Special Education

Advocates for Students With Disabilities Balk at Proposed NCLB Changes

By Christina A. Samuels — July 06, 2007 8 min read
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As Congress wrestles with reauthorizing the 5½-year-old No Child Left Behind Act, some disability-rights advocates fear high standards for students with disabilities could be sacrificed as states seek more flexibility in the law.

Some education groups, as well as lawmakers, have called for more choice in how states can administer the law’s accountability provisions, including greater power for school-based teams to decide what type of assessment a student receiving special education services should take.

That’s a step away from grade-level achievement as a goal for all students, said James H. Wendorf, the executive director of the National Center for Learning Disabilities, a New York City-based group that works to provide opportunities for children and adults with learning disabilities. The law needs tweaks, not wholesale changes to its ambitious achievement goals, he believes.

Mr. Wendorf’s group advocates on behalf of the largest group of children served under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the federal law that mandates special education services for some 6.6 million students nationwide. Students with “specific learning disabilities” account for nearly half the students covered under the law.

“No Child Left Behind has put some real teeth in the IDEA,” Mr. Wendorf said. “It’s given parents some information they wanted desperately, and some information that they didn’t know how much they needed until it was being provided to them.”

The federal law requires schools and districts to report the academic progress of students with disabilities, along with other subgroups of students, such as those in low-income families and those who are learning English. The performance of such subgroups on annual tests in reading and mathematics helps determine whether their schools have made adequate yearly progress toward proficiency for all students, as required under the law.

The reporting provision has forced administrators to pay attention to a group of students that is too often ignored, disability-rights advocates contend. They point to studies that show that students with disabilities, even those with cognitive impairments, can achieve at higher-than-expected levels when teachers hold them to grade-level standards.

As disability-rights advocates lobby federal lawmakers, their focus has been on maintaining what they see as the strong standards of the law, while allowing schools to get credit for a student’s academic growth towards proficiency, even if the student occasionally falls short of a particular benchmark.

Hearing ‘Frustration’

For instance, the National Center for Learning Disabilities recently released two reports that outline the progress students with disabilities have made under the No Child Left Behind law, as well as the challenges that remain.

The group says that Congress should maintain the requirements for schools to make adequate yearly progress, or AYP; that all schools should be required to report the performance all student subgroups 20 students or more (current rules allow for a larger minimum); and that students should not be subject to repeated retesting for the purpose of determining AYP. Those recommendations would maintain or tighten existing rules for districts and states.

At the same time, the center supports allowing a “growth model” factor to be a part of No Child Left Behind’s accountability rules. Growth models allow schools to receive credit for improving individual students’ academic performance over time.

The Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities—a coalition of 100 groups, including the Council for Exceptional Children, the Easter Seals, and the National Disability Rights Network—stresses in its NCLB recommendations that “all students with disabilities are general education students first,” and argues that the law “must continue to build on IDEA’s strengths by promoting a learning environment in which all children are expected to become proficient on grade-level content and states, school districts, and schools are accountable for their achievement.”

Advocacy groups have also been calling on legislators to counter what they believe are negative impressions of the No Child Left Behind law, which passed Congress with big, bipartisan majorities in late 2001 but has encountered a host of criticisms during its implementation. Several new members of Congress are serving on the House Education and Labor Committee, and those members may be hearing from their school districts that assessment of special education students is a problem, advocates believe.

“I think they’re hearing a lot of frustration from schools that don’t have the capacity to do what they need to be doing,” said Jane E. West, the vice president for government relations for the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, in Washington, and a co-chairwoman of the consortium’s task force on education.

But states already have a tremendous amount of flexibility under the law, said Laura W. Kaloi, another co-chairwoman of the consortium and the public-policy director for the National Center for Learning Disabilities. She noted that under current testing rules, 1 percent of all students, which is equivalent to about 10 percent of students with disabilities, can be counted as proficient when they pass a test specially designed for students with severe cognitive disabilities.

Another 2 percent of all students, equal to about 20 percent of students with disabilities, can be counted as proficient when they take alternate assessments based on modified, but grade-level, academic standards. Those tests can have fewer questions, fewer choices in a multiple-choice section, and require a lower level of reading skill.

In addition, schools can meet AYP under so-called “safe harbor” provisions, which permit schools to make adequate progress as long as there were more students who maintained or moved up to proficiency in the current school year than in the prior school year. And, some schools don’t have to achieve AYP in the subgroup of students in special education because the state has a large minimum subgroup size.

“To say that we need more flexibility—to me, it doesn’t pass the laugh test,” Ms. Kaloi said.

Fear of Flexibility

Other education groups, however, including the National School Boards Association, the American Association of School Administrators, and the National Education Association, have banded together to argue for just that.

A move for greater flexibility acknowledges that special education students are a heterogeneous group of individuals that should be tested at their academic-performance level, those groups contend. Even with the flexibility allowed under the “1 percent” and “2 percent” tests, the federal Department of Education has stood firm against testing students with disabilities out of their grade levels, such as giving a 2nd grade reading test to a student in 6th grade. Groups including the NSBA and the AASA find that stance restrictive.

“They need to be assessed by an instrument that meets them where they are,” said Bruce Hunter, the associate executive director for public policy for the Arlington, Va.-based AASA. “You start with an assessment that isn’t built around group norms, and isn’t built around groups.”

The groups are also calling for an end to the 1 percent and 2 percent caps. “Students with disabilities should be assessed as determined by their Individualized Education Program team and not subjected to arbitrary caps,” said a group statement. The IEP team is required under the special education law to determine the services eligible children must receive. Such groups at the school levels are most often made up of parents, teachers, and administrators.

Reginald M. Felton, the director of federal relations for the Alexandria, Va.-based school boards’ association, said he understands the fears of advocates for students with disabilities. But, he said, the law requires valid and reliable assessments, and for some students with disabilities, grade-level tests don’t yield valid results.

“When we reauthorized the IDEA, we talked about the power and the relevancy of the IEP team,” Mr. Felton said. “That’s the group we should be empowering.”

But Bill East, the executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Special Education, also based in Alexandria, said IEP-driven assessments have never worked. Instead, he contended, they’ve allowed a different, lower standard to exist for students with disabilities.

“We’ve had 30 years of experience using the IEP as an accountability measure. It has failed miserably,” he said.

Predictions vary on how members of Congress eventually may handle the issue of accountability and students in special education under the NCLB law, whose reauthorization is due this year but could be delayed.

“NCLB really shifted the default [for students with disabilities], and no one wants to shift it back,” said Scott R. Palmer, a lawyer with the Washington law firm Holland & Knight and a consultant on special education to the Council of Chief State School Officers. Students receiving special education services are performing at higher and higher levels.

But when it comes to accountability, “this is an area where I don’t think we have the best answers yet,” he said. “The best practice is still evolving.”

Others remain concerned that the revised law will allow too much leeway.

“I’m very afraid we’re going to have more flexibility than we think the public schools either should have or deserve,” said Jamie Ruppmann, the associate director of The Advocacy Institute, a disability-rights group in Marshall, Va., that has lobbied Congress along with other organizations.

“This is so important,” Ms. Ruppmann said. “They’re saying they shouldn’t be held accountable for educating our children. Who but our kids would anybody say that about?”

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