Education Chat

Chat Transcript: Special Education in an Era of Standards

In an era of increasing standards and accountability, experts analyze the implications of subjecting special education students to performance tests and including those results in overall performance grades of a school.

Special Education in an Era of Standards About our Guests:

Christine Wolfe, director of policy, Office of the Undersecretary, at the U.S. Department of Education;

Rachel Quenemoen, senior fellow for technical assistance and research, National Center on Educational Outcomes; and

Judy Elliott, assistant superintendent for special education, Long Beach (CA) Unified School District.

Susan Ansell, Education Week (Moderator):
Welcome to to this TalkBack Live chat on including special education students in standards-based reform. My name is Susan Ansell and I am a research associate at Education Week. I am joined today by three guests who are all experts in their own right on the topic of special education. Christine Wolfe is director of policy in the Office of the Undersecretary at the U.S. Department of Education, Judy Elliott is the assistant superintendent for special education in the Long Beach (Calif.) Unified School District, and Rachel Quenemoen is a senior fellow for technical assistance and research at the National Center on Educational Outcomes, an organization which has conducted numerous studies on issues related to special education and accountability. This year’s Quality Counts report grappled with a complicated issue and we’re anxious to hear your thoughts on it and to engage our guests in today’s discussion. So on to the chat...

Question from Debbie Har vey, Special Ed. teacher, Bartlesville Mid High:
When Sped students take these tests and are not proficient, what happens then?

Christine Wolfe:
The adequate yearly progress requirements in NCLB apply to schools, districts and states. It is about system accountability. Individual students aren’t required to make AYP. It is up to states to determine how or whether individual test scores affect individual students.

Regardless of whether a student is a special education student, if a student is not proficient, their non-proficient score is included when calculating AYP for a school.

Question from Susan Ansell, Education Week:
Our poll in Quality Counts this year suggests that teachers are concerned, in general, about the testing demands in NCLB. What do you think the implications will be for including special education students in state tests?

Rachel Quenemoen:
In any kind of reform effort, the attitudes and beliefs of the people implementing the reform is key. IN addition, we have a long and strong body of research that suggests that teacher expectations for student achievement powerfully influence teaching and learning, especially for some groups of children. It is really important for states and districts to provide training and support so that teachers have confidence they can in fact be successful in teaching all children to very high levels of achievement. We know much about how to teach all children, and making sure teachers have the resources and time to learn, practice, and be coached on these techniques will go far to ensure that including all students in both instruction and assessment will be good for all teachers and all children.

Question from jsnider, teacher, lds:
What is going to happen to a child’s self-esteem and frustration level when he is on third grade level reading and is expected to read a 6th grade test?

Judy Elliott:
The child may read and the 3rd grade level but s/he does not think at the 3rd grade level. THe issue here is to look at the use of accommodations. Indeed there are accomomdations that can address the issue of reading tests to kids. It depends on the construct being measured. ANd, if it is a test of accountability, it is imperative that we know how all 6th grade kids are reading.

Question from Regina Gilchrist Ash, Regional Director, Project EXTREME high school afterschool program:
Is there a balance possible between mandatory testing and doing what’s in the best interests of our exceptional children? I have seen students who can’t read be so incredibly frustrated when they are required to take a reading test (for NC) up to three times - and then be devastated when they “fail” it all three times.

Rachel Quenemoen:
On the testing side, states are working hard to ensure fairness in how students can show what they know on assessments for either individual student stakes (such as state requirements for promotion or graduation) or school/system stakes (as in NCLB). This requires rethinking and sometimes redesign of accommodations policies; training and support to IEP teams on provision of instructional AND assessment accommodations; and rethinking and redesign of large-scale assessments. Some states are building in other assessment options, some of them described in the “Count me in” profiles. For example, Kentucky is working on a pilot online testing option that will allow maximum flexibility for accommodations, Oregon has set up a panel review process to consider student accommodations requests, and Massachusetts has an option for alternate assessment/portfolio review for graduation stakes.

But if a student has not been taught the skills and knowledge being assessed, then he or she will perform poorly on the assessment, with or without appropriate accommodations, or on individual review. In this Quality Counts there is a good description of a North Carolina school where they are addressing that basic reality through early and intense intervention on reading skills, on page 29 – “Basic Measures.” For students who are already far behind, struggling in high school with poor skills, there are different challenges. The story about Cabrillo High School in Long Beach on page 35 is illustrative of that situation, and includes good examples of strategies that may work. I think it is in the best interest of our exceptional children to ensure that students are provided the challenging curriculum and varied instruction, services, and supports so that they can succeed. Many states and districts have systematic training, and ongoing coaching and support in place for teachers and other staff, to make sure that can occur.

Susan Ansell, Education Week (Moderator):
Many questions have raised concerns that requiring special education students to take state tests will harm their self-esteem. Education Week’s national poll found that 77 percent of teachers somewhat or strongly agree that requiring special education students to take state tests will put too much pressure on those students and will be demoralizing.

Question from V. Tisa Hawkins, Special Ed. teacher, Ireland Elementary:
My district is about to inform us that the NCLB law expects all students in special ed. (even those who cannot read) to take a grade level state assessment or alternative. Is that correct or is my district misunderstanding the law?

Christine Wolfe:
IDEA has required all disabled students to be assessed since 1997. Alternate assessments were required to be in place by July 2000. Children with disabilities who could be assessed using a regular assessment, or a regular assessment with appropriate accommodations were to be provided these assessments beginning in 1997. NCLB builds on the requirements of IDEA and requires the assessment results of students with disabilities to be included in state accountability systems. Adequate yearly progress (AYP) is based on the percentage of students that are proficient in reading and math.

In December we finalized a regulation designed to ensure that students with the most significant cognitive disabilities participate fully in the standards and accountability under NCLB and schools receive credit for making progress with these students. It accomplishes this by permitting a student’s proficient score on assessments based on alternate achievement standards to count the same as any other student’s proficient score on a State assessment, subject to a 1 percent cap. Without this regulation, the achievement of students with the most significant cognitive disabilities would have to be measured against grade level achievement standards, and therefore would be considered “not proficient” for AYP calculations.

Under the new regulations, when measuring Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), States and school districts will have the flexibility to count the “proficient” scores of students with disabilities who take alternate assessments based on alternate achievement standards-as long as the number of those proficient scores does not exceed one percent of all students in the grades assessed (about nine percent of students with disabilities). The 1.0 percent cap is based on current incidence rates of students with the most significant cognitive disabilities, allowing for reasonable local variation in prevalence.

To read the new regulation, see

Question from Cheryl Saliwanchik-Brown, Teacher/Doctoral Student, University of Maine:
I have a question that concerns me about all students, but especially those with learning disabilities - if at risk students are not performing well at the high school level, are not meeting state standards, and high stakes testing requires schools to comply or even suffer the humiliation of being “black listed” - what’s to keep the administration from looking the other way when students who are bringing down test scores drop out?

Judy Elliott:
The heart of this issue is ethics. In the big picture it is the administrators that supervise principals who need to monitor this - dropping out and black listing kids. Ethical accountatbility requires top down and bottom up effort. Folks at the top of a school district’s administration can monitor these data and create plans to address.

Again, this is about all kids not just those who test well. Humiliation is an interesting way to put this issue. Much growth can come from that. The bottom line is that it may clearly be the first time students with disabilities and ELL kids have been given the opportunity to learn what is required of the test.

Question from Alana Collins,Parent,Quiilyaute Valley School Forks,Washington:
How will NCLB change the way rural schools be held accountable for yearly progress of their special ed.population as in our district it is so small less than 20 profoundly disabled students?

Christine Wolfe:
Under their approved state acccountability plans, states have set a minium group size for school accountability. If there aren’t a sufficient number of students in a particular group at the school or LEA level, the school or LEA will not be held accountable for the achievement of that particular group separate from all others. However, regardless of whether a group meets the minimum size, all of the scores of those students will be included in the “all students” group at the school level, and in any other subgroup to which a student belongs.

Question from Lorraine La Pointe mother of teeanger with autism:
Why are job and life skills not considered in the proficiency testing of someone with moderate to profound disablity? It would seem if we were more proactive in searching out work/life roles for these individuals there would be less strain on the government for resources later on.

Christine Wolfe:
Job and life skills should not be restricted to students with disabilities; all students need career planning and applied learning experiences. A good school provides both academic and workplace readiness skills for all of their students. For students with disabilities, job and life skills that are part of the IEP are monitored continuously within the IEP process. But in order to transition successfully to life and work after schooling is completed, students also need a strong academic foundation. NCLB emphasizes academic skills for all students. For students with a moderate disability, basic reading and math skills are essential for a successful transition to the workplace. Without basic academic skills, their employment options are severely limited. Therefore, students with disabilities are required to be assessed against state standards in reading and math. Students with significant cognitive disabilities may be assessed based on alternate achievement standards, which differ in complexity from grade-level achievement standards. But these students must also be permitted access to the knowledge and skills covered in the general curriculum commensurate with their ability.

Question from Patrick Bland, Director Pupil Services, Jefferson County, West Virginia:
I understand there have been some adjustments made to the testing of special education students off grade level. However, if a county can only test up to 1% of their students off-grade it really fair and realistic to expect the other students, such as mildly mentally impaired, to perform on grade level? This will be a very frustrating procedure for many of our secondary students and teachers. It seems to take the “I” our of the IEP. Thank you.

Rachel Quenemoen:
We have had limited data to tell us how students with mild mental retardation can achieve when they have been taught the challenging curriculum expected by their grade level peers. Part of the reason for that is that in the past many of these children, even when they had been taught the content, were systematically excluded from large-scale assessments, and thus we don’t have data to document their achievement. Part of the reason is that many of these children were not expected to learn the grade level content, and thus were not taught that content. IDEA 1997 gave us new impetus to shift both of these practices, and in some states, districts, and schools, we are beginning to see trends that are encouraging. IDEA 1997 gave us reason to rethink how we had been viewing the “I” in IEP as well. Do we see the “I” as permission to lower the standards, lower expectations, and provide a separate curriculum? Or do we see the “I” as the thoughtful design and provision of the services and supports necessary so that the student can be successful in the same curriculum based on challenging standards set for all children?

Question from Richard W. Evans, Director of Curriculum and Instruction, North Royalton City Schools:
In light of developing IEPs aligned with state standards, what ideas do you have for working with the teachers, students, and parents?

Judy Elliott:
Our IEPs make reference to what standard the IEP goal is linked to. Therefore, a teacher writes the goal and references the standard.

Parents are supportive and relieved to know all kids, including stud with dis are working toward standards.

Students need to know as well. No problem there either.

Question from Becky Banks, LD teacher, North County R-I:
Why should a special education student who is reading and performing at a 5th grade level be required to take a state test that is written for a student performing at a 10th grade level? It is very unfair to the special education student. Since modifications nullify the test results anyway what do we hope to gain by making them take these tests?

Rachel Quenemoen:
The purpose of an assessment for accountability purposes like we have in NCLB is to measure how well all students are doing against an external criterion. In this case, we are looking at grade level content and achievement standards. In order to be sure that we have comparable data, data that will give a true and full picture, all students need to be included. The benefits of having results from all students are apparent as schools do school improvement planning, as resources are allocated to support changes, and as we raise our expectations for all students. At a systems level, we need to know who, how many, and what groups may need more support to be successful. And if our assessment systems also give us useful formative data from other sources, such as ongoing standards-based classroom assessments, these accountability tests are just one piece of the “puzzle” of improving outcomes for all students.

Still, it is a reality that we have many students who are far into their public school career, who may not have benefited from high expectations with standards-based curriculum and instruction from the very beginning. For these students, we have a variety of ways to help them become more successful, and to overcome emotional stresses. A focus on thoughtful use of accommodations in instruction and in testing is important. Helping students understand the purpose of the assessment, ensuring they know what to expect on test day, preparing them with basic test taking skills especially if they have been excluded in the past, giving them positive preparation – these are important supports teachers can offer. We hear from teachers and parents that when we set high expectations for testing as well as instruction, students surprise us! Use summer prep, one to one tutoring, cooperative learning, peer tutoring---the full toolkit of effective and varied instructional strategies – to help build the skills and knowledge they need.

Question from Tim Purkey, Assistant Superintendent, Grandville Public Schools:
One of the areas we are having difficulty is qualifying our secondary special education teachers at Highly Qualfied based on current guidelines. What is our course of action?

Judy Elliott:
We don’t really have a bottom line for this one yet. What we do know is that Resource teachers cannot, under current NCLB, teach pull out content courses. We have shifted our program to be Strategies for Success that works on study skills and then remedial work in the content areas.

Self contained is up for grabs really, until IDEA goes throught

Susan Ansell, Education Week (Moderator):
As a follow up to Tim’s question, I thought I would point out that for this year’s Quality Counts report, we surveyed states to find out if they were requiring special education teachers to complete a minimum amount of coursework or pass a test in the academic subject area they were planning to teach. Currently, no state has such requirements for special education teachers at the secondary level who teach one of the four core content areas.

Question from James P. Redman, Asst. principal, Easton Elementary--Moton, Talbot County Schools, Maryland:
The very nature of qualifying for a student Special Education signifies that there is a significant discrepancy between a student’s cognitive ability and his educational performance on standardized tests. Therefore, does it not seem odd to require these same students to take (and pass) an on-grade level state test that counts against the school?

Judy Elliott:
It depends on where you live. In Long Beach we DO NOT use the descrepancy model. Many many students can become, and have become eligible using a descrepancy model that uses standardized tests. So I disagree with the statement that special education signifies a desrepancy.

The issue comes to that of appropriate accommodations that students need to take the test. Extant data shows that 85% of Students with disabilities can take state/district with or without accommodations. 15% of the other SWD will need some sort of alternate assessment.

And the issue of ‘counting against the school’ is really the issue of no child being left behind. As Secty Paige indicated in a recent speech ‘which one of you wants to call a parent and tell them their child doesnt count.’

Question from Jan Borowicz, Special Education Supervisor, Reeths-Puffer Public Schools:
Please help educators understand why special needs students are being evaluated with the same “proficiency” tool as general education students. Is it unreasonable to assume that if a student were functioning at grade level proficiency that he/she would not be in special education?

Christine Wolfe:
Students qualify for special education services for many reasons and many special education students demonstrate grade-level proficiency. Conversely, a student that tests below grade-level is not necessarily eligible for special education services.

In fact, the IDEA regulations require that states ensure FAPE to any individual child with a disability who needs special education and related services even though the child is advancing from grade to grade. (34 CFR 300.121(e)(1))

Question from Pamela Smith, Library/Media specialist, Maine School:
As a parent of a child with learning disabilities, I wonder about the validity of information I get when my daughter must be tested at grade level. Will I find out what she knows and CAN do, or will I only find out what she CAN’T do?

Rachel Quenemoen:
A good assessment system for a school, and the necessary assessments to support an individual students, include a range of options that meet different purposes. The accountability test for your school can help shape the planning done to improve instruction for all children in the school. That gives general information about individual children, but is designed to shed light on the system, so it can be improved. That means other assessment data are needed to guide instruction for individual children through the course of the year and in to the future. There are many progress monitoring tools including curriculum based measures, classroom assessments, and ongoing teacher observations that provide a wealth of information about what each child can do, that allow instruction to be adjusted to ensure success long before the end of the year. The best approach is to have multiple measures that add up to a complete profile of the student. Each may be valid for a different purpose.

Question from Robert Veselis, HS Science Teacher, CAL Community School:
By it’s very nature, Special Education, requires additional and unconventional strategies, which are more expensive. How are teachers to meet the needs of their students when at the state level, all we hear about is lower taxes and cuts in the educational budget?

Judy Elliott:
The issue is to continue what you have been doing. Not all of special education is that much more expensive. That is another topic in and of itself.

The budget issues right now need to stay as far from the classroom as possible. In fact, special education is an entitlement and therefore cannot be legally cut.

However, things are not what they used to be -- so cuts come come in support staff e.g., one less aide or paraeducator etc.

Question from Diann Richards, Sp. Ed. Teacher, Brooks Middle Magnet, Wichita Ks:
The population of moderate to severely handicapped students is much more than the the 1% we are allowed to test under alternate assessments. What justification is there for asking students with significantly below average IQ to event attempt grade level assessments when they are unable to function at for example the 8th or 10th grade level? Isn’t that the same as asking a child in a wheel chair to compete in the 40 yard dash against students who have the use of both legs and not only compete but achieve a similar time?

Rachel Quenemoen:
It may be helpful to look at the table showing the percentage of students by category on page 10 of the Quality counts. According to that data, which comes from official databases at the Department of Education, about 12+% of students receiving special education services are in categories associated with cognitive disabilities, including mental retardation or multiple disabilities. Since students receiving special education services are about 11% (school age) of the total student population, we can estimate the incidence of these disabilities in the TOTAL student population roughly by dividing by 10%. That means between 1-2% of ALL students are in these categories, including not only those with moderate to severe disabilities but many who have mild disabilities. So the first thing to do is to carefully analyze which children we are thinking about when we assume that the population with moderate to severe disabilities is much more than the 1% cited in the Rule.

But another consideration is in order as well, subject to comment by our USOE colleagues on this chat. As we read the Rule, there is no limit to the number of students who can be assessed on an alternate assessment, whether on alternate achievement standards or grade level achievement standards. States and districts are working to ensure that IEP teams have training to make good decisions as to how the students are to be assessed. There is a limit to how many scores are treated as proficient on alternate achievement standards for AYP purposes however. That seems to be in keeping with the incidence figures we see from official data.

Question from Sue Bechard, Director, Special Education, Measured Progress:
Because of NCLB’s 1% allowance for reporting proficiency on alternate performance standards, students with the most significant cognitive disabilities are not as much the target of states’ and districts’ concerns as students in the gray area. These are typically students who are too high functioning for alternate assessments, but score at the very lowest levels of “not proficient” in the general assessments. What are your recommendations to states who seek another option for assessing these students, such as using off grade level assessments, assessments that allow modifications such as reading the reading test, or alternative assessments that address grade level expectations in non-traditional ways, etc.?

Christine Wolfe:
NCLB requires that students with disabilities participate in assessments of reading or language arts and mathematics based on the same challenging content and academic achievement standards as other students with the use of reasonable adaptations and accomodations as necessary to measure their academic achievement. Schools should ensure that all students have the benefit of the most rigorous academic preparation possible with accommodations that allow them to access the general curriculum; appropriate test preparation experience and implementation of the accommodations identified by the IEP team during both instruction and testing. Further, the State should ensure that alternate assessment procedures are available to permit previously low scoring students the opportunity to fully demonstrate their knowledge and skills in relation to grade-level standards.

Question from Dr. Sally Wixson, parent, New Jersey:
My question for the panel concerns the question of proactively seeking to “identify” students in public schools for special education services. Many parents, including myself, have spent years voicing concerns only to be told “lets wait another year” What can be done about earlier and more proactive identification of special needs students so that they CAN be remediated earlier?

Judy Elliott:
Great question. THe issue is that more folks in general and special education need to use data based progress monitoring to determine growth or weakness for skill areas.

“Wait to fail” as folks say, is not an option when data based progress monitoring is used.

Stronger building based intervention teams are a must!

Question from Shirley McKinney, Resource Facilitator/Teacher:
If the IEP is a legal Federal document that mandates instruction at the student’s level. Isn’t this like one Federal mandate butting heads with another. By complying with one law, aren’t we violating another?

Christine Wolfe:
No. IDEA requires children with disabilities receive instruction in the general curriculum to the greatest extent possible. Furthermore, children’s education programs are supposed to help them reach the goals of the regular academic program, with the appropriate support.

Question from Maureen Valdini, unemployed elementary teacher:
How does NCLB attempt to ascertain that the standardized tests that decide proficiency for students and teachers are normed as valid and reliable measures of English language learners, special education, and minority student’s abilities?

Rachel Quenemoen:
Each state assessment system will be going through peer review, and technical adequacy of the system is part of that review. One feature of test development that is cited in regulation is a requirement that the assessments be developed according to the elements of universal design. This includes as a foundation that an inclusive assessment population is considered as assessments are developed and used. Although the concept of universal design of assessment is a work in progress, you can read current understanding of this approach that at the NCEO web site,

Question from Bonnie Whitney, Director of Learning Center, Roberts Wesleyan College:
What is the status fo the reauthorization of the IDEA and have there been many changes recommended as a result of the NCLB legislation?

Christine Wolfe:
The House has passed is bill (HR 1350) and the Senate may pass its bill this Spring. (S. 1248). Both bills seek to harmoize IDEA with NCLB-- ensure that it builds on what NCLB enacted, particularly in the area of assessments and teacher quality.

Question from Teresa Key, Teacher, Halifax County Schools:
When you are already having difficulty with inclusion, negative attitudes from teachers who do not want a special needs student in the room period regardless of ability, what are some strategies I can use to get them to embrace NCLB and the special needs student.

Judy Elliott:
Negative attitudes etc in my view are symptoms of a bigger issue. Our job is to figure out what they are. COuld be fear, or not knowing what or how to teach ‘included children.’ And, NCLB is still not crystal clear to educators, including admin and teachers,

Communication is the best mode to find out what is going on.

Inclusion is defined and operationalized differently from district to district. Not sure what parts of NCLB you speak of. We know for sure assessment is the big issue.

Question from Dennis O’Hara, partner, O’Hara &O’Connell:
How do you resolve the tension between the right under IDEA to use test accomodations specified in a student’s IEP with the prohibition on the use of several types of accomodations on mandated annual assesments?

Christine Wolfe:
The issue of which accomodations are allowed is a State issue. The accomodations need to support valid test results.

Question from Darlene Mansouri, Title 1 Facilitator, Keeling Elementary:
If students have a legal document (IEP) stating that they are only capable of functioning at a specific grade level at this time; how can they be held accountable on an assessment for a grade level higher than their IEP states?

Rachel Quenemoen:
Generally the present levels of performance and needs statements of an IEP don’t put a cap on or limit how much the child is able to learn. They do provide important information about where the building blocks toward successful learning can occur, by identifying strengths and assets through which success can be achieved. The challenging content in the general curriculum is the target we’re all after.

Question from Thomas W. Grierson, Teacher, Ferry Elementary:
Where is the money going to come from to fund this lofty goal? From my observations it seems to me that teachers and school systems are having difficulty funding and educating students at the current level.

Christine Wolfe:
There have been significant increases in federal funding since NCLB was enacted. Since 1996 federal funding has increased more than 130%. Special education funding has significantly increased, teacher quality funding has doubled since 2001. The answer isn’t always more resources, it is rethinking the allocation of existing resources.

The requirement to test all special education students has been in place since 1997.

Question from Peg Turlington 1st grade Union County Primary School, B;airsville Georgia:
I am concerned that the pressures that students are feeling about testing are going to drive more high school students to drop out than previously. How are these new standards going to help these students in special education who are already struggling with their own IEP goals?

Judy Elliott:
We have not had that experience here in Long Beach. Let’s face it, testing is NOT what drives kids out of school.

Kids struggling, in my belief is bec they have not had the opportunity to learn or overall exposure to curriculum that they are now responsible for. IEPS have not, in the past been linked to anything standard.

The ‘new standards’ as you call them are not new. In Long Beach we have had standards for years. In many other places as well, it is just that special edcuation students have not had access to them.

Susan Ansell, Education Week (Moderator):
According to data from this year’s Quality Counts report, 20 states require students to pass exit exams to graduate from high school and 14 of those states extend the testing requirement to students with disabilities. However, 24 states allow students with disabilities to graduate from high school with a standard diploma even if they have not met regular graduation requirements (which may or may not include an exit exam).

Question from Mark Carter, Teacher, North Clayton High School:
I am concerned a teacher can provide quality instruction in the present academic environment; a situation that includes overcrowded classroom, students with diverse academic abilities, and complex social and emotional dynamics. Is it fair to expect one teacher to effectively reach all of these students in one classroom?

Judy Elliott:
This truly not a special education issue rather an all kids issue. THrough empirically based methodologies, use of small and large group instruction, grouping strategies and the like good instruction can be delivered to a diverse group of students.

Perhaps rethinking the current allocation of school site resources needs to be done in order to see where other additional support could come from.

Susan Ansell, Education Week (Moderator):
Some people have asked about ways to prepare general educators to teach the special education students now in their classroom. Education Week’s policy survey found that only 14 states and the District of Columbia require general educators to complete one or more courses in special education to earn an initial teaching license, and only nine states require them to complete preservice training related to special education. Five states require general educators to complete both coursework and a preservice training requirement.

Question from Diane McIntyre, parent:
I don’t understand all the hoopla about testing since IDEA'97 mandated testing of all students or developing alternate assessments for those students with severe congitive deficts. Most of the time, standardised testing meant the SAT-9 or in the case of a few states, like NY, the Regents.

The only aspect of NCLB is that states and local districts must now test and show gains-- which ESEA and Title One addressed long ago--and for students with disabilities became law with Final Implementing Regulations in 1999.

Why has the federal government allowed states to accept federal monies over these past seven years without monitoring for compliance?

NCLB would not be a political and educational hot potato had the states done their job, and the feds, too.

Christine Wolfe:
IDEA required assessments, NCLB puts accountability into place. The Department did evaluate all state assessment programs as the were approved in 2000-01, and held them accountable for meeting the testing requirements. For example, in 2003 we placed special conditions on state IDEA funds for 27 states that didn’t have an alternate assesment in place. The Department, under NCLB and the new accountability requirements, will monitor state implementation of accoutability systems to ensure they include all students.

Question from Patricia Single, Teacher, White Lake Middle School:
I teach in a self contained classroom for the Severely Emotionally Impaired. The IEP goals defined for my students are behvioral. Which is the higher priority; that my students master geometry, or function appropriately in society? How does standardized testing required by NCLB address realistic goals for my students?

Rachel Quenemoen:
In most states, content standards have been defined in the context of what all children need to function appropriately in society. In our society, and in our economy, academic skills are generally emphasized as essential survival skills. But all children also need a broader range of the so-called soft skills to be successful, and some children with disabilities need specific instruction in these areas to be successful. The balancing act of determining how to make time, how to find strategies to get these done is a challenge. Perhaps the most difficult challenge facing IEP teams is that of choosing among competing priorities, all of them important! I have seen schools that have found ways to integrate behavioral supports with rich and rigorous academic learning, sometimes in nontraditional settings such as service learning, work-based learning, community settings. But the challenging content assessed in state accountability tests can not be overlooked as essential skills for a student’s future.

Question from Laura Opper science teacher Broken Arrow,Ok public schools:
What kind of assistance will the regular ed. classroom teacher recieve so that we may properly serve the mentally retarded students that may be mainstreamed into our classes so that they show the amount of improvement required by the law?

Christine Wolfe:
NCLB provides significant funding for professional devleopment- doubled since 2001. This professional development should be tailored to a school’s test results- data based- to ensure that teachers receive the tools they need to improve student achievement. IDEA also provides significant funds. Funds available aren’t restricted to either special education teachers and general education teachers. This provides many opportunities for collaboration, sharing what works.

Question from Lisa Matzenbach, Mother, Larson Middle School-Troy, MI:
My 12 year old daughter is labled Cognitively Impaired and has never been part of standardized testing or alternative testing. I was told by school personal yesterday that the new federal law does not require all children be tested. This information seems to contridict articles I have read, can you please clarify things.


Lisa Matzenbach

Rachel Quenemoen:
I would encourage you to contact your state or area parent advocacy organization. They can help you sort out what is happening. You can find a listing of those organizations at That information contradicts articles I have read as well, so you could also print out some articles and bring them to the school, to continue the conversation.

Question from w nolan ceo kencrest centers pennsylvania:
what are the plans for dissemination of best practices - or more detailed information. for example the north carolina project just mentioned?

Christine Wolfe:
I am not sure which NC example you are referring to, but NCEO is a great source of information about best practices (Rachel’s organization). In addition, we anticipate releasing guidance in near future on the assessment of students with disabilities and NCLB requirements.

Question from Stephanie Cawthon, Researcher in Standards-Based Reform in Deaf Education:
In much of the discussion surrounding this issue, I’ve seen a offense/defense dynamic between officals and the teachers in the field. In addition to the explanations and consolations you provide here, what concerns do you think are valid and warrant further investigation?

Judy Elliott:
Not sure I follow your question. I will take a stab at it this way. I believe we do a lot of admiring the problem with this law. Instead of direct problem solving after an initial baseline evaluation of where things are at.

Teachers need more help in differentaiting instruction, for example, this is an all teachers issue. LEt;s work to pull together district and site efforts that provide teachers training or materials to help in that.

ALl folks said they wouldnt make AYP if ELL and Std with Dis were included. We didnt find that here. INstead for the past several years, we have been hammering away at good instruction.

Anything that is of concern, one could argue needs further investigation. It may be a law but there are folks who will offer malicious compliance. We need to dig deep and listen to the issues and proactively and aggressively support teachers in what they need to teach all kids.

Question from Diana Kellner, graduate student, University of Denver:
What are your organization’s recommendations re needed changes in 1) teacher development and 2) curriculum and instruction to meet the needs of students having learning differences and to meet the demands of NCLB?

Judy Elliott:
We dont really have any. This is due to the fact we have had our eye on the target of closing the achievement gap and providing quality instruction to all kids for many years.

Our professional and staff developement is for all teachers, both general and special education. We have a really solid prof devt and curric for kids.

Question from Bonnie Brown, Deputy Superintendent D.75, New York City Department of education:
In large urban school districts that have thousands of students in alternate assessment, how do we ensure consistency in meeting alternate performance indicators as datafolios, tapes, photographs are open to subjective interpretation?

Rachel Quenemoen:
Alternate assessments for students who have been previously excluded from large-scale assessment systems as “unable to be assessed” certainly has raised new issues about what standardized tests look like! Fortunately, many researchers, test developers, state policymakers, and stakeholders are working together to ensure that we can get good information from alternate assessments on alternate achievement standards. States using portfolio assessments generally work with test contractors with experience in managing rubric scoring, and in training scorers to apply the rubrics consistently. They manage the process to monitor quality throughout, and produce a report to document the process. This is one step in a rigorous process of design and implementation of alternate assessment - you can find a great deal of information on the topic at our website,, and click on the alternate assessment link.

Susan Ansell, Education Week (Moderator):
A chat participant asked about recruitment and retention incentives available to special education teachers. Quality Counts found that 26 states make recruitment incentives available to special education teachers (mostly in the form of tuition reimbursement or stipends) and eight states have retention incentives in place to retain veteran special education teachers.

Question from Dr. Rebecca Feaster, Director of Special Education, Dakota Wesleyan University:
Will special education teachers at the secondary level be considered “Highly Qualified” in the content areas they are expected to teach in a resource room setting? For example, a resource math class taught by the special education teacher.

Christine Wolfe:
NCLB requires all teachers to demonstrate compentency in each subject they teach. Title I resource room teachers, and special education resource room teachers, would need to meet the highly qualified requirements in each core academic subject that they teach. However, special education teachers can work with general education teachers-- if a special education teacher is only helping adapt core content that a child is rececing from a regular, highly qualified teacher, that special education teacher would not have to demonstrate content matter mastery.

Question from Dr. Sally Wixson, parent, New Jersey:
My question for the panel deals with the “Reading First” portion of the No Child Left Behind Act and its incorporation into the public schools. Does the panel think that more widespread use of evidence-based reading programs in the public schools would enhance the performance of all students, including special education students, on standardized testing? Thank you!

Judy Elliott:
Absolutely! Emprically based reading programs that are progress monitored with data!

Question from Deborah Owens,Student,Loyola University:
There has been an increase in the number of school districts that find that the NCLB Act has mandated requirements that are “unfair”. There have also been reports that school districts have refused to accept the funding. First, does this refusal of funds free these Districts from following the requirements of the law? Second, if these numbers increase, how will this effect future implementation of the plan?

Christine Wolfe:
NCLB requires states to set up a statewide accountability sytem for all schools. AYP applies to all public schools and districts regardless of receipt of Title I funds. Only the sanctions specified in the law for Title I schools are tied to federal funds. So, in short, districts cannot opt out of AYP.

Question from Judy Baarck, supervisor, High Point Schools:
How do you address what students have learned if they are emotionally disturbed and refuse to take the test?

Judy Elliott:
This is a tough reality. Having taught these kids for several years I know that you cannot force any student to take a test. Rather I backed up and looked at why kids refuse. If teachers dont believe in the test, kids dont either. If we dont excited about testing and the importance of it, kids dont either. If kids have not been adequately prepared or taught what they need to (the access to curric issue) they resist.

There are some great resources out there to work with resistant kids to talk them through the overall testing issue.

And, it never hurts to have a great reward on the other end of the effort of the student who attempts the test. After all teaching these kids is all about working with contingencies bec in the end these kids are quite capable.

Question from Courtney Zmach, Doctoral Fellow, University of Florida:
There is an apparent lack of information available for States to follow when formulating their accountability plans, particularly in the area of SWD. What measures are being taken to assist States’ DOEs in this process? Is there a State that is being used as a model?

Christine Wolfe:
We have worked individually with each state- we have staff assigned to each state. There is a significant amount of flexibility for states to tailor their systems so there is a good bit of variation. Every state has an approved accountability plan for NCLB as of June. In addition, we will be developing additional guidance on the issue of students with disabilities and state assessments.

Question from Patricia Northrup, Prevention Coordinator at Nathaniel Rochester Community School:
As a educator and a parent of five children (my oldest has a learning disability), I worry that tests are becoming our way of judging whether no child is left behind in education. I would like to know your ideas on other ways to measure success for special education students.

Rachel Quenemoen:
With all the publicity around the testing provisions of NCLB, we sometimes overlook the important work being done in accountability at the local, state, and national levels in research, policy and practice. We have a wealth of educational research ongoing, demonstrating best practice in the teaching of all subject areas and all students! We know a lot about what works. We also have a variety of ways to assess what students know, and how they know it, in order to ensure we are using teaching strategies that are effective for each child. The Office of Special Education Programs has just funded two new centers to look at varied approaches to what is called “Progress Monitoring,” one that will provide Technical assistance to states and districts, and the other that will conduct research on progress monitoring tools and uses. Watch the OSEP web site for links to their web site - those centers will be great resources as we look at the complex issues of measuring performance of all children, and using the data to ensure success in a standards-based system. We will have links to their centers on our web site, as the links become operational.

Question from Chat Guest:
Do the framers of this proposal really believe that there does not exist a somewhat large subset of children that will fail no matter what schools do? Do they no understand the biological and social circumstances that are impossible to overcome? And to what extent are schools expected to let the capable students flounder in mediocrity as we pull our resources and time to help these failing students?

Judy Elliott:
My glass is always half full. I dont buy in to the impossibility of anything especially when it comes to our children and youth.

As a parent, would you want or stand for someone telling you your child does not count or is less eligible for good instruction bec the school must attend to the more capable?

I would think not.

Itis time for schools to review and revamp current allocations or revaluate what they are about in order to provide teachers the means they need to teach all kids.

Remember, this is NOT a student issue. Smart, resourceful adults are in charge.

Susan Ansell, Education Week (Moderator):
I just want to note that, according to federal data, 2/3 of special education students have specific learning disabilities or speech or language impairments. Fewer than 12 percent have disabilities such as mental retardation associated with significant cognitive impairments.

Question from L Sterling - Education Specialist:
I have some concerns pertaining to how parents are being made aware of the implications of NCLB . Parents, who have often been the driving force in special education reform, need to have an understanding of the legislation and more specifically how it will impact their children. Can anyone speak about how this is happening either on a local level or nationally? Thank you

Christine Wolfe:
One of the significant changes of NCLB is the amount of information that is now required to be sent to parents, or to be made available to them. Speaking from the federal level, we have developed a parent friedly website,, where we have user-friendly information about the law. We will be releasing in the near future guidance about the parental invovlement requirements in NCLB. Furthermore, when we reviewed state accountability plans we ensured that district and state report cards were in place, and have been and will continue to monitor the implementation of the notification requirements.

Susan Ansell, Education Week (Moderator):
I’d also like to add that many states are beginning to include information about special education students on district and school report cards in an effort to better inform parents about the education being provided their child. For example, Quality Counts found that this school year, 42 states and the District of Columbia are reporting information on the performance of students with disabilites separately from such performance information for general education students on school or district report cards. In addition, 35 states and D.C. include information on the number of percent of students with disabilities who participated in state tests on school or district report cards.

Question from Crystal Ott, sped undergrad, Ohio state university:
Why does no one address the fact that st. w/ moderate-severe disabilities do NOT have access to the general ed curriculum? This is the heart of this issue- if students are not given access to the curriculum, how are they ever supposed to be proficient?

Judy Elliott:
Go Crystal go. In Long Beach our students with mod-severe disabilies do have access to the state standards on which our Alternate assessment is based.

As appropriate kids are included or mainstreamed into gen ed classes. Still they may not learn all of the gen ed curr but rather work side by side with peers, but on standards that are reflective of what they should know and be able to do. Kids do work toward and become proficient in areas that they are taught!

Susan Ansell, Education Week (Moderator):
Ensuring access to the general education curriculum is indeed a problem. Our teacher poll found, however, that the majority of special education teachers think the curriculum for special education students is more demanding and more similar to the curriculum for general education students than it was three years ago. But fewer general education teachers have noticed such a change.

Question from crystal ott, sped undergrad, ohio state university:
Here in ohio, i have seen the “alternate assessment” for students with severe disabilities. It consists of the sped teacher deciding what skill he/she will assess and then assessing it. Last quarter, I witnessed a sixth grader be “assessed” on his ability to put napkins on a table. This child has CP, is blind and uses a wheelchair. How will this “assessment” demonstrate his proficiency and what will happen to him when he becomes an adult?

Rachel Quenemoen:
Every child has a right to access and make progress in the challenging content expected for all children. The connection between the academic content standards and the ‘extended standards’ that serve as access points for students with severe disabilities can be tenuous in implementation. States have provided guidance to teachers, and intensive training is generally needed to build teacher skills, especially if teachers have not been teaching academically based content in the past. There are two research projects currently studying alignment of alternate assessments on alternate achievement standards to the state content standards. Jerry Tindal of the University of Oregon and Diane Browder of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte are two researchers who are working in this area. I would encourage you as a special education undergraduate to follow their work.

Question from -attorney, author, advocate:
The Supreme Court “Rowley” standard is currently “some educational benefit,” which is defined by the schools as “any benefit”. If you do not change this patheticly inadequate standard, and parents to not have the right to demand a higher standard for their child, what good is sending a school a letter saying it is doing a bad job going to do?

Christine Wolfe:
NCLB requires states to hold all students to high standards, including students with disabilities. Our expectation is that when a school or district finds that they are not meeting AYP they will focus their attention on raising student achievement. One of the consequences of public reporting is that schools will be encouraged by their communities to focus their attention on students who need the most help.

Question from Dr. Betty Herron, Associate Professor, Cumberland College, Williamsburg, KY:
How realistic is it to expect special education teachers to have content certification, in all areas of content taught at the middle school and high school given the array of subject content areas and levels and given the expense of adding such certifications besides the special education?

Judy Elliott:
It isnt. This issue is one of certification boards and university programs that are not aligned with the reality of what schools and districts are dealing with.

The law is clear that if you teach a content area, eg High SChool Algebra, you must be content certified. That works for me. Therefore Special edcuation teachers will need to be certified in order to grant credit etc.

The other way to look at this is to see it as an opportunity to evaluate and revamp current services and programs for students with disa. Part of the problem is that special education teachers have been responsible for providing all content to all kids. That being a herculean effort, kids dont get exposed to all the gen ed kids do.

Departmentalization for ex, is one thing to look at.

Question from Joan Eggert parent Madison, WI:
Maybe not all special education programs are more expensive, but in Madison, WI in 1995 we had 5 students with autism. We now have over 200 and two years ago the average cost per child was $50,000. This is an excellent school district for kids with autism because of the resources we have. What happens to a district that truly invites kids with special needs?

Judy Elliott:
I am with you on this one. Nothing happens to districts like this except they stay true to their mission to serve all kids and work to make them productive citizens, special education or not.

Question from Jane Falls Storms, Ed Consultant, Western Regional Resource Center:
There seems to be confusion about the 1% ruling. An earlier question talked about “ if a county can only test up to 1% of their students off-grade”. Would you please clarify the 1% ruling which allows for 1% the students to take alternate tests based on alternate standards. How does off grade (or out of level testing) fit with the 1%?

Christine Wolfe:
The regulation doesn’t limit the number of students that can be tested based on alternate achievement standards. It only limits the number of scores that may be included as proficient scores for purposes of calcualting AYP. For more information about the regulation and the use of assessments based on alternate achievement standards, including out of level assesments, please see the appendix to the regulation. This includes many answers to “frequently asked questions.”

Question from Karran Harper Royal, Parent:
Considering students with disabilities can continue in school through their 21st birthday, shouldn’t we re-examine that age limit now that we expect those students to reach proficiency. Previously, many of these students were not taught the same material as general education students. They probably will need more time in school to accomplish this goal.

Judy Elliott:
I dont know many students who in fact stay til 21. I dont believe raising that age limit will be to anyone’s benefit.

Remember at this age, students need to be involved in discussing and making decisions about their future.

Not many take advantage of the current age except perhaps those in vocational or community based programs. But by then they are working toward proficiency in job skills.

Question from Karen Crisp, Special Ed & Federal Programs:
In order to be “Highly qualified”, why does a Special education teacher have to be tested or certified in all academic areas she/he teaches in the Junior-Senior High Level if that person has a Masters in Special Education and has elementary certification. Our students are included in general education if they are high achieving and are with us to master basic concepts. After all the special education conferences/seminars/classes, this seems an unnecessary burden beyond the requirements for “highly qualified.”

Christine Wolfe:
The law requires all teachers of core acadmic subjects to demonstrate comptency in the subjects they teach. The reason for this is that these students are expected to meet state standards for proficiency in those subjects (unless they are students with the most significant cognitive disabilities)

States have flexibility in how they develop tests to measure the compentency of these teachers.

Question from Sharlene Hammond, Grandmother of twins w/cerebral palsy:
To;Rachel Quenemoen, how would you teach a child, 7 years, who cannot use his hands and has vision problems and some speech problems? He is alert, responsive, curious and ready to read and can spell audibly.

Rachel Quenemoen:
It sounds as if you have an eager learner there! I am reluctant to make recommendations without knowing the child, but I can encourage you to work with the school to be sure that the boy’s IEP team has access to people who understand how assistive technology can help him be successful, how his learning needs can be accommodated given his vision and speech. It is important to know what skills and knowledge all children should know for his grade/same age peers - and then build a plan that ensures he can access that same content, while building his basic skills in areas where he needs additional support. I wish you well!

Susan Ansell, Education Week (Moderator):
I would like to thank our three guests as well as our audience for being a part of today’s chat. Part of the reason we publish Quality Counts each year is to spark discussion and debate among members of the education community on a timely topic and these interactive chats are an important way to do that. We received so many questions today-I wish we could have gotten to more of them. The Department of Education has asked us to forward them any uanswered questions related to federal policy, which they will look at as they work to develop guidance. I encourage anyone interested in the topic of special education to explore our Quality Counts 2004 report “Count Me In: Special Education in an Era of Standards” which is available on Education Week’s website ( A transcript of this chat will be posted there shortly as well. In addition, the National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) website has a host of information on testing and accountability for students with disabilities. ( Thank you all again for your participation.

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