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CalSTAT Technical Assistance and Training

IDEAS that Work!California Department of Education, Special Education Division’s special project, California Services for Technical Assistance and Training (CalSTAT) is funded through a contract with the Napa County Office of Education. CalSTAT is partially funded from federal funds, State Grants #H027A080116A. Additional federal funds are provided from a federal competitively awarded State Personnel Development Grant to California (#H323A070011) provided from the U.S. Department of Education Part D of the Individuals with Disabilities Education act (IDEA). Opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of the U. S. Department of Education.

Common Core State Standards

The Promise and the Peril for Students with Disabilities

By Martha L. Thurlow, National Center on Educational Outcomes, University of Minnesota

The development of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) was motivated, in part, by the challenges that a mobile society creates for K—12 students. Many students move from one school to another during their school careers, and some move many times. When they move within the same state, they are held to the same content standards—those the state has set for all of its students, including students with disabilities. But when they move from one state to another, students are taught to different content standards and may be held to different levels of achievement standards as well. Further, they often end up taking different assessments.

The CCSS also were developed to address the need for a common set of content standards that would be consistent with the requirements of a global society. The developers of the CCSS recognized that students needed to leave high school ready for college and careers.

Students Who Meet the Common Core State Standards

Source: Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects, p. 7. Available at http://www.

These goals are consistent with the goals that educators have for students with disabilities who, like other students, need to leave high school with the ability to use technology, understand a variety of perspectives, and communicate effectively (see box above). Students with disabilities likely will need additional supports so that they have the opportunity to learn and meet the same standards. Educators are central to ensuring that this promise is fulfilled—and that the potential perils associated with the CCSS are avoided.

The Promise

Included from the beginning! Unlike many past educational efforts, the CCSS seem to have been developed with all students in mind. There are several indications that this was the case. For example, special education professionals participated in the development of the CCSS and in verification teams. In addition, a document called "Application to Students with Disabilities" on the CCSS Web site addresses how the CCSS apply to students with disabilities and how to ensure that these students have access to the CCSS. For example, this document states that "Students with disabilities . . . must be challenged to excel within the general curriculum and be prepared for success in their postschool lives, including college and/or careers. . . Therefore, how these high standards are taught and assessed is of the utmost importance in reaching this diverse group of students" (p. 1).

Application to Students with Disabilities is available at www.

In the English language arts (ELA) standards document, it is noted that the standards allow for appropriate accommodations. It goes on to state: "For example, for students with disabilities, reading should allow for the use of braille, screen-reader technology, or other assistive devices, while writing should include the use of a scribe, computer, or speech to text technology. In a similar vein, speaking and listening should be interpreted broadly to include sign language." (CCSS/ELA Standards, p. 6).

All of the CCSS are available at

These are important statements, not only because they show that the CCSS developers considered all students, but also because they open up the possibility of continued discussions about access to the curriculum and about accessible assessments that measure what students really know and are able to do. Access is critical if students are going to succeed in each grade and leave school ready for college or a career.

College and career readiness is appropriate for students with disabilities! What does it mean to be college and career ready for students with disabilities? In large part it means the same thing as it does for other students. David Conley at the University of Oregon identified four critical dimensions of college readiness: (1) cognitive strategies, which include such higher-order thinking skills as problem formation, interpretation, and analysis; (2) content knowledge, which includes the concepts and knowledge in the disciplines; (3) skills for learning, such as time management, persistence, metacognition, goal setting, and self awareness; and (4) transition knowledge and skills, which include knowledge and awareness about applying for admissions and financial aid, interacting with higher education faculty, and navigating college systems.

Redefining College Readiness by David Conley is at RedefiningCollegeReadiness.pdf.

Several individuals have identified how these critical dimensions apply to students with disabilities, including students who have significant cognitive disabilities.

Help in Transitioning to College and Career is available through The National Secondary Transition Technical Assistance Center at career-readiness-101-documents.

What Does "College and Career Ready" Mean for Students with Significant Cognitive Disabilities? is at http://www.naacpartners. org/publications/CareerCollegeReadiness.pdf.

Fulfilling the Promise

Focusing curriculum and teaching methods. For students with disabilities to be able to meet the standards described in the CCSS, they will need a focused curriculum, and teachers will need instructional methods that address the students' individual needs. Recent studies of districts that have been successful with all of their students, including those with disabilities, confirm the need for educators to focus their efforts and target instruction in order to reach agreed-upon goals.

Challenging Change: How Schools and Districts Are Improving the Performance of Special Education Students from the National Center for Learning Disabilities is available at http://www

This kind of focus is supported by all of those critical skills that special educators implement on a regular basis—for example, checking on the implementation of effective strategies, using and keeping track of formative indicators of student performance, and ensuring that appropriate access to the general education classroom and curriculum takes place.

This focusing of curriculum and instruction is consistent with the assumptions and principles of response to intervention (RtI), which targets and differentiates instruction and support based on students' needs as it monitors their progress. Strategies may differ across the tiers of intervention, but all are focused on ensuring that students learn desired knowledge and skills.

The National Center on Response to Intervention and its many resources can be found at

RTI Action Network Videos from the Center on Instruction can be found at http://www.centeroninstruction. org/rti-action-network-videos.

The CCSS help to ensure that those engaged in RtI are clear about what students are expected to know, understand, and be able to do. They help to identify the skills and knowledge that students need to attain in each grade. The CCSS also help to define the progression across the grades so that students do not find themselves in a grade without the knowledge and skills they need because someone in an earlier grade decided to skip a skill, not knowing of its foundational importance for a subsequent grade.

Helping parents (and students) know what is expected. Another promise of CCSS is that parents will have a clear and consistent understanding of what their children are expected to know and be able to do. With this understanding, parents can take advantage of resources that schools, districts, and states provide to them about the CCSS (see the resources on pages 14—15 of this issue). In addition, when students are clear about what is expected of them, they have a greater chance of reaching their academic goals—and of leaving high school ready for college or a career.

The Peril of the CCSS

A great deal has to happen to realize the promise of the CCSS. And because of that, there is peril associated with these standards. Some of the greatest challenges lie in areas that have been challenges before for students with disabilities.

Low expectations. The CCSS are rigorous and complex; they are high standards that target what has to be learned at each grade so that students leave the K—12 system ready for a career or for college. In the past, low expectations for students with disabilities have reduced the content to which these students have been exposed. There is, however, a great deal that educators can do to avoid an attitude of low expectations. Rather than assume that students are not able to attain desired knowledge and skills, teachers can move forward with "the least danger assumption"—one that expects high performance.

A Challenge to Create a New Paradigm, by Cheryl Jorgensen, who discusses "the least dangerous assumption" can be found at http ://

Resources for IEPs are available from CDE at asp.

Thus, a student's individualized education program (IEP) will need to include annual goals that focus on the supports the student needs to build the knowledge and skills necessary for college and career.

Failing to provide access. Access to the curriculum is a critical part of ensuring that students attain the knowledge and skills defined by the CCSS (Nolet & McLaughlin, 2005). Ensuring this access has many facets. These include universally designed instructional materials and approaches, ones that provide multiple avenues of presentation and multiple avenues of response. They also include ensuring that students receive support from assistive technology devices. In addition, many students with disabilities will need accommodations to ensure access to the general curriculum (Bolt & Roach, 2009).

A Parent Guide to Universal Design for Learning is at http://www

Build an Assistive Technology Toolkit, by Kelly Ahrens, is at

Access to assessments will be just as important as access to the curriculum. With the CCSS, states potentially are able to share assessments because they all can be based on the same standards. At this point, five consortia of states are developing assessments, all based on the CCSS. California is part of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC; also see the article on page 3), which is developing a system of interim and summative assessments (see page 8 for highlights). It is critical that the developers of the common assessments think from the beginning about all students who will participate in their assessment systems and that they include in their consortia—and take advantage of the expertise of—educators who know and work with students with disabilities.

Steps for Educators to Take

To ensure that the promise of the CCSS is realized, educators will need to take a number of steps. Some of the big things to do and keep in mind are:

  1. Learn the CCSS! Find resources that provide information about the CCSS. Study materials from professional associations and parent groups. Look at the CCSS Web site for materials that are being developed to support educators and parents.
  2. Participate in professional development. Take part in professional development activities about the CCSS whenever they are offered. And, if you are a special educator, be sure that you participate in the same activities as your general education peers. Shared knowledge is essential to ensuring that everyone has the CCSS in mind as they educate students with disabilities.
  3. Adopt successful approaches. Focus on evidenced-based, successful practices for educating students with disabilities in line with the CCSS. These practices should be aligned throughout the system and must be practiced by administrators and educators alike.

The Center on Instruction offers school administrators and teachers numerous evidence-based resources for successful instructional practices:

  1. Provide access to the general curriculum. Constantly think about what it means to have access to the general curriculum. This entails thinking about how to ensure that students with disabilities have access that meets their individual needs. It also includes thinking about the design of materials, how they are presented, and how the student responds. And it means thinking in these ways not just about instructional materials but about assessments as well.
  2. Monitor student progress and adjust. Continuously check on how students are doing and the progress they are making so that materials and procedures can be adjusted as needed. This practice should be applied for all students, but it is critical for students with disabilities.

These are some of the things that need to be undertaken so that students with disabilities can realize the potential promise of the CCSS. The time is right to ensure that each and every student with a disability can reach the end of his or her high school years with the knowledge and skills needed to be successful in the next phase of life, be it postsecondary education or a job.


Bolt, S., & Roach, A.T. (2009). Inclusive assessment and accountability: A guide to accommodations for students with diverse needs. New York: Guilford Press. See also Laitusis, C.C., & Cook, L.L. (2007). Large-scale assessment and accommodations: What works? Arlington, VA: Council for Exceptional Children; Thurlow, M.L., Quenemoen, R.F., & Lazarus, S.S. (2011). Meeting the needs of special education students: Recommendations for the Race to the Top consortia and states. Washington, DC: Arabella Advisors.

Nolet, V., & McLaughlin, M.J. (2005). Accessing the general curriculum: Including students with disabilities in standards-based reform (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Letter from the State Director

Summer offers a great opportunity to reflect on what we've accomplished and what we face. One recent decision that carries enormous significance for the future of education is the adoption of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). California joined that initiative because of its promise to be a unified, national effort to secure consistent academic rigor for our K–12 school system. The importance of a strong system of academics that gives all students the opportunity to realize their full potential has always been part of both state and national agendas. The idea of national educational consistency is relatively new. However, within just the past two decades our world has seen accelerated technological innovations and global interdependencies that require us as a nation to embrace rigorous standards that, to ensure optimal benefit for every student, are the same across all 50 states. If our country is to remain competitive and if our children are to realize promising futures, we must be certain that our schools prepare all students for postsecondary education and employment. This is the idea of the CCSS. It is not just a good idea; it is a necessary one.

Our hope all along has been that, when we implement the CCSS, students with disabilities will have the supports, services, accommodations, and modifications they need to realize the same educational benefit that all other students receive. What makes the CCSS potentially unique is the chance it presents to build each of these components into the standards and accompanying curriculum and assessments from the very beginning, as was the promise—and not added as an afterthought. (Thurlow page 1.)

Some educators of good will have argued for field-testing the CCSS before their wholesale launch. I suggest, however, that we know what to teach, and we know how to help students learn. The real challenge is lodged in those detailed cracks that only appear during the actual, large-scale movement forward. No preliminary "testing the waters" can prepare us for the task of actually implementing the standards. And we are preparing. We know that districts are quickly ramping up supplemental materials and curriculum to address the CCSS in the classroom prior to the first year of the new assessment system (2014–2015). Many of these districts (page 16) are showing commitment, energy, and careful thought in how they're preparing their teachers and programs to embrace and benefit from the new standards. Since assessment is a central part of this new initiative, key California stakeholders have asked to join the National Collaborative and State Consortium to assist and advise in the development of a CCSS assessment for students with severe cognitive disabilities and to work in concert with the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortia assessment that is being designed for all other students. The assessment system that California will ultimately use for this group of students is uncertain; it is one of the important decisions that still needs to be made (Donavan, page 5).

We have much cause for optimism as we move forward. Our schools have come a long way in realizing true educational benefit for students with disabilities (Donavan, page 3). Research continues to reveal what is required of and for healthy brain development so that all children can meet rigorous standards and realize their full potential (Fish and Brault, page 9). Meanwhile, the California Advisory Commission on Special Education (see insert) continues to be diligent in championing legislation and programs that benefit students. And the Special Education Division remains firmly committed to ensuring that the CCSS initiative, along with all of its attendant pieces, is crafted in a way that supports and benefits all students with disabilities.

Assessment and the Common Core Standards

Raising the Bar for Students with Disabilities

Frank Donavan, Executive Director, Greater Anaheim SELPA

Over the past 37 years, special education has taken large strides away from being a parallel system that operated outside of general education and toward a more inclusive system that incorporates a collaborative approach to educating all students. This progressive journey can be attributed to five monumental changes that have dramatically improved the teaching-learning process and raised the expected outcomes for students with disabilities. The journey begins with legislation, progresses through important new and reauthorized law, and is currently gaining momentum through the Common Core State Standards.

Legislative Context

The first monumental change occurred with the passage of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EAHCA) of 1975, which mandated that schools provide special education services to eligible students and is considered to be the first, large-scale effort to include students with disabilities in the public education system (Brown, 1983). But, for the most part, there was little if any direction or expected educational outcomes, particularly for students with significant disabilities. During the 1980s, thanks to the pioneering work of Lou Brown and many others, functional domains were developed that provided educators with much-needed guidance on how to teach life skills and other functional skills that focused on independence and self-sufficiency for students with significant disabilities (Brown, 1983; Brown, 1989). Through the 1990s special education was based on the subjective interpretation of what constituted a free and appropriate public education (FAPE). While there certainly were random acts of improvement during this time, there was little, if any, consistency in instructional methodologies or assessment at the national, state, and local levels.

Then in 1997 the EAHCA was reauthorized as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which stated that students with disabilities should have access to the general education curriculum. That reauthorization occurred one year prior to the development and implementation of the California Content Standards and the California Standards Test (CST), which increased consistency in instruction, learning outcomes, and assessment across the state and required higher expectations for students with disabilities. Students with mild-to-moderate disabilities participated in the CST with and without accommodations and/or modifications. Students with significant disabilities were not required to take the CST. California's statewide assessment system, the Academic Performance Index (API), was used to monitor student progress toward meeting the standards. One of the benefits of the API is that it is a growth model and is similar to the way special educators measure the academic achievement of students with mild-to-moderate disabilities.

The passage of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) in 2001 was the third monumental change in special education. Schools were now held accountable for the academic outcomes of all significant subgroups of students, including those who were socio-economically disadvantaged, English learners, and identified with a disability. NCLB included a required federal assessment system known as Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) to measure student outcomes at the school, district, and state levels. While many aspects of NCLB have resulted in positive changes for students, the goal of having all students become "proficient" by 2014 has resulted in many challenges. Complicating the near impossibility of this goal are the punitive measures that place schools and districts into Program Improvement (PI) for failing to make AYP. As a result, significant subgroups, including students receiving special education services, often find themselves being blamed for a school and/or district's PI status. Ironically, a school and/or district can show significant growth in API scores but still not meet the AYP requirement and end up in Program Improvement.

In 2004, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act was once again reauthorized with an even greater emphasis on access to the core curriculum for students with disabilities and the additional requirement to use research-based practices. This fourth monumental change in special education solidified the need for schools and districts to continue their focus on improving outcomes for all students. While the focus in special education had been on improving outcomes for students with mild-to-moderate disabilities, California had begun expanding this focus in 2003 with the development and implementation of the California Alternate Performance Assessment (CAPA), a consistent, statewide assessment system for students with significant cognitive impairments. These students comprise approximately 1 percent of all students eligible for special education. The CAPA measures students' skills, however, not their knowledge or mastery of academic content. The development of the CAPA was followed in 2007 by the development and implementation of the California Modified Assessment (CMA), which provides the same content as the CST, but with fewer words and three rather than four choices for an answer. The CMA was intended to bridge the gap between the CST and the CAPA.

These four monumental changes have greatly improved the way we educate and assess students with disabilities. They do not, however, completely address the twenty-first-century skills that students will need in order to be competitive in a global economy. Without question our current State Testing and Reporting (STAR) system—which includes the CST, CMA, and CAPA—is antiquated and in need of a complete overhaul. For example, the tests are administered via paper and pencil and are not adaptable to each student's skill level. Also, these assessments are unique to our state and may not accurately provide for comparisons with student performance in other states and nations. Another problem is that the tests are summative, administered at the end of the school year; and the results are not known until the following year, precluding any chance for teachers to reteach or remediate identified areas of need. Fortunately, as mandated in Assembly Bill 250, a group of educators selected by the Superintendent of Public Instruction currently is meeting every month to develop suggestions for an entirely new statewide assessment system to be presented to the State Board of Education.

Information on AB 250 is available at ab250.asp.

Common Core State Standards

The fifth monumental change in special education is underway with the development and implementation of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and the new assessment system that will be used to monitor student progress toward meeting those standards. The aforementioned changes provide a solid foundation for what is likely to be an entirely new and more inclusive method of teaching and assessing students with disabilities. The shift from "all students proficient by 2014" under NCLB to the College and Career Readiness (CCR) theme of the CCSS represents a positive change that is much more promising for each student entering adult life. The academic content in the CCSS focuses on twenty-first-century skills, which will certainly help students prepare for a global economy and workplace.

Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium

An integral part of the CCSS is the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC), which is currently developing assessments that will replace both the CST and CMA. The SBAC work has been adopted for use in California as well as in 26 other states.

The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium can be found at

Directly aligned to the CCSS, the proposed Smarter Balanced assessments are computer adaptive and adjust to each student's skill level based on his or her response to each test item. These assessments will include a summative or end-of-year test, along with interim assessments and the option of formative assessments to help shape and direct instruction throughout the school year (WestEd, 2012). Another key feature of the Smarter Balanced assessments is that students, teachers, and parents will receive the results of these assessments in a timely manner that not only will help inform instruction but will direct the need for any remediation.

Many of the separate accommodations and modifications that were used in the administration of the CST and CMA are being built into the Smarter Balanced assessments (Shah, 2011). A computer adaptive feature—and the use of technology in general—will enable an array of such options as enlarged print, highlighting of reading passages, use of a scribe, and use of a calculator to occur directly at each computer. According to Stanley Rabinowitz, Director of Assessment and Standards Development Services and of the Assessment and Accountability Comprehensive Center at WestEd, "To achieve the goal that all students leave high school ready for college and career, Smarter Balanced will ensure that assessment and instruction embody the Common Core State Standards and that all students, regardless of disability, language, or subgroup status, have the opportunity to learn this valued content and show what they know and can do" (WestEd, 2012). WestEd is the project management partner for the multistate implementation of the Smarter Balanced assessments.

Alternative Assessment

Numerous alternative assessment options exist for evaluating the knowledge and mastery of students with significant cognitive disabilities. While California has yet to adopt one that would serve as an alternative assessment to those of Smarter Balanced, the state is currently looking closely at two alternative assessment consortia, Dynamic Learning Maps (DLM) and the National Center and State Collaborative (NCSC).

Dynamic Learning Maps can be found at

The National Center and State Collaborative is at

The instruments from these consortia were developed to assess the content of the CCSS and college and career readiness, and they all include solid academic content foundations and evidence-based design (Sheinker and Thurlow, 2012). Both Dynamic Leaning Maps and the National Center and State Collaborative offer comprehensive assessments that use computer-adaptive technology that will allow for a wide range of student needs. For example, students can access the assessment via augmentative and alternative communication (AAC). Or the assessment can be administered orally or in braille. Unlike the CAPA, these assessments are based on content knowledge of the CCSS, which will lead to higher expectations and improved results for students with significant disabilities. The National Center and State Collaborative is considered the more comprehensive of the two and has been recommended for use in California by many groups, including the Special Education Administrators of County Offices (SEACO) and the California County Superintendents Educational Services Association (CCSESA).

Improved Outcomes

We know that higher expectations result in improved student outcomes. A recent study of four California school districts that dramatically improved the academic performance of students with mild-to-moderate disabilities showed that all four districts emphasized "inclusion and access to the curriculum . . . [and the] use of student assessment data to inform decision-making" (Huberman and Parrish, p.5).

Lessons from California Districts Showing Unusually Strong Academic Performance for Students in Special Education by Huberman and Parrish is available at 25889.

Other examples of impressive gains in student performance point to the importance of raising expectations and providing rigorous and direct instruction to all students. Recent articles in The Special EDge have outlined the impressive academic gains made in the Dixon, Sanger, and Val Verde Unified School Districts (Summer 2011; Spring 2012).

Numerous other studies show how the same strategies can also lead to dramatic improvements in the academic performance of students with significant disabilities. These students can be taught and assessed on academic content by embedding that content into functional skills.

Learning Opportunities for Your Child Through Alternate Assessments is available at learning-opportunities.pdf.

Dr. Cindy Hoffman, Reading Specialist for the Greater Anaheim SELPA, has been doing this for years. When asked about the CCSS and the assessment of the academic progress of students with significant disabilities, Dr. Hoffman said, "We can and should be teaching literacy and numeracy to all students."

Schools and districts that improve outcomes for all students, including those with disabilities, have many things in common. But one of their key ingredients is rigor. We know that rigor equates to high expectations and accountability for both teaching and learning. In her book, With Rigor for All: Meeting Common Core Standards for Reading Literature, Carol Jago (2011) states that "the Common Core and other excellent language arts standards . . . are based upon a belief . . . that all children are capable of 'critical and higher-order thinking'"(p. 32).

Carol Jago provides insightful and inspiring presentations on the Common Core at and at www.carol

As we implement the CCSS and move our emphasis in special education from compliance to outcomes, "we now have the possibility that the objectives for each individual student will not only be addressed within a single system of delivery but also be addressed with individual accountability." (Tucker, 2011, p. 7).


As our nation's economy becomes increasingly part of the global economy, our instructional practices will continue to evolve in an ongoing effort to improve outcomes for all students, including students with disabilities. The good news is that our educators are already familiar with many of the strategies they will need to successfully transition to the CCSS, Smarter Balanced assessments, and alternative assessments. One example is Universal Design for Learning (UDL), an instructional method that allows for multiple strategies to deliver lessons as well as multiple methods for students to access and demonstrate mastery of the content delivered in those lessons.

Information on UDL is available from the National Center on Universal Design for Learning at

The monumental changes in special education throughout the past decades have established a foundation that is more than capable of supporting the progressive changes that lie ahead. The development of the CCSS, SBAC, and alternative assessments has now raised the educational bar higher than ever before—and that is a very good thing for all students.


Brown, L., et al. (1983). Opportunities available when severely handicapped students attend chronological age appropriate regular schools." Journal of the Association for Persons with Severe Handicaps, (14)1, 8–12.

Brown, L., et al. (1989). Should students with severe intellectual disabilities be based in regular or in special education classrooms in home schools. Journal of the Association for the Severely Handicapped, (8)1, 16-24.

Huberman, M., & Parrish, T. (2011). Lessons from California districts. Retrieved from 25889

Shah, N. (2012). Standards open the door for best practices from special education. Education Week, (31)29, 32-33.

Sheinker, A., & Thurlow, M. L. (2012, April). Providing educational assessments appropriate for every student: Is it possible? Presentation at the International Council for Exceptional Children Conference, Denver, CO.

Tucker, J. A. (2011). Beyond compliance toward Improvement." The Special EDge, (24)2, 1–7.

WestEd. (2012, May). Smarter balanced assessment consortium. Retrieved from

Preparing All Children for Rigorous Academic Standards

Executive Function and School Success

By Laura Fish, Senior Program Specialist, and Linda Brault, Senior Program Associate, both at the WestEd Center for Child and Family Studies

It's free-play time at the Lynden Child Development Center. Four children cluster together as they have every day this week. Melanie, age 5, calls out excitedly to the group, "Hey, guys, let's play family again!" Taking charge, she points to the others in turn and says, "You be the daddy, you be the sister, and you're the baby." Four-year-old Tess pauses—and then decides that being the daddy will be fun because this means she'll get the big cell phone. Degitu, also 4, thinks back to yesterday's play and agrees to her role as "sister." "Ok, but I get the silver necklace this time!" Melanie looks at the necklace and agrees because she wants the gold one anyway. Samantha, age 3, walks toward one of the baskets and picks up a cell phone. "Nooooo, Samantha," says Tess. "That is for mommies only! Babies don't talk on the phone." Tess takes the phone and gives it to Melanie. Samantha goes back to the closet, gets her doll as she did yesterday, and puts it in the stroller.

The children begin to set the rules of engagement and define their roles. Experience from their previous family-play episodes moves the action forward. This cumulative set of activities constitutes typical dramatic play in a preschool classroom.

Throughout their play, members of this "family" will make decisions ("Should we eat rice or pasta?"), solve problems ("We only have three bowls and four people! Give baby a plate instead."), and resolve conflicts ("Here baby, you can have the blue chair. I'll use it next time. Don't cry!"), all of which demonstrate complex social politics—and provide children with the opportunity to practice and refine their skills in executive functioning.

What Is Executive Functioning?

Executive function involves the complex problem solving and critical thinking that leads to the ability to accomplish intentional goals—from playing a schoolyard game to studying nanotechnology. More specifically, executive functioning (EF) refers to the set of cognitive processes that support an individual's capacity to engage in goal-directed behavior.

Building the Brain's "Air Traffic Control" System: How Early Experiences Shape the Development of Executive Function is at papers/working_papers/wp11/.

EF skills include those abilities that control behavior—such as attention, motivation, and regulation of emotion—and that guide behavior—such as planning, organizing, monitoring, reasoning, problem solving, and responding flexibly. According to the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University (the Center at Harvard), EF is that group of skills in the brain that "helps us to focus on multiple streams of information at the same time, monitor errors, make decisions in light of available information, revise plans as necessary, and resist the urge to let frustration lead to hasty actions."

It doesn't take any great cognitive leap to see how integral these skills are to success in the classroom at every level, from preschool through college, and into the world of work. In fact, students will simply not be able to access the rigorous demands of the upcoming Common Core State Standards if they do not have decent EF skills. Since we now know that EF skills begin developing—or atrophying—in very early childhood, attention to them is vital from the moment a child is born.

How do these executive functioning skills work in the brain? And what do parents and teachers need to know and be able to do so that children come to school with these functions in place?

Components of EF

The neurologically based skills that make up executive function can be organized under three domains:

Working memory keeps information in mind long enough to initiate and complete tasks. Working memory helps with the planning and organizing required for such things as following rules while engaging in a task, collecting and keeping track of needed materials, following directions, solving problems with multiple steps, and creating the roles and rules involved in any kind of complex activity, from playing "house" to working quadratic equations.

Inhibitory Control—or impulse control—helps a person pause to think before acting. This skill is necessary to filter out distractions, delay gratification, and break habitual behaviors. It is crucial for regulating emotions and making choices about appropriate ways to express those emotions. We all need this skill to forego doing what we want to do in place of doing what we are supposed to do—essentially to be able to discern the right choices to make and the most important things to attend to in any given moment. A child, for example, uses these skills when continuing to build a block tower despite children running through the area; when waiting to eat lunch until everyone is served; when playing such games as "Red Light/Green Light" and "Simon Says"; and when, after being hit by another child, calling for help instead of hitting back, despite being very angry. Adults use these skills when they go to work rather than staying in bed after a late night, when they don't yell at their boss for a harsh performance evaluation, and when they get up to comfort a crying child when they'd rather sleep.

Cognitive or mental flexibility is the capacity to shift gears and scan options for how to respond appropriately—both intellectually and emotionally. It is the ability to adjust to changes, revise plans, and consider something from a different perspective. This flexibility helps a person sort out competing demands, priorities, and expectations.

Cognitive flexibility supports a child's ability to effectively manage such things as transitions, to try multiple options for conflict resolution, and to understand rules and expectations that might be situational (e.g., "In the morning we can play with water, but in the afternoon we play with the sand"; or, when a child is older, "I can swim in the pool, but only when there's a lifeguard present."

The three domains work in an interrelated fashion to support optimal executive functioning. For example, it takes working memory to recall that the teacher told you to put your coat and backpack in your cubby before going to the table, inhibitory control to resist the urge to throw the things on the floor and run to the table with excitement to start playing, and cognitive flexibility to follow the teacher's expectations—when at home you do get to drop things on the floor and your mom puts them away for you. When fully integrated, skills that make up the executive functions support a person's ability to engage in purposeful, goal-directed, problem-solving behavior by overriding impulsive thoughts and responses in order to think through possible outcomes and realize goals.

According to research from the Center at Harvard, children's EF skills facilitate early cognitive achievement in school in the areas of reading, writing, and math. Scientists argue that EF skills "support the process (i.e., the how) of learning—focusing, remembering, planning—that enables children to effectively and efficiently master the content (i.e., the what) of learning—reading, writing, computation."

What Happens in the Brain?

The capacity for cognitive processing is dependent upon the healthy development of several systems in the prefrontal areas of the brain, which begin to form during infancy and continue to grow and refine throughout adolescence and into early adulthood. In their book The Whole-Brain Child, Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson (2011) liken the brain to a house that contains both a downstairs and upstairs. The "downstairs" brain, which includes the limbic system and brain stem, develops first and is responsible for primary bodily functions such as breathing, heartbeat, and reflexive reactions and impulses. The fight, flight, or freeze response is seated in this part of the brain, as is emotional reactivity.

Siegel and Bryson Web sites are at and

Much of the normal behavior seen in very young children comes directly from this downstairs brain: random movement from activity to activity, the inability to follow serial directions, distractibility, impulsivity, emotional outbursts, and underdeveloped empathy. The "upstairs" brain, or the cerebral cortex and its various parts, is where the brain's executive functioning activity occurs: the ability to focus, think, plan, organize, control impulses, and regulate emotions. While this upstairs brain isn't fully developed until a person's mid-twenties, evidence of executive functioning appears in early childhood.

As children develop, they begin to attend to tasks for longer periods of time; can follow multiple-step directions; and show a burgeoning capacity to stop, think, and act before grabbing a toy, running into the street, or hitting their friends. What's more, they begin to identify, understand, express, and manage their emotions in appropriate ways—evidence that the upstairs brain is becoming integrated with the downstairs brain. Siegel and Bryson call this process "vertical integration," as the "staircase in the mind" connects the downstairs brain, which developed early, with the upstairs brain, which is still under construction. This vertical integration allows children to gradually and progressively engage in more intentional, thoughtful, and controlled ways by regulating their emotions, choosing appropriate behaviors, and using logic and reasoning to initiate, plan, organize, and carry out tasks.

While a child's genetic makeup establishes the potential and capacity for brain development and integration, the child's experiences are what affect the likelihood that this potential will be realized—and that a child will be able to successfully tackle a rigorous academic curriculum.

How Does Executive Function Develop?

The early building blocks of EF skills are acquired as infants engage in rudimentary planning and problem solving, which at first are largely grounded in meeting immediate needs: "If I cry, they come feed me [or hold me or change my diaper]." Responding and relating to infants in these most basic ways helps them to develop the belief that they matter and that it's worth their while to engage with the world.

By age three, most children begin more complex problem solving, such as "the square block goes here, the round one goes there." This requires working memory (holding two rules in mind simultaneously), inhibitory control (resisting distraction and any strong emotional response in order to complete the task), and cognitive flexibility (shifting attention from one rule to the other and trying different solutions until one works to complete the task). Many older preschoolers begin to show strengthened inhibition in the face of strong temptations (e.g., "I really want to kick the ball now, but I'll wait my turn"), and cognitive flexibility as demands change (e.g., "Yesterday I played with all the trucks, but today other children want to play"). It is important to note that the ability to regulate emotions is being strengthened during this time as well, supporting optimal functioning in all three domains as children begin to use rational thought to overcome emotional reactivity.

What Supports the Development of EF?

Young children develop and refine EF skills in cooperative play: they make plans to organize activities, create rules and roles for the players, organize the materials needed, adjust rules and ideas to support the progress of the play, solve problems, resolve conflicts, and regulate their emotions. Those building blocks for initiating, planning, organizing, focusing, and problem solving (the "how") that are so necessary for success in school-age academics (the "what") begin to take shape in play in early childhood.

Make-believe play in particular "is such a powerful tool for building self-discipline," according to researcher Laura Berk, "because during make- believe, children engage in what's called private speech: They talk to themselves about what they are going to do and how they are going to do it. . . . This type of self-regulating language . . . has been shown in many studies to be predictive of executive functions."

"Old Fashioned Play Builds Serious Skills" is at

We also know that a safe, supportive, enriching environment with responsive and caring adults gives children the best chance for optimal EF development. Research from the Center at Harvard points to a healthy "environment of relationships" as foundational for executive functioning to develop.

Siegel and Bryson define a quality relationship as one in which engaged adults do three things for and with children:

  1. They ask children open-ended questions.
  2. They listen to and help children tell their stories.
  3. They consider children's ideas and validate their feelings.

Recent studies show that curricula that enhance social and emotional learning also potentially can strengthen executive functioning. Two studies found that classroom-level interventions that promote social and emotional competence in preschool for all children—universal interventions—such as those mentioned above also produced improvements in young children's EF skills and in their engagement in learning (Bierman, 2010).

Children with disabilities typically benefit from universal interventions. They also sometimes need individualized supports. Special educators and parents of children with disabilities already use many of the strategies that help children improve EF: breaking directions down into steps; creating individualized, visual mini-schedules; using visual cues, peer buddies, and first-then cues; and taking advantage of targeted supports for identifying, expressing, and managing emotions.

Strategies for Teaching Executive Function are at

Scaffolding children's entry into play and providing support during play constitute crucial opportunities for children to practice EF skills with their peers. The key is to link these strategies to the EF functions through acknowledgments: for example, "You were able to wait for your turn after reviewing the schedule," and "You washed your hands, then came to snack. You followed directions." Adjusted for age and situation, these kinds of acknowledgments are helpful to all of us.

Information on Scaffolding can be found at the What Works Clearinghouse:

Given research findings, the Council for Exceptional Children (2011) is calling for targeted instruction in EF strategies for children with disabilities, which includes creating structured play environments that have predictable rules and routines as well as providing consistent acknowledgement for appropriate behavior.

Improving Executive Function Skills is at Display.cfm.

What Interferes with EF Development?

Early stressful experiences have a deleterious effect on EF development. Extended exposure to chaos, threats, violence, and neglectful environments—and to the strong emotions that a young child must manage as a result—all keep the brain in a "fight or flight" mode so that higher-level thinking skills don't have a chance to develop. Prolonged experience of stress can permanently—and detrimentally—alter the brain in a young child.

Read about Toxic Stress at

We also know that children with certain disabilities—those who are slower to develop the cognitive skills necessary to engage in cooperative play, for example, or those who have a more difficult time than most in regulating their feelings—may be excluded from play, disregarded, or relegated to a role they do not desire. This denigration results not only in fewer opportunities to develop and refine important EF skills but in the risk of developing or worsening challenging behaviors—an understandable result of the strong emotional response most of us feel to being disparaged.

At some point, most typically developing children show a weakness in one or more of the EF domains. Children with certain disabilities, however, are at heightened risk of delayed or impaired development of these skills. Unfortunately, these children often receive interventions for managing their behavior without consideration of their EF skills, which have traditionally been considered a school-age concern rather than one belonging in early childhood. We now know that preschool children who have difficulty focusing, who transition poorly, who don't appear to "listen" to adults' directions, and who engage in impulsive or aggressive behaviors may indeed be experiencing delays in the development of their executive functioning.

What's Next?

Research confirms that, if children are to realize academic success, their early care and education experiences must support the development of EF skills. Teachers and parents of children with disabilities and children from high-risk families can learn how to systematically and intentionally teach and support EF skills from birth. However, all teachers and parents can better support all children at every age by knowing about and implementing strategies to enhance the development of EF skills.

Parents and educators can begin by looking at how they interact with children, by making sure the environments they create are caring and supportive, and by modeling—in what they say and what they do—what executive function looks and sounds like. Training that helps adults develop and enhance environments that foster EF skills is an important step as well.

A focus on executive function, built upon a working knowledge of how emotional development in young children shapes their cognitive development, can serve as a powerful tool to prepare children to come to school ready to learn and able to tackle rigorous standards.

The National Center for Learning Disabilities discusses executive function at

Information on ADHD and Executive Function is at


Bierman, K. (2010). Promoting executive functions through prevention programs: The Head Start REDI program. [Power Point Slides]. Retrieved from

Council for Exceptional Children (2011). Improving executive function skills: An innovative strategy that may enhance learning for all children. Retrieved from

Siegel. D., & Bryson, T. (2011). The whole—brain child. New York, NY: Delacorte Press.

The California Advisory Commission on Special Education

Annual Report 2012

Overview from the Chair

It's difficult to believe how few supports and services schools provided for students with disabilities prior to the 1975 passage of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Parents were expected to be grateful for anything that was offered, and there was no legal requirement for the individualized education program (IEP) process, despite tragic learning conditions. This was my grandmother's world as she struggled to raise a daughter with significant developmental disabilities in the 1950s and 1960s in California's Central Valley. The primary purpose of IDEA was to change these conditions and to entitle any student with a disability to a free, appropriate education that is individually designed to meet each student's unique needs.

In the years since IDEA, parents, disability advocates, and others have gone to great lengths to maintain the integrity of this act. It has not been easy. With massive budget cuts to education in recent years, general pressure against special education has mounted because its dollars have remained constant while other education dollars have sharply declined. The Advisory Commission on Special Education (ACSE) recognizes the need to scrutinize all education spending. However, it remains committed to staying focused on meeting the needs of our students with disabilities.

With scrutiny comes opportunity. The ACSE sees great possibility ahead with the implementation of the new Common Core State Standards, new assessments and assessment tools, and an increased focus on Universal Design for Learning in the general education classroom. As more school districts strive to serve more students in their least restrictive environment (LRE) and commit to research-based response to intervention (RtI) processes, new opportunities have emerged for students with disabilities—and all students—to access grade-level general education curriculum and achieve rigorous standards.

This "perfect storm" of change creates an important chance to embed accessible and adaptable curriculum and instruction into the foundation of California's education system. Will we take this opportunity? Or will students with disabilities again be an afterthought in the discussion? This commission believes that what is good for special education is ultimately good for all students. The ACSE is committed to securing a foundational position for students with disabilities in legislative, policy, and curriculum decisions as the state implements the Common Core and explores the rich potential of RtI. —Kristin Wright

Grazer Outstanding Achievement in Learning (GOAL) Award

The California Advisory Commission on Special Education created the GOAL Award in 2005—2006 through a generous contribution from film producer Brian Grazer, who has donated $100,000 over a ten-year period to recognize programs with exemplary practices in special education. GOAL—Grazer Outstanding Achievement in Learning—celebrates both the programs that support California youth with disabilities and the professionals who serve them. This year 26 exemplary programs applied for the award. The ACSE narrowed the list to six finalists and is proud to announce two GOAL Award winners.

Speech Improvement Class

San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD) has developed an innovative model for helping students with mild articulation (speech sound) disorders without having to identify them as having a disability. Speech-language pathologists (SLPs) began offering services to this population in a Speech Improvement Class provided through general education. The district also established a Phonology and Articulation Resource Center (PARC) to support SLPs in the change. These professionals also received intensive training in evidence-based practices that shortened the intervention time to 20 hours or less for most students. Finally, SLPs helped students to "generalize" their new speech skills through home practice and teacher and family collaboration.

Through this change, the district has shown a significant decrease in the number of students identified with speech disorders and is able to provide more efficient treatment to those students who are in fact identified so that they can return more quickly to their classrooms. This program represents a dramatic and successful shift from providing speech and language services in special education to providing it within the context of general education. Not surprisingly, SDUSD has received national attention. Hundreds of school districts across the country have adopted this reform and are now implementing similar approaches.

For more information about the Speech Innovations program at San Diego Unified School District, contact Jennifer Taps Richard at

Resources in support of SDUSD's innovative approach to speech and language services are available at

Learn to Earn: A Transition Program

Since 1986, Riverside Unified School District has been refining its transition program, Learn to Earn, to help all students with disabilities develop job training skills and career awareness. Throughout middle and high school, transition coordinators and employment development specialists provide students with career counseling, job training opportunities, and, if needed, individual vocational and situational assessments. The district involves families, educators, employers, and other community partners and relevant agencies in helping these students plan for a successful transition to employment and lifelong learning and realize quality of life.

Among other key elements of the program, the district's transition coordinator works with students in more than 30 annual sessions that address teen safety, disability disclosure, and the benefits and challenges of turning 18, all designed to help students prepare for life after high school. Students also participate in SCANS readiness surveys each semester and WorkAbility, and they are encouraged to participate in the Youth Leadership Forum and Career Cruising, a Web-based career program. The district communicates with students and stakeholders through a transition newsletter and a Web site that provides transition lessons, student portfolios, and career and community resources and information to assist students in their transition efforts. Riverside's comprehensive transition services and supports demonstrate the district's commitment to quality transition services for all students with disabilities.

For more information about Riverside USD's Learn to Earn, contact Constance B. Wahlin at

Riverside's transition resources are available at


The ACSE established the following legislative priorities in support of students with disabilities:

Given the influence state funding has on the quality of education for students with disabilities, ACSE's legislative subcommittee opposed the $1.8 million cut to state special schools in the governor's proposed budget for the 2012—2013 year. State special schools had already taken a significant cut the prior year while continuing to serve California students who are deaf or blind and provide services to all schools, leading the ACSE to request the continuing financial support of those missions.

Work by the ACSE that will continue into next year includes the following:

  1. An application to the federal Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) to review the California Education Code and compare it to federal law in an effort to document where state law exceeds federal law. The next step is for California stakeholders and the ACSE to determine recommendations to amend or delete any exceeding provisions.
  2. A two-part review of the California Code of Regulations.
  1. The first part of this task is for CDE staff to provide a technical clean-up to regulations by amending or deleting language that has been changed by subsequent laws and is now moot.
  2. The second, perhaps more herculean, task is to review regulations that need to be updated, amended, or clarified. The start of this process involves amending Section 3030 (a—j) to update the language, changing "mental retardation" to "intellectual disability"; adding regulations to the "specific learning disability" section to include using "response to intervention and a pattern of strengths and weaknesses" in the determination of a learning disability; and adding the three categories of disability that exist in federal law but that are not included in California regulations in this section (e.g., traumatic brain injury).

The ACSE supported the following California legislation during 2011—2012:

AB 154 (Beall)—Health Care Coverage: Mental Health Services

This bill would expand the health insurance coverage for policies issued, amended, or renewed on or after January 1, 2013, to include the diagnosis and treatment of a mental illness of a person of any age.

AB 171 (Beall)—Pervasive Developmental Disorder or Autism

This bill would require health care service plan contracts and health insurance policies to provide coverage for the screening, diagnosis, and treatment (other than behavioral health treatment) of pervasive developmental disorder or autism.

AB 1705 (Silva)—Pupil Assessment: High School Exit Examination: Eligible Pupils with Disabilities

This bill would authorize eligible pupils with a disability to participate, beginning on July 1, 2015, in a means of demonstrating their level of academic achievement in the content standards required for passing the California High School Exit Examination but alternate to that exam, and (2) authorize the State Board of Education to extend that date by up to one year.

AB 2338 (Beall and Chesbro)—Developmental Services: Employment First Policy

This bill involves numerous mandates that would make employment and an "Employment First" policy a priority for regional centers as they serve and provide support to individuals with developmental disabilities.

SB 764 (Steinberg)—Developmental Services: Telehealth Systems Program

This bill would require the Department of Developmental Services to authorize, in a demonstration pilot project, a selected regional center to use a telehealth system (THS), which involves the delivery of health-related services and information through telecommunications technologies. Through THS, the regional center would provide services in applied behavioral analysis and intensive behavioral intervention.

SB 1381 (Anderson, Pavely, and Rubio)— Mental Retardation: Change of Term to "Intellectual Disability"

This bill would change in existing law any use of "mental retardation" or a "mentally retarded person" to "intellectual disability" or "a person with an intellectual disability."

Programs and Policy

Throughout its 2011—2012 meeting year, the ACSE focused on the following issues related to students with disabilities.

Alternate Assessments

The California State Board of Education (SBE), special education teachers, and members of the general public made presentations to the ACSE on issues related to statewide assessments and their use with students with disabilities. When an alterative test is indicated as appropriate and necessary on an individualized education program (IEP), these students take the California Modified Assessment (CMA) in place of the California Standards Test (CST). When it first approved the use of a modified assessment, the U.S. Department of Education anticipated that this test would be used by no more than 2 percent of a given state's student population. In California, however, approximately 4 percent of students now take the CMA—nearly 40 percent of all of the state's students with disabilities—clearly a higher rate than anticipated or thought appropriate. Many educators and others perceive this as a problem and have expressed concern that the CMA is overused and has inflated the CST. The ACSE supports both academic rigor and a fair testing field for students with disabilities and will continue to study the issue and support efforts to find a proper balance.

Assessing Students with Disabilities

Strategies for assessing students with disabilities can be found at

California's resources on special education assessment are at

California High School Exit Examination

The ACSE has long worked with the California Department of Education (CDE) and the California State Board of Education (SBE) on items related to the CAHSEE and to the development of a streamlined waiver process for the CAHSEE and an alternative assessment that would accommodate students with disabilities in their efforts to earn a high school diploma. These groups worked to create and pilot two tiers of alternate assessments to the CAHSEE based on CMA and CST scores. However, the adoption of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in 2014 makes it neither feasible nor practical to move forward with the implementation of this two-tiered system of assessment.

Despite this change of direction, what the SBE, CDE, and ACSE have learned in the process of devising alternative testing will serve them in efforts to develop an equitable means of alternative assessment for students with disabilities once the CCSS are in place. The ACSE is committed to ensuring that students with disabilities are treated fairly in the state's assessment system and that the system maintains standards of rigor that are comparable to those for students without disabilities.

Charter Schools

The ACSE has been attentive to ongoing statewide efforts to improve the quality and expand the range of services available to students with disabilities who wish to attend charter schools. While most charter schools are committed to providing innovative and high-quality services to all students, they continue to face challenges enrolling and serving the range of students with disabilities who attend traditional public schools. Certain specific barriers involve governance and funding structures, service delivery arrangements, and the limitations of available data on students with disabilities in charter schools. The state has realized progress in overcoming these and other barriers. The following are two of the most notable successes:

Resources for Charter Schools

Information about special education compliance and other issues facing charter schools is available at

The California Charter Schools Association can be found at

Common Core State Standards

To ensure that special education issues are considered in the development of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and the corollary Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortia (SBAC), the ACSE has received regular updates from CDE staff on the progress of implementing the CCSS in the state. As well, the commission supports the state's participation in the National Center and State Collaborative (NCSC) to develop CCSS-based assessments for the 1 percent of students with significant disabilities who are currently assessed using the California Alternate Performance Assessment (CAPA). Adopting CCSS-based materials and assessments will require consideration of universal access and technology. The need for publishers to provide access for all students is paramount and already being addressed in the conversations nationally and by the ACSE.

Community Advisory Committees for Special Education

Community Advisory Committees for Special Education (CACs) provide an avenue for parents to learn about and be involved in the education of their children with disabilities. Mandated by law, CACs provide a specific forum for parents to communicate with each other and with school and district administrators about the individualized education programs (IEPs), laws concerning the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the development of Area Local Plans, and regional IEP trainings. In general, California law dictates that CAC boards be made up primarily of parents who represent the diversity of student placements and disabilities in each CAC region and that these groups report periodically to California's State Board of Education (SBE) to help monitor and report on special education trends in the state. ACSE's goal is to help CACs interface effectively with the SBE, keep abreast of legislation that influences special education, and know about other activities the ACSE is supporting. The ACSE has communicated with CACs to determine where they could most benefit from ACSE support and to learn about the most pressing issues that CACs face.

Community Advisory Committees Explained

Guidelines for CACs are at


Disproportionality continues to be an issue of concern in California's public schools, as reflected in data cited in the State Performance Plan. Official California Department of Education guidance on disproportionality suggests that disproportionate representation of racial and ethnic groups in special education and related services overall may be the result of inappropriate identification. The CDE is currently monitoring local education agencies for disproportionality and is committed to a robust improvement plan.

The CDE also has revised its calculation process from previous years so that the process is consistent with guidance from the federal Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) and directly aligns with OSEP's Methods of Assessing Racial/Ethnic Disproportionality in Special Education: Technical Assistance Guide.

The ACSE supports the CDE in its efforts to implement its improvement plan for reducing disproportionality in special education.

Resources on Disproportionality

To access the CDE's complete disproportionality plan, go to

To access OSEP's guide on assessing disproportionality, go to

Mental Health Services

Since 1986, AB 3632 has mandated that mental health services for students with disabilities be provided through the state's County Mental Health system. The state funded those services accordingly. In 2010, however, then-Governor Swarzenegger cut those county funds and required school districts to assume responsibility for providing these mental health services, without the financial support for doing so. In a fiscal scramble, the state eventually provided money to the districts so they could provide services and support students with mental health disabilities.

School districts initially reeled under the weight of the new responsibilities. Since then, they have recovered and are addressing their challenges in two ways: (1) working with their County Mental Health departments to transition services to the districts and (2) creating a system of district-based services that provides effective, educationally based assessments and a continuum of services for students who qualify.

Small districts with few students who have mental health needs may continue to contract out these services, while larger districts generally will be assuming the responsibility for providing all mandated mental health services. The advantages of providing these services in the district include the potential for creating a seamless continuum of services (particularly for students who may otherwise be placed in residential treatment), an increased awareness among staff and students of mental health issues, and a greater control over ensuring the least restrictive environment. The ACSE is closely following this transition of services within school districts, concerned about the burden they have assumed but also optimistic about the potential advantage it holds for both districts and students.

Special Education Funding

California's state representatives have mandated educational services for students with disabilities, and school districts are required to pay for these services. But while special education services have to be provided, other educational services are frequently short-changed.

The ACSE is concerned about the quality of education for all students—general education as well as special education. If special education were to receive the full 40 percent funding promised by the federal government, school districts would not find it necessary to deprive general education students of services and supports because of mandated special education needs. The ACSE encourages anyone with a stake in the quality of education in California to contact legislators and policy makers, attend relevant meetings, and do whatever is possible to make it known that full funding for special education benefits all students.

Action to Fully Fund Special Education

A significant disparity continues to exist between the "40 percent of full funding" of the excess costs of special education that the U.S. Congress originally intended and the amount that school districts across the nation actually receive. The ACSE advocates full funding, and ACSE Commissioner Jim Woodhead has initiated a petition to Congress in support of this position. All persons sharing this concern are invited to sign the petition by going to petitions/us-congress-fully-fund-special-education to ask Congress to increase special education funding.


Special Education Spending

Because of the drastic budget cuts being made in all areas of public education, special education spending has reached 27.85 percent of total general fund expenditures in 2009—2010—despite the fact that special education spending has not increased. The American Institutes for Research and the California Comprehensive Center at WestEd reported to the ACSE on their efforts to collect and analyze important special education data to help provide answers to the State Board of Education (SBE) and the legislature about special education funding inequities and spending. This work is the first phase of a larger effort to provide a national overview of special education funding and provision and to compare specific data from California to that of other states, thus allowing the state to examine its own funding patterns. This research effort will analyze the factors related to variations in special education spending, revenues, and provision across Special Education Local Plan Areas (SELPAs) in California and discuss policy implications. The ACSE is committed to working with the SBE and the legislature in an effort to make recommendations for changes that affect special education funding.

Special Education Expenditures, Revenues and Provision in California is available from


Transition and Postsecondary Education

Members of the California Community of Practice on Transition spoke with the ACSE about secondary education and transition services for students with disabilities. The group provided an overview of best practices in transition as well as barriers that remain to effective, systematic transition programs in schools, districts, county offices of education, and Special Education Local Plan Areas (SELPAs).

The ACSE encourages the work of the group and supports its continued expansion. Parents and students often do not have the information they need for optimal transition from school to adult life. Because of the time it takes to learn about the agencies that are central to the supports many children with disabilities will need after they leave high school—and to navigate the often long waiting lists that are involved—the ACSE believes that formal transition plans ideally start in junior high at the latest. The ACSE is committed to helping parents find the support and information they need to create the best transition possible for their child.

Information on Transition

One of the primary barriers to effective transition is lack of information. For comprehensive information on transition, go to to download Transition to Adult Living: An Information and Resource Guide.

California's Family Resource Centers (FRCs) offer training in transition for parents. To locate the FRC near you, go to

State Board of Education

As the governing and policy-making body of the California Department of Education, the California State Board of Education (SBE) is central to work that affects students with disabilities. The ACSE maintains an ongoing collaborative relationship with the SBE. An ACSE commissioner has been present at every SBE meeting since 2005, and the board reciprocates through its own liaison, who attends ACSE meetings. The SBE seeks input and advice from the ACSE on issues related to charter schools, special education services, the State Performance Plan reports to the U.S. Department of Education, the California High School Exit Exam, the California Modified Assessment, and, most recently, the development of an alternative assessment process for students with disabilities. The current SBE is making special education a priority among the many issues it has to address. The ACSE is committed to this relationship with the SBE in the ACSE's ongoing effort to ensure positive outcomes for students with disabilities.

The California State Board of Education

Information about the SBE's meetings and policies is available at

Liaison Efforts and Public Input

ACSE maintains a commitment to sustaining and expanding positive working relationships with stakeholders, organizations, and agencies that are active in promoting effective education for students with disabilities. Along with the California State Board of Education, the ACSE works particularly closely with the California Department of Education and the California State Special Schools Division. In addition to regularly attending the meetings of these various groups, ACSE commissioners share agendas and coordinate activities. At each of its own meetings, the ACSE also welcomes input from parents, students, teachers, advocates, and organizations.

During the ACSE's 2011—2012 meetings, members of the public and stakeholders within the special education community spoke before the commission. Parents of students with disabilities shared concerns related to the assessment, placement, and services provided to their children. They expressed frustration about due process and decisions from the Office of Administrative Hearings. While it is beyond the scope of the commission to address individual cases, the concerns were recorded in the ACSE minutes, and staff from the California Department of Education provided families with resources and information to assist in resolving issues, as appropriate.

Teachers of students with disabilities also provided public input. In particular, they shared concerns about unmanageable caseloads for resource specialists who were reportedly reassigned to the role of "specialized academic instruction [SAI]." The ACSE shares this concern, since SAI is a reporting term, not an instructional designation. In some cases the corresponding reassignments appear to be used as an excuse to do away with case-load limits, thus saddling teachers with class sizes that preclude their ability to effectively serve students with disabilities.

Additional stakeholders who provided input included the California Teachers Association, Parent Teacher Association, SELPA directors, charter school organizations, the California Speech-Language-Hearing Association, and the California Association of Resource Specialists (CARS+). These stakeholder groups shared updates from their associations, provided legislative agendas and positions, and commented on topics from the ACSE's agendas.

Public and stakeholder input continues to be an important source of information for the ACSE. The commissioners consider this input in their strategic planning and as they set agendas for future meetings.

Join ACSE Meetings

Guidelines for participating in ACSE meetings and directions for viewing meetings via live Webcast are available at

A Look Forward

California's report to the federal government on its State Performance Plan—which guides the efforts of the state's Special Education Division—shows that the state continues to lag in its efforts to educate students with disabilities in the least restrictive environment (LRE). This lack of progress is disappointing. Research shows that LRE, especially when it involves including students with disabilities in the general education classroom, improves students' academic achievement. We also know that other forms of inclusion, such as differentiating instruction and Universal Design for Learning, support achievement as well.

Along with confirming the importance of LRE, research also indicates that good data is critical to guiding educational policy and practice. However, the current data system in the state has neither accurate nor consistent data for students with disabilities. The system measures only grade-level proficiency, for example, and not progress over time. For students with disabilities who do not regularly achieve grade-level standards, this system makes it impossible to determine if schools are doing the one thing that they are ostensibly designed to help students do: learn.

In addition, there is no current way to measure the one clear indicator of K—12 success: how students fare after leaving high school. The data that do exist are not consistent across sectors; various data-gathering efforts measure things that do not match up (presenting not even the classic "apples and oranges" conundrum but one more like "daisies and bones"); and much is self-reported, and, from one system to another, irregularly gathered and tallied, resulting in massive discrepancies that hinder any effort to create a comprehensive data picture. As things stand, the state leadership simply has not had the will to devise a system that tracks the progress of students with disabilities.

This paucity of reliable data is of great concern to the ACSE, particularly when these data are key to shaping and informing policy and instruction, to holding the system accountable for student achievement, and to determining ways to improve the levels of that achievement. The same holds true for our students with more significant disabilities who also need high expectations and high accountability if they are to realize positive postsecondary outcomes.

As it looks to the future, the ACSE sees multitiered systems of support—such as response to intervention (RtI), the collected "best" of research-based instructional and assessment strategies—as a framework for ensuring inclusion, accountability, and school success for every student. And while these systems do not always directly address the specific needs of those students who would benefit most from special services—the 1 percent of students with the most significant disabilities—a multitiered approach is fundamental to educational efforts that are able to adapt to include everyone and to provide the richest learning opportunities for all. If the test of a just society rests in the quality of its care for the least advantaged, let us apply the same test to our schools. —Kristin Wright

The California Advisory Commission on Special Education . . .

. . . is an advisory body mandated by federal and state statutes to provide recommendations and advice to the State Board of Education, the Superintendent of Public Instruction, the State Legislature, and the Governor in new or continuing areas of research, program development, and evaluation in California special education: "The State has established and maintains an advisory panel for the purpose of providing policy guidance with respect to special education and related services for children with disabilities in the State.

"Such advisory panel shall consist of members appointed by the Governor, or any other official authorized under State law to make such appointments, be representative of the State population, and be composed of individuals involved in, or concerned with, the education of children with disabilities."

— Public Law 108-446; 20 United States Code (USC) 1412(a)(21) A-D Section 612

2012—2013 Membership Directory


Feda Almaliti, Senate Appointee,

Jan Brown, State Board Appointee,

Maureen Burness, State Board Appointee,

Kenneth Denman, State Board Appointee,

Diane Fazzi, Governor Appointee,

Morena de Grimaldi, Senate Appointee,

Betty Karnette, State Assembly Appointee,

Susan Martinez, State Board Appointee,

Laurie Newton, Governor Appointee,

Tom Peraic, State Board Appointee,

Naomi Rainey, Governor Appointee,

Laureen Sills, Governor Appointee,

Kristin Wright, Chair, Senate Appointee

Student Members

Matthew Stacy,

Alexa McBride,

Executive Secretary

Fred Balcom, 916-445-4602; 916-327-3706 (fax),

Legislative Members

Senate Member: Carol Liu, 916-651-4021,

Legislative Director: Robert Oaks,

Assembly Member: Joan Buchanan, 916-319-2015,

LegislativeAssistant: Sarah Tomlinson,

Governor's Office, Secretary for Education Liaison

Dena Wilson, 916-323-0611; 916-323-3753 (fax),

State Board Liaison

Carl Cohn, 916-319-0827,

State Special Schools Liaison

Scott Kerby, 916-327-3860; 916-445-4550 (fax),

Commission Staff Liaison

Kathleen Smith, 916-327-3698; 916-327-3706 (fax),

CDE Liaison to the Commission

Doug McDougall 916-327-3545; 916-327-3706 (fax),

Commission meeting dates and locations, 2012—2013

September 4—5

October 30—31

January 9—10

March 6—7

May 1—2

Location: California Department of Education, 1430 "N" Street, Sacramento, CA 95814

*Exact dates may change. Please visit the ACSE Web site:; or contact the commission's staff liaison for the most current information or to obtain a schedule. All ACSE meetings can be viewed on live Webcast at


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