Special Education

No Child Left Behind Waivers Leave Behind Students With Disabilities

By Nirvi Shah — December 22, 2011 3 min read
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What concerns the National Center for Learning Disabilities and other groups about the applications 11 states filed with the Education Department seeking waivers from the No Child Left Behind law?

What they don’t say.

In a letter to federal Education Secretary Arne Duncan this week, NCLD Executive Director James Wendorf writes that the department’s flexibility amounts to a trade off, with students with disabilities on the losing end of the swap.

Many groups that advocate for students with disabilities, including NCLD, heralded the No Child Left Behind law for finally holding schools accountable for these students.

But with the waivers, “important reforms such as college and career ready standards, higher quality assessments ... and a focus on sound teacher and principal evaluation systems are being driven by the department’s guidelines for states seeking flexibility. Unfortunately, these reforms are being exchanged for a significant departure from accountability for achievement by all schools and for all students,” he wrote.

Their concerns are reflected in a story earlier this month, in which my colleague Michele McNeil reviewed the applications and found that “a hallmark of the law—the emphasis on traditional subgroups of at-risk students, such as minority children, those with special needs, and English-language learners—would be scaled back.”

In addition, NCLD took issue with the lack of detail in the applications about how states would phase out alternate exams taken by some students with disabilities, the so-called 2 percent exams. These alternate tests, which measure grade level work but are modified to have fewer questions or ask them more simply, can alter a student’s ability to take certain classes or even graduate with a standard diploma, in some cases, and the administration had indicated a move away from these tests when NCLB is rewritten. However, five states that give the exams—Georgia, Indiana, Minnesota, Oklahoma and Tennessee—didn’t explain how they would taper off use of these tests in their applications, Mr. Wendorf said.

The group also took issue with the applications’ lack of attention to professional development for teachers and the lack of specificity about special educators in teacher and principal evaluation and support systems.

But NCLD’s greatest problem was with the stark lack of accountability for student subgroups the flexibility could provide.

They cited Kentucky as an example of a state where it would be highly unlikely that the performance of students with disabilities and other groups of students—based on race, income, and so forth—would ever be looked at closely again because of the way the state wrote its application.

“NCLD remains disappointed,” Mr. Wendorf wrote, “that the department has sought to trade away the focus on accountability in exchange for flexibility rather than reforming what has made the difference for students with disabilities over the past decade.”

This afternoon, the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities chimed in with other concerns about the waivers and the waiver process. Their letter, which includes about 20 endorsements including from Easter Seals and the National PTA, complains that parents didn’t have nearly enough time to review states’ applications before they were submitted. States gave stakeholders no more than two weeks (some gave less) to weigh in on complex applications that are in some cases hundreds of pages long.

They echoed NCLD’s concerns about alternate tests based on grade-level standards, and the group worried that students with severe cognitive disabilities who take another alternate exam, based on alternate standards, would be left out of the accountability picture altogether.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act “requires that all students with disabilities be included in State and district-wide assessment programs,” the group pointed out. “To leave students with disabilities being assessed by [the alternate assessment based on alternate standards] out of the growth component of the assessment and accountability program would be a violation of IDEA.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the On Special Education blog.