Special Education

Using Data to Individualize Instruction

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For many years while I was a district leader, I also had the opportunity to teach graduate students who were aspiring special education teachers. In each course, I would begin with the history of special education related to the course topic. In one course, a student asked, “why do we have to always start with special education history?” Yes, graduate students ask these kinds of questions too. It was a light bulb moment for me when I realized that even special education teacher candidates might not appreciate that the legislative and cultural history of students with disabilities is still evolving. It hasn’t even been 50 years since the signing of P.L 94-142, now the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act—or IDEA—which has been reauthorized twice, in 1996 and again in 2004.

The Growth of Special Education

The field of special education has grown by leaps and bounds. In the U.S., the number of students served has grown from 3,694,000 students in 1974–75 to more than double, at 7,539,553 students by 2018–19. This growth cannot be explained by population growth alone; it results from expanded criteria for eligibility, improvements in identification processes, expanded access to services, and increasing awareness and implementation of evaluation procedures. The changes in teacher preparation have been significant since the federal legislation passed. History making is not over, and it is in some ways just beginning.

As the number of students identified as eligible for services has grown rapidly over the last few decades, so has the number of teachers and related service providers to serve these students. The number of professionals who serve these students has grown to nearly a million (942,446) teachers and related service personnel in 2017–18.

At the same time, legislation and teacher preparation programs and licensure requirements have continued to change. In the 1950s, prior to federal legislation requiring special education services, there was inconsistency across states in the criteria for issuing a teaching license for special education. Most states issued a special education teaching certificate with minimum competencies, and few states required a general education teaching license along with the certificate. It was not until the 2004 reauthorization of IDEA that provisions outlining requirements for teacher licensure, including the new “highly qualified” standard, significantly impacted special education teacher licensure.

Differentiating Instruction in Special Education

With the changing requirements around preparation and licensure, what does this mean for teaching and learning for students with disabilities? Special education is a broad term that is simply defined in federal law as specially designed instruction. IDEA provides clarification that specially designed instruction means adapting the content, methodology, or delivery of instruction for a student’s unique needs so that the special education student still has access to the general education curriculum to meet the educational standards of the state or district. There are many factors that make designing and providing specially designed instruction a complex process that requires the collaboration of an entire team. The Individualized Education Program (IEP) is developed to specifically detail goals, services, and plans for measuring student progress to ensure that a student’s educational program is “appropriately ambitious” and that “every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives” (Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, 2017, p. 15). The responsibility for carrying out this program rests with the district and school team, that is everyone who provides a service listed on the IEP, primarily the special education teacher. The team meets at least annually to review the progress and make updates and amendments as needed. Effective design and delivery of services is critical for students to make progress, and the professional knowledge and skills of the special education teacher are essential.

Given what we know about the necessary ongoing changes in special education teacher preparation, the rapid increase in demand for special education teachers, and the range of responsibilities that lie with the special education teacher, we can appreciate that achieving consistency of teacher skill is challenging. As the number of new teachers in special education continues to grow each year, it has become evident that teachers need guidance about professional practices that are research- and evidence-based to support their work to provide effective instruction for their students. To respond to these challenges, the U.S. Department of Education awarded a sub-grant to the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) to work with the Collaboration for Effective Educator Development, Accountability, and Reform (CEEDAR) Center at the University of Florida to develop high-leverage practices (HLPs) for special education teachers. These HLPs address multiple areas of teaching including collaboration, assessment, social and emotional learning, and behavior, and instruction. Implementation of HLPs in each of these areas allows for high-quality instruction and enhances the teaching and learning for teachers and students. Using data is a consistent element across all of the HLPs and contributes to the development of appropriately challenging individualized instruction.

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Individualizing Instruction Using Data

In thinking about using data to individualize instruction, it is critical to focus on assessment. The HLPs for assessment include strategies for using multiple data points from formal and informal measures, recommendations for understanding and sharing data with all stakeholders, and practices that support data-informed decision-making for instruction. Individualizing instruction requires specific, intentional use of these practices to establish the student’s present level of performance and to measure progress and growth. A plan for assessment should reflect three key ideas: 1) purpose, 2) format, and 3) efficiency and consistency.


As a special education teacher plans assessment and data collection strategies to individualize for a student, there are some questions to consider:

  • What is the student’s current performance in the area impacted by the disability? When a teacher has the baseline data, it is possible to measure and monitor the impact of instruction and intervention.
  • What additional data would help gain insight about the student? For a beginning reader it would be important to know a student’s specific foundational reading skills like phonological awareness, decoding, or sight recognition for developing goals and monitoring progress. For other students being assessed in reading and math, a scale score, a grade-level equivalency, or another metric such as a Lexile or Quantile range will help in developing goals as well as planning for instruction and selecting appropriate instructional materials.
  • How will the data be used? The assessment plan should also consider how periodic assessments will be used to assess mastery, monitor progress, measure growth, or determine whether students have met entrance or exit criteria for instructional decisions. An assessment must always have a purpose.


It is important to consider the format of an assessment to allow for the most accurate and useful data collection. Students usually become familiar with the presentation of formative and summative assessments throughout the school year. They are generally able to anticipate that teachers will provide them with the opportunity to engage in learning and assessment tasks in a predictable manner. Teachers may use the familiar format so that students are responding to test items without the additional task of adjusting to a new format. In many cases these assessments are part of the digital tools schools have incorporated as part of their teaching and learning routines. Leveraging digital tools within the student experience allows students to show what they know with the presentation of tasks in a way that is familiar. When assessment tasks are presented within the structure of existing instructional routines, students are able to engage with less stress. The more we can make the assessment process mirror the types of experiences that students are engaged in regularly, the more we can rely on the accuracy of the data we gather about student performance.

Efficiency and Consistency

Gathering data for evaluations, IEP progress reporting, and other special education processes can be cumbersome. Many special education teachers serve students across multiple classrooms or grades. Providing the same testing conditions for each student is a challenge. When teachers can conduct formative and summative assessments with digital tools, they are able to increase efficiency, reduce test administration error or bias, and share outcome information quickly and in a useful format. While a key consideration of data importance is informing instruction, it is also critical to have updated, reliable, and relevant information in a format that is readily understood by stakeholders who are less familiar with formal data analysis. Whether the data is used for adjusting instruction, reporting on IEP goal progress, or assisting with other decisions like extended school year—or ESY—eligibility, having a format that is intuitive, efficient, and reliable is key. All students deserve to have access to the same assessment experience.

Providing specially-designed instruction is a complex and important responsibility. The population of students with learning differences that require special education is growing each year. As the number of teachers also continues to grow, the need for ongoing support and professional learning is greater than ever. High-quality instruction that is founded in research and assessed reliably can ensure that special education teachers get the data they need and special education students get the education they deserve. High-quality instruction that is founded in research and assessed reliably can ensure that special education teachers get the data they need and special education students get the education they deserve.


McLeskey, J., Barringer, M-D., et al. (2017, January). High-Leverage Practices in Special Education. Arlington, VA: Council for Exceptional Children & CEEDAR Center.

U.S. Department of Education, EDFacts Data Warehouse. (2018). “IDEA Part B Exiting Collection,” 2017–18. Data extracted from: http://go.usa.gov/xdp4e [csv download].

U.S. Department of Education, EDFacts Data Warehouse. (2022). “IDEA Part B Personnel Collection,” selected years, 2005 through 2018. https://www2.ed.gov/programs/osepidea/618-data/state-level-data-files/index.html

U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services. (2007, July). “History: Twenty-Five Years of Progress in Educating Children With Disabilities Through IDEA.” https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED556111

U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs. (2021, September). Annual Report to Congress on the Implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, selected years, 1979 through 2019. https://www2.ed.gov/about/reports/annual/osep/index.html


At HMH, we can support our teachers and leaders in their work to provide high quality special education with research and innovation, which in turn improves the individualized experience for each student.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.

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