Self-Assessment in Monitoring: Whatís It All About?

By Diana Autin & Dawn Fabbro

In the past year, I have participated in three self-assessment processes. As the Executive Director of the Statewide Parent Advocacy Network (SPAN), I am a member of the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Serviceís Early Intervention self-assessment team, and of the New Jersey Department of Educationís Special Education team. As a parent and advocate, I sit on the Montclair school districtís self-assessment committee. This article will summarize the strengths and concerns of the self-assessment process, and provide some helpful hints for parents who are or will be on their own district self-assessment team.

The Purpose of Self-Assessment

The U.S. Department of Education has required states to conduct self-assessments in preparation for federal monitoring visits as part of its new monitoring process. The goal is to get states to engage in a process of continuous self-improvement, starting with an internal "audit" of strengths and concerns even before the federal monitors visit. The hope is that, by involving key stakeholders, including parents, teachers, related service providers, administrators, and others, an honest appraisal can be conducted and a strong self-improvement plan can be developed and implemented. This is especially important since the U.S. Department of Education only monitors states once every six years.

When the federal monitors identified the lack of an effective monitoring system as a key area of noncompliance by New Jersey last year, the state remodeled its monitoring system on the new federal process. The state used to monitor every district on one or two issues every year; now the state will be conducting comprehensive monitoring but will only visit each district once every six years.

In its introduction to the self-assessment process, the State said that "the self-assessment is designed to identify areas of strengths, promising practices, areas that need improvement, and areas that may be noncompliance with state and federal requirements. The self-assessment leads to the development and implementation of an improvement plan which addresses all identified areas." It further noted that the benefits of self-assessment include:

Components of the Self-Assessment

The self-assessment has two major components: Program Effectiveness and Compliance with Federal and State Mandates.

Program Effectiveness looks at five goals: to increase the capacity of schools to improve the educational performance of students with disabilities; to improve the educational performance of all students with disabilities; to increase parental participation in educational activities regarding students with disabilities; to increase the participation of students with disabilities in appropriate post-school activities; and to identify and reduce any inappropriate disparities among racial ethnic groups in eligibility for special education and placement.

Compliance with Federal and State Mandates reviews each aspect of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and State special education code to ensure that practices, policies, and procedures are consistent with these laws and regulations.

The Self-Assessment team reviews any relevant data, including statistics and reviews of student records, as well as information gathered from surveys (not mandatory, but recommended) and at least one public forum (required).

The Self-Assessment Steering Committee

The Steering Committee provides input into the process of data collection, participates in data analysis, and contributes to the development and at least annual review of the districtís improvement plan. The membership of the steering committee should reflect ethnic and cultural diversity as well as representatives from each group of key stakeholders. (Unfortunately, on the Stateís steering committee, racial and ethnic diversity was noticeably absent). For districts, required members include the superintendent or designee, the Director of Special Education, at least one parent of a child with a disability, at least one general and special education teacher and child study team member, and related services personnel.

The Public Forum

The New Jersey Departments of Education and Health sponsored 7 public forums: three in East Orange (two were originally scheduled, but so many people signed up, a third forum was added), two in East Brunswick, and two in Sewell. Over 900 parents and professionals attended these forums - the largest turn-out for a federal monitoring forum ever! A summary of the input provided at these forums is included on page ___ of this newsletter.

The State of New Jersey is also requiring each district to hold at least one structured public meeting as part of its self-assessment. The State has urged districts to disseminate meeting notices in languages other than English, if appropriate; schedule meetings at times and places accessible to parents; and provide interpreters or translators as needed.

The Montclair Process

The Montclair Self-Assessment Team includes the Director of Special Services, the child study coordinator/inclusion facilitator, four principals (high school, middle school, and elementary), teachers from each level, and several parents. It is a racially diverse group; about Ĺ of the participants are African-American. We have been meeting on a monthly basis, but now are beginning to meet just about every week.

The Team has:

The Montclair School District held its public forum on Wednesday, January 26th from 6-9 p.m. As a parent member of the steering committee, I developed a leaflet for the forum that was sent home in backpacks of classified elementary school students and in the mail to middle and high school parents and parents of children in out-of-district placements. The leaflet was simple and in color, with a picture of a person carrying a key and the words, "Your input is key to our success." The forum was also highlighted in the periodic newsletter that the Superintendent sends out to all parents and staff in the district. After the leaflets were disseminated, district staff and parents contacted each parent of a classified student by telephone to encourage them to attend. We offered food, child care, and transportation provided by other special education parents.

There were over 100 participants at the public meeting; most were parents. Approximately 15% of the participants were African-American, which was disappointing since more than 50% of Montclairís classified students are African-American. The Director of Special Services, Dr. Scagliotti, opened the meeting with some statistics about special education in Montclair. While 14.5% of Montclairís students are classified by the child study team, only 12% of New Jersey students overall are classified by the child study team. He went on to state that children of color are overrepresented in special education in our district.

Then it was the audienceís turn to have their say. There were personal testimonies of positive and negative educational experiences from across the district. While there were some wonderful stories from parents at Nishuane Elementary School and the Developmental Learning Center, there were more concerns raised than strengths. Parents were anxious to tell their stories, while district personnel running the forum were trying to stay focused on gathering specific information.

A running record was kept of the concerns being voiced by parents. Key areas of concern included:

A survey based on the Stateís survey with some additional questions from SPANís survey was also disseminated to parents at the meeting.

Where Are We Now?

In Montclair, our team is now meeting to discuss the results of the forum and surveys. We have completed a review of "Program Effectiveness," and are beginning to discuss compliance issues. A subcommittee composed of district staff will be reviewing a sampling of student records, while parent members will be looking at district special education policies to ensure that they meet federal and state standards.

When these two processes are complete, we will finalize our assessment of Montclairís strengths and needs, and develop a plan to build on our strengths and address our needs. This plan will then be submitted to our Superintendent and district Board of Education for review and discussion. Hopefully we will start working on implementation of our plan before the state monitors come next year.

At the state level, the Early Intervention and Special Education teams met with the federal monitors and the state to discuss the forums, survey results from the state, SPAN, and the New Jersey Coalition for Inclusive Education, and our draft self-assessment documents. The next step is to develop specific actions that will be taken to correct as many of the problems as possible before the federal monitors come back for their validation visit in September, 2000.

Tips for Participation

As an experienced participant on state and local level teams, I have the following tips to share:

 

What Does the Future Hold for Self-Assessment?

The districts participating in the self-assessment process this year are like guinea pigs; they are trying it out to see how it fits, and whether or not itís effective. It will be interesting to compare the self-assessments from this yearís district participants with the stateís monitoring findings next year. But one fact remains: the self-assessment process will only be as effective as the team members make it. So go out and make self-assessment an important tool to improve special education in your town!