The graduation rates for students with disabilities surfacing in the news are enough to make the stomach of any parent of a child with an Individualized Education Program (IEP) flip. And while Mississippi has absorbed the majority of newspaper ink of late — for losing more than two-thirds of its students with disabilities before graduation — the numbers in most other states don’t look much better: In 20 states and the District of Columbia, more than 40 percent of students aren’t graduating when they should.

Whether these students are dropping out, taking longer to graduate, or simply finishing with meaningless certificates of completion, the numbers are just too huge to explain away.

In addition to the fact that 85-90 percent of students with disabilities are capable of meeting the standards for a regular diploma, what makes these graduation rates unconscionable is that these are the kids that federal law requires educators to monitor most closely. Each student must have an annual IEP plan, targeted goals, supports and interventions, progress monitoring, and Transition Plans that map out the path through and beyond high school. And these processes come with a host of professionals: case managers, special ed teachers, dedicated aides, and school- and district-level special ed coordinators and compliance monitors — plus, in many cases, professionals outside the school, from social workers to psychologists. These students are surrounded by all of these people and paperwork, yet somehow we are losing thousands of them before graduation — perhaps because schools and districts are keeping better track of the pieces of paper than they are of the kids themselves.

As an advocate for students in the foster care system receiving special education services, I’ve seen school teams forgo thoughtful reflection on student progress, the students’ own opinions, and even a simple spell check in a mad rush to get documents filled out, signed, and entered into district databases to maintain compliance. And there they sit, these forms upon forms stamped with anemic goals, half-baked monitoring plans, generic interventions, and the signatures of parents and students who too often don’t know what they’re signing away.

Somehow the procedures written into federal law, left to be translated and carried out at the school level, have not been universally recognized as the safeguards they were intended to be; instead, they are too often recast as cumbersome requirements out to ding schools for non-compliance in some federal, gotcha-type game.

Until schools and districts change the way they think about, communicate, and carry out special education services and monitoring — and focus more on student progress than paperwork, using the latter as a tool to focus on the former — educators will be left standing there, clinging to all those meager pieces of paper, while thousands of kids slip through their fingers.