First-Ever Drop in National Student Scores Shows Students with Disabilities impacted Worst by Pandemic

By Jordan Lindsey, Executive Director, The Arc of California

Last week’s release of scores on what is known as the nation’s report card – the National Assessment of Educational Progress showed dismal but not unexpected findings, including the first-ever drop in math scores (seven points) for nine-year-old students, along with the steepest drop (five points) in reading scores since the 1980s. Tragically, students with disabilities demonstrated even more regression, dropping seven points in reading and eight points in math. In total, the drop in scores now equals the scores from the early 2000s. In other words, we have lost 20 years of educational progress due to the pandemic.

National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is a congressionally mandated program that is administered by the National Center for Education Statistics within the US Department of Education. It is an assessment given to 4th, 8th, and 12th graders nationwide. NAEP conducted a special assessment to see how students scores in reading and math changed from 2020 to 2022—the test was given to students, aged 9 (approximately 4th grade). Overall, lower-performing students had more significant drops in scores than students performing at higher levels.

The report does not address factors or reasons for the drop in scores (which may include the impacts of distance learning, mental health challenges, children who lost a parent due to COVID, financial strains due to a parent losing employment, or many other factors), nor does it address future impacts of lower scores. This article, however, from KQED presents many considerations of the implications.

The Arc of California is committed to improving our education system for students with disabilities and fighting for equity and inclusion in our schools. This report emphasizes the extra support that this generation will need and the advocacy efforts that will be needed to address long-term impacts.

Up-Coming Advisory Committee on Special Education Meeting – Important Updates

The Advisory Committee on Special Education (ACSE) is an advisory body required under federal law that provides recommendations and advice to the State Board of Education, the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, the Legislature, and the Governor in new or continuing area of research, program development, and evaluation of CA special education. The ACSE is scheduled to meet next Wednesday June 16, 2021. The Special Education Mental Health Committee (SEMHC)will meet from 9:00 – 9:30 to discuss several important issues including goals for the SEMHC, Mental Wellness Bill of Rights for All Children, Whole Child and Family Engagement in Community Schools., and Local Educational Agency Expansion of Medi-Cal Billing. The Operations and Planning Committee will discuss the annual report and in-person meetings. The full Commission will meet beginning at 10:00 and provide important updates regarding the California Special Education Governance and Accountability Study and California State Budget for Special Education. The ACSE will also hold their annual election for the Chair and Vice-Chair positions.

The proposed state budget seeks to make significant investments in special education which is particularly important as we know many special education students will need additional resources to help mitigate learning loss experienced as a result of distance learning and challenges associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. Public input is very important to the ACSE as it helps shape their recommendations to the Legislature and the Governor. To learn more about the upcoming meeting and how to engage in public comment visit:


Legislative Analyst’s Office – Special Education

The Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) has provided fiscal and policy advice to the Legislature for 75 years. One of the most important responsibilities of the LAO is to analyze the annual Governor’s budget. In recent years, the office has presented a series of analyses from the beginning to the end of the budget process on overarching fiscal issues as well as specific departmental budget proposals and offered its recommendations for legislative action. The Governor’s 2021-22 proposed budget makes significant investments in special education including a $300 million on-going investment to be allocated to school districts based on the number of pre-school age children living in the district. The purpose of the funds are to supplement existing services, promote inclusive practices, and cover early intervention services.

Federal law requires school districts to begin providing special education services to all children with disabilities upon their third birthday, however, historically the state has had challenges meeting this requirement. The proposed funding is a step toward ensuring and expanding special education pre-school programs are sufficient to meet the needs of preschool age children with disabilities. The LAO report provides a good analysis of the funding challenges, the potential impact of the unrestricted funds, and recommendations for aligning special education funding through the existing special education base formula. The report can be read here:

Special Education in Charter Schools: Policy, Challenges, Opportunities and the Impact of COVID-19

Register Now

Do you want to learn about how laws and regulations apply to special education in charter schools? Join us for a free upcoming webinar on December 9.

This webinar will focus on special education in charter schools—specifically how federal, state, and local laws and regulations apply; the challenges that exist in these unique environments; and the ways that charter schools are working to address those challenges.

We will also look at how COVID-19 has impacted the way charter schools approach the education of students with disabilities during these challenging times.

Advisory Commission on Special Education

The Advisory Commission on Special Education (ACSE) provides recommendations and advice to the State Board of Education, the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, the Legislature, and the Governor related to research, program development, and evaluation of California’s special education system. The ACSE addresses issues related to student outcomes, incarcerated youth, positive behavioral interventions, interagency agreements, teacher credentialing, parity for families and integrated services. Last week the ACSE met and provided, among other updates, some great presentations related to inclusive practices in distance learning, and supporting the needs of families and students with disabilities that are English learners.

The California Collaborative for Educational Excellence is a statewide agency that provides specialized services to Local Education Agencies in order to help make sure the needs of students and families are met. They have a tremendous amount of free online training that is specific to distance teaching and learning. To learn more about the free resources visits:

Supporting Inclusive Practices gave a presentation that highlighted model inclusive practices during the pandemic and opportunities to address long-term barriers. The California Department of Education (CDE) created a workgroup of stakeholders to gather and share innovative strategies, ideas and resources that others have found successful as they provide access to students with disabilities in distance learning. To learn more about the strategies, ideas and resources from the stakeholder workgroup visit:

The ACSE is committed to fulfilling its role as an advisory body and public input is an essential part of being able to fully inform policymakers about needs of families and students with disabilities, as well as educators. They meet five times a year and work very hard to address issues brought forth in public comment. Their meeting schedule can be found at: I encourage all families that have children in special education to participate in the process and take the opportunity to provide public comment. Public comment is accepted by phone or email on the day of the meeting, as well as in advance through email

State Superintendent Tony Thurmond Appoints Former Illinois Special Education Leader Heather Calomese as New Director of Special Education Division

On behalf of the Arc and United Cerebral Palsy California Collaboration we welcome the new Director of Special Education, Heather Calomese. Director Calomese brings extensive experience in special education classroom teaching and administrative leadership as she was most recently the Executive Director of the Special Education for the Illinois State Board of Education. We look forward to working with Director Calomese and building a strong relationship for years to come.

Seal of the California Department of Education

State Superintendent Tony Thurmond Appoints Former Illinois Special Education Leader Heather Calomese as New Director of Special Education Division

SACRAMENTO—State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond announced today that he has appointed Heather Calomese as the new Director of the Special Education Division at the California Department of Education (CDE).

The Special Education Division provides information and resources to serve the unique needs of individuals with disabilities so that each person will meet or exceed high standards of achievement in academic and non-academic skills. As schools continue virtual learning in the weeks ahead, Calomese will support CDE’s efforts to provide assistance to schools and engage families end educators in ways that ensure the unique needs of students with disabilities are met.

“Heather is an accomplished leader in the special education field with a depth of knowledge regarding high-level special education laws and policies,” said Thurmond. “She is a strong advocate and champion for all students and believes that individuals should be lifted and supported to access the greatness that lies within. She brings to the position extensive experience with equity, human rights and social justice issues along with an unwavering focus and commitment to do what is best to ensure the needs of special education students and their families are being met. I am pleased to add an educator with her passion and dedication to the CDE leadership team.”

Calomese has worked in education for two decades. From 2000-02, she taught English and special education in Iowa City and from 2002-08 she was a special education middle and high school teacher in the Chicago Public School District before transitioning to an administrator role. Prior to joining CDE, Calomese was the Executive Director of Special Education for the Illinois State Board of Education where she focused on the alignment of systems and supports for students receiving Early Childhood, Multilingual, and Special Education services.

Calomese holds a bachelor’s degree in English and a master’s degree in special education from the University of Iowa. She replaces Kristin Wright, who now works at the Sacramento County Office of Education. Calomese will start in her new position as Special Education Division Director on August 18.

Special Education and Distance Learning

As we await announcement of the State’s new Director of Special Education many families of special education and transition age students are voicing concern about the quality of instruction that will be delivered through distance learning. The new Special Education Director is supposed to be announced next week and we are hopeful that the concerns of parents and students related to distance learning and learning loss will be a top priority.  Without a doubt this is an exceptionally challenging time for students, families, teachers and instructional aides to figure out how to engage in a different learning format, style, routine, and mode of service delivery while making sure the Individualized Education Program (IEP) is being met and maintained.

As we begin the 2020-21 school year there have been several changes to the Education Code that include changes to requirements set forth in Individualized Education Programs (IEPs), Distance Learning, Learning Continuity and Attendance Plans, and Mitigating Learning Loss.

Among the changes, Education Code (section 56345) was recently amended to require that IEPs include a description of the means by which the IEP will be provided under emergency conditions, in which instruction or services, or both, cannot be provided to the pupil either at the school or in person for more than 10 school days. This description must be included in the development of each initial IEP or addressed during the regularly scheduled revision of an IEP, and must take public health orders into account. The California Department of Education has posted a list of frequently asked questions related to special education and distance learning, webinars, additional instruction related resources and information about changes to the Education Codes:

The Arc/UCP CA Collaboration looks forward to meeting the new Director of Special Education and working together to ensure the best possible outcomes for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities in California.


Special Education, Social Distance, Distance Learning…

Nearly 800,000 students in California receive special education services and many parents/families/guardians are concerned and confused about how their child or loved one will receive those services in the upcoming school year due to COVID-19. With information changing daily it is difficult to say with certainty which school districts will begin the school year on-line with distance learning instruction, a hybrid model with some on-line and some in-person instruction, or all in-person instruction. The Superintendent of Public Instruction, Tony Thurmond, has been very clear that there is no “one-size” fits all approach to re-opening schools and that it depends on a combination of factors at the local level as to whether or not that particular school can re-open safely. On July 17, 2020 Governor Gavin Newsom issued guidance for schools as they consider how and when to have in-person instruction.

The guidance requires the following for in-person instruction:

  • The school must be in a local health jurisdiction that has NOT been on the county monitoring list within the prior 14 days
  • Masks are required for all students 3rd grade and above, and for all staff at the school
  • Students and Staff must practice physical distancing by being at least 6 ft apart
  •  Symptom checks will be in place
  • Schools will have handwashing stations, routine sanitation and disinfection processes, and quarantine protocols
  • Regular and rotating testing for cohorts of staff
  •  Contact tracers will prioritize schools

The guidance for distance learning includes:

  •  All students must have access to devices and connectivity
  • There will be a requirement for all students to have daily live interaction with teachers and other students
  •  Assignments need to be equivalent to in-person class assignments
  • Lesson plans for English learners and special education students must be adapted to meet the needs of the students

Plan for closure if students of staff test positive for COVID while in-person classes are being held:

  • The school with immediately consult with a public health officer in their local health jurisdiction
  • If there is a confirmed case in a class cohort then that cohort will be required to go home and follow protocols
  • The school will be required to stop in-person instruction if there are multiple cases (5% of school)
  • The district will be required to stop in-person instruction if 25% of school are prohibited from in-person instruction within a 14 day period

The monitoring list is county level data that is monitored by the California Department of Public Health to identify developing concerns related to curbing the spread of COVID. Elevated transmission, increasing hospitalizations and limited hospital capacity are the factors that are evaluated in order to determine whether or not a county is placed on the monitoring list. Information on county level data can be found here:

Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond, President of the State Board of Education, said each district and office of education should have a plan in place to meet the needs of students with special needs. It is well recognized that some students have experience significant learning loss and over the summer teachers and instructional aides have received additional training on how to adapt curriculum and service delivery for families and students that are not able to receive in-person instruction. Many schools are set to return from summer break on August 17th and as we have seen a lot can change in a month. The state has invested an addition $5.3 billion to try to help address learning loss, inaccessibility of technology, and disparities related to COVID-19.

If your child or loved one receives special education services and you have questions about how their needs will be met in the upcoming school year, we encourage you to call your school district or county office of education and find out what their specific plan is. To learn more about the Framework for Reopening K-12 School in California visit:

Senators Feinstein and Harris Urge the Senate to Fund Special Education in Future COVID-19 Relief Efforts

Last week Senators Feinstein and Harris joined 23 of their colleagues in signing on to a letter urging Senate Majority Leader McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Schumer to ensure that funding for special education and protection of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is included in all future COVID-19 relief efforts. In the letter the senators explicitly call for funding both during the shelter in place orders as well as funding that will help students transition back to in person learning once schools reopen stating:

“These service adjustments are not meant to be a one-to-one tradeoff for services missed during COVID-19, but a plan to help students get back on track if they have regressed. We must help ensure that students continue to progress during this pandemic, and we believe that any waiver of IDEA will undermine that objective.”

Read the full letter here.