The proposal to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that unanimously cleared the U.S. Senate education committee includes elements that please both advocates for students with disabilities and advocates for gifted students—including a cap on the number of students who can take lower-level state assessments and be counted as proficient, and an explicit focus on using federal funds to train teachers in best practices in gifted education.
But as the bill approved April 16 heads to the Senate floor, advocates say some issues continue to be a concern, such as a lack of subgroup accountability in the proposal. Reporting on the test scores of students with disabilities has allowed schools and districts to focus more closely on lagging performance, many special education groups believe.
The ESEA exists to level the playing field and to close gaps between student groups, said Denise Marshall, the executive director of the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, based in Baltimore. “We can’t imagine moving forward on a bill that moves back on that promise,” she said.
Those concerns suggest that when the bill comes up for a full Senate vote, there may be more fireworks than were seen in the largely drama-free markup session in mid-April, where many amendments were offered but withdrawn to allow the bill to move forward without getting held up by partisan debate.
A Focus on the Gifted
Jane Clarenbach, the director of public policy for the National Association for Gifted Children, in Washington, said the organization was particularly gratified to see the needs of gifted and talented youths addressed in the proposed bill. The Senate proposal includes these elements for gifted education:
• States would have to break out student performance by subgroup at each proficiency level. By doing so, advocates hope to use that information to draw attention to what is being called an “excellence gap": certain racial groups, students with disabilities, and students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches who are underrepresented among the highest levels of achievement.
• The portion of the bill that focuses on improving teacher quality would allow the use of federal funds to train teachers in the best ways to teach gifted students, including students of high ability who have not been formally identified.
• Districts receiving Title I funds would be authorized to report how they plan to use that money, which aids low-income students, to identify and teach gifted students.
• An amendment to the bill would continue authorizing the, which funds research into best practices in gifted education, with a focus on underrepresented students. That amendment was brought forward by retiring Sen. Barbara Mikulski, a Democrat from Maryland. The amendment does not set aside a certain amount of funding for the program, but it would ensure its continued existence.
All the changes would amount to a significant boost for gifted students, particularly those from underrepresented groups, Ms. Clarenbach said. The Title I change would allow schools to explicitly note that there are high-achieving children in Title I schools who have needs that should be met. And the state reporting changes “give us an opportunity to have a lot of conversations that are hard to have otherwise,” Ms. Clarenbach said. “When you have data, you can go to an official and start talking.”
For students in special education, the bill offers changes that some advocates were looking for. But it is also notable for what it leaves unchanged.
For example, under the current version of the ESEA, the No Child Left Behind Act, there is a 1 percent cap on the number of students who can take alternate assessments and be counted as proficient. That’s equivalent to about 10 percent of students with disabilities.
An earlier version of the bill would have lifted the cap, but disability organizations fought hard against that change. They argued that to remove the cap would lead to lower standards for students with disabilities. But that stance put some organizations in opposition to a group of parents and teachers who believe that standardized testing has not served students in special education well.
“There’s definitely a faction for whom the taking of those tests is so onerous that they would rather get rid of them rather than deal with the benefits they confer,” said Ms. Marshall.
Parents could take advantage of an amendment added to the bill by Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., that clarifies that states and districts cannot stop a parent from opting their child out of state tests.
The bill also states that students who take alternate assessments cannot be stopped from attempting to get a standard diploma. Often, students get locked into an alternative track early in their school careers, Ms. Marshall said.
Another volatile issue—Title I “portability,” or allowing federal money for disadvantaged students to follow a student to the public school of his or her choice—is likely to emerge in a floor debate on the ESEA rewrite measure.
Amendments that would have opened the door to such flexibility, including one from Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., never made it into the bill approved by the education committee. But Sen. Scott intends to offer his amendment again if the bill comes up before the full Senate, and Sen. Alexander has said he would support such a change. The idea is opposed by groups including the National Association of State Directors of Special Education, in Alexandria, Va.
Sen. Bill Cassidy, a Republican from Louisiana, also offered multiple amendments on the issue of dyslexia, one of which would have allowed schools to use federal funds to train teachers in best practices in identifying and educating students with specific learning disabilities. About 40 percent of the students covered under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act have a specific learning disability. The amendment failed, amid concerns that it singled out a particular group of students, those with dyslexia, for special treatment.
“I think it gives the impression, whether it’s intended or not, that students with certain types of learning disabilities have more pressing needs than other students with disabilities,” said Barbara R. Trader, the executive director of TASH, a Washington-based support and advocacy group for people with intellectual disabilities.
The proposed bill also would require states to adopt policies to prevent unnecessary use of restraint and seclusion in schools. The restraint-and-seclusion amendment was brought forward by Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut. It would require state departments of education to develop plans to protect students from abuse, and would prohibit aversive interventions that compromise students’ safety, or any “physical restraint for seclusion imposed solely for purposes of discipline or convenience.”
Ms. Marshall said her organization would have liked to see stronger language, but said that the amendment gives the federal government more power to oversee state efforts around restraint-and-seclusion prevention.
A version of this article appeared in the May 06, 2015 edition of Education Week as Advocates for Special Ed., Gifted Weigh Details in ESEA Rewrite Bill