Special Report
Every Student Succeeds Act

Special Education Groups Push for ESSA Representation

Advocates for those with disabilities push to ensure the interests of such students are well-represented in state plans.
By Christina A. Samuels — December 30, 2016 3 min read

Organizations for students with disabilities are working to make sure those students’ interests are represented in the federal accountability plans being mandated under the Every Student Succeeds Act.

But the process is, so far, a “patchwork quilt” as states craft those plans for submission later in 2017, said Kim Hymes, the director of federal relations, public policy, and advocacy for the National Center for Learning Disabilities.

“Some states are engaging with the disability community in a good-faith effort,” Hymes said. For others, the outreach efforts are more along the lines of seeking approval of drafts that have already been developed, she said.

The new federal K-12 law requires states to involve the public and representatives of a wide range of the education community as state officials put together their accountability plans—a process that has proved complex in many states.

Hymes mentioned Delaware and New York as examples of states where a coalition of civil rights organizations, including groups representing students with disabilities, banded together to support a common set of principles as those states created their draft plans.

“Advocates from our community have really been vocal about wanting to be involved,” she said.

Striking a Balance

Though ESSA is seen as returning a big share of power over key areas of K-12 policy to state educators from the federal government, several policies for students with disabilities remain from its predecessor, the No Child Left Behind Act.

For example, states still must separate and report the performance of students with disabilities on state tests, and those tests—in reading and math—must still be given in grades 3-8 and once in high school.

ESSA places a 1 percent cap on the percentage of all students who can take alternate assessments. That equates to about 10 percent of students with disabilities. Such alternate assessments are intended for students with severe cognitive disabilities. Taking an alternate assessment should not preclude a student from attempting to get a regular high school diploma, the law says. Under the NCLB law, there was no limit on the number of students who could take alternate assessments, but only 1 percent were allowed to be counted as “proficient” under the former law’s accountability regulations.

The law also requires the U.S. Department of Education to create “a comprehensive center on students at risk of not attaining full literacy skills due to a disability” such as dyslexia. In October 2016, the University of Oregon was awarded a grant to create that center.

One State’s Perspective

In Georgia, the state is using this opportunity to align its work on students who have different needs, including students with disabilities, said Deborah Gay, the state’s deputy superintendent for federal programs and special education.

That means guiding districts to think about how they can use Title I funds, Title III funds for English-language learners, and special education funds provided through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act “in a consolidated way,” Gay said.

The state has held eight regional outreach meetings and has several work groups focusing on state accountability plans, including a work group tasked with improving education for students with disabilities.

One important goal has been to align the state accountability plan with a federally-driven special education reform effort that predates ESSA.

The “Results Driven Accountability” effort, which started in 2014 and is led by the federal office of special education programs, is attempting to steer states toward focusing on student outcomes in addition to compliance with the more technical aspects of the special education law.

As part of that, states have to submit “systemic improvement plans” for special education to the Education Department. It’s important to make sure that plans fit with the broader accountability measures called for in ESSA.

“One of our big goals is to have this overarching plan, so that our school districts are not splintered as to their resources,” Gay said.

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