delays.
"Quite a few assessments have been done. I think that's wonderful. Unfortunately, we don't have the rest of the story," Rynders said. "The whole reason that assessment matters is that assessment drives a plan for a child who's struggling, and if the meeting hasn't been held to develop a plan in advance of next school year, then it's definitely too early to celebrate. Because that is still a child who's going to start the next school year without the services they need in place."