AUSTIN, Texas — The federal government on Monday ordered Texas officials to eliminate an 8.5 percent benchmark on special education enrollment unless they can show it didn’t keep children with disabilities from receiving appropriate educational services.

The Houston Chronicle ( ) reports that the U.S. Department of Education directed the state to report back in 30 days on the benchmark’s impact and on which school districts might have relied on it to deny special education services to children. Its findings on those districts should include “the specific steps” Texas will take to “remedy the effect of such past practices,” the department said.

The newspaper revealed the existence of the arbitrary enrollment target last month, reporting that the Texas Education Agency quietly implemented the benchmark.

When the policy began in 2004, about 12 percent of Texas students received some form of special education services such as tutoring, therapies and counseling. That was close to the longtime national average of roughly 13 percent. In the years since, the Texas percentage has plummeted to the lowest in the United States by far. In 2015, for the first time, it reached exactly 8.5 percent.

Sue Swenson, the department’s acting assistant secretary for special education, wrote in a three-page letter to the head of the TEA that it appears Texas’ “approach to monitoring local educational agency compliance . may be resulting in districts’ failure to identify and evaluate all students suspected of having a disability and who need special education.”

“Depending on TEA’s response,” Swenson wrote, the federal government “will determine whether additional monitoring activities or other administrative enforcement or corrective actions are necessary.”

The TEA has denied that children with disabilities have been kept out of special education but has promised to review the issue. The agency said in a statement that it “welcomes the opportunity” to discuss its policies.

The newspaper found that the agency has required some school districts that serve more than 8.5 percent of children to create “Corrective Action Plans,” and schools have responded to the policy by making special education much harder to access.

TEA officials have attributed the dramatic declines to new teaching techniques that they say have lowered the number of children with “learning disabilities.”

Since 1975, federal law has mandated that public schools provide specialized education services to all eligible children with any type of disability.

Swenson’s letter disclosed that Texas and the U.S. Department of Education have previously discussed the state’s target, in 2014. In that exchange, according to the letter, TEA’s special education director said the districts that exceeded 8.5 percent weren’t penalized but merely monitored to ensure compliance with the law. He also assured the federal government that the state ensures that all children with disabilities get services.

“However, the information presented in the Chronicle’s investigative article raises serious questions about Texas’s compliance” with federal law and about “the implementation of the approaches Texas described to (the U.S. Department of Education) in 2014,” Swenson wrote.

Information from: Houston Chronicle,