The History of the 8.5% Cap in Texas

Inspired by Governor Gregg Abbot’s statement

I decided to research this topic for myself.

Governor Abbot is referring to the U.S. Department of Education finding that the Texas Education Agency’s (TEA) decision to set a “target” for the maximum percentage of students who should receive special education services had violated federal laws requiring schools to serve all students with disabilities.   This story first broke in 2016 when Brian Rosenthal published a piece for the Houston Chronicle.

I decided to research the earliest references the 8.5% cap in school district and accountability manuals because I believe the dereliction of duty claim was either a claim made out of ignorance of the true source of the problem or as a deflection of blame from some governmental entity towards public schools.

For the record I have worked as a campus and central office administrator for two districts and one charter school and have never been pressured by anyone in those systems or at The Texas Education Agency to reduce our number of students identified as special education. It is also likely however that the TEA’s use of the 8.5% cap as a performance indicator in the Performance Based Monitoring Analysis System (PBMAS) reports did impact the number of students identified as special education.  It is true that districts and charters who did exceed the 8.5% SPED Identification Indicator established by PBMAS did receive lower ratings on their PBMAS Accountability ratings and were subjected to monitoring and intervention for exceeding that 8.5% standard.

What is The Performance Based Monitoring Analysis System or PBMAS?

According to TEA:

“The 2004-2005 school year marked the first year of the new PBMAS. Features of the system included new indicators to evaluate student performance and program effectiveness and the use of performance levels rather than risk levels to report on district and charter performance. These performance levels are one of several evaluation criteria used by the agency to identify districts for further intervention or monitoring. Other evaluation criteria examined by the agency include financial and compliance information, complaints, results of due process hearings, governance issues, and previous monitoring and accountability history”.  (source)

What is the 8.5% Cap

The 8.5% Cap is a performance standard that first appeared in the 2004 PBMAS reports.

Above is a screenshot from the 2004 Dallas ISD PBMAS report.  In 2004 The 8.5% Sped Identification number was “Indicator#1” on the report.

This is a screenshot of a 2005 Dallas ISD PBMAS Report.  In this example you can see that the Texas Education Agency has now added the last column which is titled 2005 Performance Level Indicator. In this example above the district receives a score of “0” because they are below the 8.5% cap.  The 8.5% cap is clearly identified as the standard (which in 2005 is  indicator #13 as opposed to indicator #1 in 2004).

Here is a screenshot of the 8.5% cap SPED Identification Indicator in 2016 PBMAS Reports.  This indicator was removed from 2017 reports.

If you want to look up any other district or PBMAS reports from 2004-2017,  follow this link

What do the Performance Level Indicator Ratings of 0,1,2, ands 3 mean to school districts and charters?

The performance level indicator ratings as defined in the 2005 PBMAS Manual, page 7:

“A performance level is the result that occurs when a standard is applied to a district’s performance on an indicator. The performance levels for each indicator in the 2005 PBMAS are Not Evaluated, 0/0SA, 1/1SA, 2/2SA, or 3/3SA. A performance level of 0 is the highest designation for any indicator, meaning that the district met the standard for the indicator. A performance level of 3 is the lowest designation, indicating that the district performance was farthest from the performance for the 0 – Met Standard designation.”

What happened to districts who did not receive a Performance Level Indicator Rating of “0” which was “met standard” ?

Districts and Charters that failed to meet standard were then evaluated for monitoring intervention and staging beginning in 2009 (source 2009 PBMAS Manual). Staging and intervention ranges from a Level 1 to a  Level 4 (harshest intervention).  Staging and Intervention involves utilizing the Texas Accountability Intervention System.  Depending on the level of staging, charters and districts have to create and provide reports of intervention efforts to the Texas Education Agency.  The higher the level of staging, the more intense the scrutiny and follow-up of those reports.

Required Improvement

Charters and Districts that did not meet the 2005 standards for the Special Education Indicator were expected to improve their performance for the following year.  Improvement meant reducing the percentage of students identified as special education. TEA made the SPED Identification Indicator eligible for Required Improvement starting in 2006.

Source 2006 PBMAS Manual page 16

The SPED Identification Indicator was listed as Indicator #1 in 2004 reports, #13 in 2005 reports, and, #14 in 2006 reports because each year many of the measurement criteria for school districts and charters are modified or moved around in the PBMAS reports.

Required Improvement (RI) is defined as:

This is evidence that TEA expected districts to improve their performance from year to year on PBMAS indicators and that they even provided a mechanism (RI) to reward districts who made significant improvement but did not reach the standard. 

What happened as a result of the 8.5% cap?

Was TEA Aware of problems resulting from the 8.5% cap?

This new note appeared with the SPED Identification Indicator beginning with the 2015 PBMAS Manuals. It indicates to me that they were aware by the 2015 manual publication of problems resulting from the 8.5% cap.

Who is to blame?

The Texas Education Agency? The Texas Legislature? School Districts and Charters?  Other Organizations?

The Texas Education Agencies use of PBMAS, the 8.5% indicator, and the resultant staging and monitoring interventions for failure to reduce the percentage of students identified as special education below 8.5% impacted Local Education Agency (LEA) decision making.  The pressure to meet the PBMAS accountability standards applied by the Legislature, the State, and local communities also impacted LEA Decision making.

However, in search of the root cause, I don’t think the answer will be found by looking at teachers, principals, superintendents, or other campus and district personnel.  Additionally, my uninformed opinion is that the employees at TEA were simply creating rules and regulations based on either Commissioner or legislative guidance and pressure.  The root cause for me, as is my root cause for many of the bad decisions applied to the students and stakeholders of public districts and charters in Texas, would be misguided or malicious efforts to reduce funding for public education in Texas.

Some great reads:

Denied by Brian Rosenthal

Dallas Morning News Article (which also inspired me to write this post)

To access any of the other PBMAS Manuals follow this link