U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Tuesday California needs an "intervention" when it comes to special education.
The U.S. Department of Education found California school officials are testing too few of their special needs students - those with speech impairments, autism or other disabilities - bringing into question the reliability of average scores.
If reforms aren't met, Duncan said federal funds can be withheld under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The pronouncement came during an unveiling of new national requirements for schools on special education.
"If our nation works hard and works together, with courage and with a real sense of urgency, we may finally realize the very important ideals of IDEA – equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living and economic self-sufficiencies for individuals with disabilities," he said during a press conference.
California joins only a handful of states the federal government said require intervention. The others are Delaware, the District of Columbia, Texas, the Bureau of Indian Education and the Virgin Islands.
It's not the first time the federal department has sought to reform education through tougher accountability measures. In 2001, George W. Bush signed No Child Left Behind, requiring all students to be proficient in reading and math by 2014 - and publishing schools' test scores.
The proficiency mandate was later deemed by many to be unachievable, and most states and a coalition of local districts in California have received waivers from the law.
In terms of special education, federal oversight was heavily focused on compliance such as whether schools are creating a student's individual education plan.
The new requirements demand states improve testing data collection and transparency, betting that better accountability will improve graduation rates and performance in reading and math.
California's not doing very well on that front, either.
Only 27 percent of California's eighth grade special education students scored at least "basic" – a wrung below proficient – in English on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Only 19 percent met that level in math.
However, California places fewer students in special education programs than the national average.