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Austin school district says it has significantly lowered its special education evaluation backlog

Students walk up a staircase in a school
Julia Reihs
KUT News
Austin ISD staff say the district reduced the backlog of special education evaluations by 83% last year.

Austin ISD said it's making headway on the backlog of special education evaluations that has long plagued the district and prompted state intervention.

“Just from January to December of 2023, the past due evaluations decreased by 82.8% overall,” Dru McGovern-Robinett, the assistant superintendent for special education, told the Board of Trustees on Thursday.

The Texas Education Agency announced last year it would oversee Austin ISD’s special education department because the district was repeatedly failing to evaluate students for disabilities within the legally required timeframe. The backlog included both students being evaluated for the first time and those needing to be reassessed.

Getting a timely evaluation is crucial for children because it determines whether students are entitled to services so their right to a “free appropriate public education” is protected.

To prevent TEA from appointing conservators — the most severe form of state intervention — the school board agreed to comply with an order outlining benchmarks AISD must meet to reduce the evaluation backlog.

So far, the district is exceeding its targets.

According to data McGovern-Robinett presented to the board, the district’s goal was to complete 1,644 initial evaluations last fall. Austin ISD exceeded that goal by 43%, completing a total of 2,358 initial evaluations.

A graph from Austin ISD shows the number of overdue evaluations has decreased from 1,780 in January 2023 to 306 in December 2023.
Austin ISD
A graph from Austin ISD shows the number of overdue evaluations has decreased from 1,780 in January 2023 to 306 in December 2023.

Austin ISD is also close to completing all initial evaluations within the legally required timeline. Last January, just over half of evaluations were completed within 45 school days. In December, about 99% of evaluations were completed on time.

School Board Vice President Kevin Foster hailed the district’s efforts.

“I’m kind of floored and thrilled with the steady progress and in fact the steady and accelerated progress,” he said. “I’m just really grateful for all that you all have been doing and continue to do.”

According to data from the district, as of last month, 14 initial evaluations and 292 reevaluations are past due.

School Board Secretary Lynn Boswell also expressed gratitude for the staff’s hard work, but she was more cautious.

“We need a healthy skepticism anytime we see numbers like this," she said. "I think these are numbers that make us kind of have to say, ‘Really?’ Like we say ‘yay’ and then we say ‘really?’ because it’s just so impressive. It is so much what we kind of hoped and dreamed and wanted."

Ahead of the meeting, Boswell asked if staff saw a difference in the rates of completing evaluations between different grade levels, campuses and student groups. Staff said they didn't currently have the data broken down by demographics.

“We do, however, track how we are increasing the number of students eligible for special education services since the start of the school year until now by disability category and student group," staff said in a written response. "We currently see similar proportional rates among student groups being identified to receive services in these data."

Jennifer Baker, interim director of compliance and evaluations, emphasized that evaluators are not skirting quality in order to reduce the backlog. She said she and other people in leadership positions have backgrounds as school psychologists and know how to do the evaluations.

“Productivity is not just about quantity; it’s about quality," she said, adding that the supervisors have a process for reviewing a sampling of the reports submitted on a weekly basis.

Baker told trustees the salary increases approved for the 2023-2024 budget helped the district hire more evaluators.

“A large and substantial reason that the team was able to fill the evaluator vacancies over the summer was due to your 22% increase in compensation," she said, "the added incentive program for elevating our productivity as well as the special education, bilingual and mentor stipends."

Baker said evaluators have been working around the clock, including weekends and school holidays, to complete assessments.

“This winter break, we tested 12 out of the 14 days. We had 75 evaluators — contract and Austin ISD staff — school psychologists, diagnosticians and speech language therapists who evaluated 176 students, which is pretty fantastic,” she said.

Baker told the board additional investments will be needed to continue to grow the evaluator team because the current workload is unsustainable and requests for evaluations continue to rise. In 2022, for example, there were 5,164 requests for evaluations. That increased to 5,386 last year.

An Austin ISD chart shows the number of requests for special education evaluations has increased from 2022 to 2023.
Austin ISD
An Austin ISD chart shows the number of requests for special education evaluations has increased from 2022 to 2023.

“I would be remiss if I didn’t say I’m super proud of our team and everything we’ve accomplished, but they are tired," she said. "We are tired."

Baker added that an ongoing area of need is for bilingual evaluators. Austin ISD currently has three bilingual school psychologists and 15 educational diagnosticians who are bilingual. The district also relies on contractors.

“That is a huge need for potential future hires. We need school psychologists who are bilingual,” she said. “We have a shortage in the state and in the nation for bilingual school psychologists.”

Interim Superintendent Matias Segura also underscored the ongoing staffing needs to support timely evaluations as well as other services to support students with disabilities.

“We have a comprehensive special education initiative and [evaluations are] one component of it," said Segura, who has led the district’s efforts to improve the special education department since he took over the role last January. "There are many other components that will need to be executed and executed with fidelity in order for us to be where we want to be."

Segura said, for example, the district will likely need to do more to recruit special education teachers on top of the incentives the board approved for the current school year.

“Last year y’all supported the administration in adding 50 additional special education educators, we increased the stipend…and we still had challenges in filling those positions,” he said.

Austin ISD also plans to send out a survey this month to ask families whether they are satisfied with the district’s special education services.

“It’s going to look at items like how they feel about their evaluation, how they feel about the supports they’ve been provided, how they feel things are going for their student,” Jacob Reach, chief of governmental relations and board services, said.

The district will send out the survey Jan. 23.

Becky Fogel is the education reporter at KUT. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on Twitter @beckyfogel.
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