Leveraging student data to improve IEPs

Key points:

Educators generate and collect student Individualized Education Program (IEP) data daily. Because of the number of stakeholders involved in the IEP development and implementation, student data sets may exist in case files, spreadsheets or several software programs.

Some school leaders are fortunate enough to house their data in systems where IEP information can be ingested, disaggregated, and managed in a way that paints a clear picture. But more often than not, leaders need more time, better processes, and the appropriate tool to manage data in a way that reveals critical insights.

Technology has the power to bring together years of student IEP-related data, allowing educators to understand better both how to serve individual students and where their programs are making a difference.

The limits of manual IEP interpretation

When you think about the steps involved in creating and implementing an IEP, the process requires a fair amount of human intervention and interpretation. Educators set goals with students and families annually and then collect information supporting those goals in different ways throughout the year. Ideally, goals and plans vary from year to year.

All of this personalization and fine-tuning creates a challenge for reviewers in their determination of whether or not students are demonstrating measurable progress in a given area. Processes for understanding the educational benefit of a particular IEP vary widely, and in many cases include educators printing out IEPs, collecting service records, achievement and behavioral data, and lining them up side-by-side to evaluate whether students made meaningful gains towards their goals. This and processes like it are time-consuming and leave too much room for variability, oversight, and error.

By moving spreadsheets, forms, and other information to one web-based platform, districts can significantly streamline data collection and monitor multiple data types over several years. Educators can better evaluate student IEPs within a consistent framework, allowing for a structured review and better inter-rater reliability. District leaders can determine whether the services students receive match their needs. By taking a data-driven approach to individual IEP development and review, leaders can, with suitable systems, aggregate IEP data to look at ways they can better serve students with disabilities as a whole.

Benefit from a bird’s eye view

Data reveals patterns that help educators adjust individual student goals and services and can pave a pathway to district program improvement. Stepwell for Districts, for example, allows educators to use aggregate district IEP-related data to help answer compliance and procedural questions at a high level, such as:

  • How are we doing on IDEA indicators? Did we meet our programmatic goals this year? How do we compare to last year?
  • How successful was our district in completing our IEPs on time? Are there any patterns?
  • Can we address the root causes of issues so they don’t happen again?
  • What other trends are we seeing that we can investigate to better prepare for the future?

As powerful as answering those questions can be for making systemic changes, there is a second path a district can follow: by drawing upon a data sample that spans three years, educators can evaluate the quality, completeness, and consistency of their IEP practices both at the student and aggregate levels.

Beyond providing a view of special education services from a compliance and project management perspective, beginning in early 2024,  the right platform will show the educational benefit to students provided by participating in a program. These platforms can include a heat map that helps leaders look at patterns that may emerge across the district, measuring how well the district performed relative to:

  • Areas of assessment
  • Present levels
  • Areas of need
  • Goals
  • Services
  • Progress

A heat map analysis quickly shows leaders where they’re succeeding and falling short. They can see if they’re matching services to students’ needs or making progress from year to year in a specific school, grade or within a particular student group. District leaders can adjust programs and reallocate their budgets using data-driven information to address the areas that require the most attention.

Districts can’t blaze a path forward if their educators are engrossed in manual processes that fail to show the evolution of their programs over time. By investing in technology locally, district leaders can support their states’ IDEA process and empower their special education leadership to get the information needed to inform student and programmatic improvements. Educators can then shift their focus from compliance and record keeping to improving student outcomes.

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