Special Education

Officials Detail NCLB Test Flexibility for Students With Disabilities

By Christina A. Samuels — May 10, 2005 3 min read
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States can start taking advantage of flexibility under the No Child Left Behind Act for some of their special education students this school year, but they will have to clear several hurdles to do so, the U.S. Department of Education announced May 10.

Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings at her Senate confirmation hearing.

In April, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings announced that 2 percent of students in special education who have “persistent academic disabilities” could be tested using modified assessments. The result, for some states, is that more of their students who are in special education will be deemed proficient under NCLB standards.

The Education Department already allows 1 percent of students with “severe cognitive disabilities” to be counted as proficient even if they take alternative assessments that are below grade level. The additional 2 percent is intended to allow for students who, even with the best instruction, still cannot meet grade-level standards, Secretary Spellings has said.

“I believe that this is a smarter, better way to educate our special education students,” Ms. Spellings said May 10 in a teleconference with reporters.

The short-term option, to be used until the Education Department comes out with final rules in the fall, will allow states to adjust to adjust their adequate-yearly-progress, or AYP, goals for the 2005-06 school year. However, to receive the flexibility, states will have to meet several conditions: They must test at least 95 percent of their students with disabilities; put in place appropriate accommodations for students with disabilities; and make available alternative assessments in language arts and mathematics for students with disabilities who are unable to take the regular tests, even with accommodations.

Also, the minimum number of students required to be measured for AYP purposes, or “N-size,” must be the same for special education students as for students in other subgroups.

In addition, states will have to provide details on their plans to improve achievement for students with disabilities.

The Education Department plans to allocate $14 million in technical assistance to the states in the next few weeks so that they can start developing plans to create tests for such students, help teachers with instruction, and conduct research. Additional money will be released in the future.

Final regulations for the policy are scheduled to be issued by the fall, said Troy R. Justesen, the acting deputy assistant secretary for the Education Department’s office of special education and rehabilitative services.

Three Tiers of Accountability

Acting Deputy Secretary of Education Raymond J. Simon said states ultimately could have three tiers of accountability measures: tests for students with severe cognitive impairments, tests for students who with the best instruction still can’t meet grade-level standards, and tests for the remaining pupils.

Though the department says that research shows that 2 percent of the student population needs the alternative assessments, it makes sense that states will have to show what they’re doing for pupils before they can take advantage of the flexibility, Mr. Simon said.

“We have to make sure that they’re treating their children with disabilities appropriately now,” he said. “This groundwork is absolutely fundamental. It’s something that every state should be doing anyway.”

The department’s policy shift on students with disabilities comes in the wake of disagreements between the federal government and the states on how children should be evaluated under the No Child Left Behind law. Connecticut has announced it plans to sue the federal government over the law’s testing mandates. Texas has granted waivers to many of its districts that have not followed federal guidelines in testing special education students. The federal Education Department has fined the state about $444,000 as a result.

“We heard from states and from parents and from teachers and principals that they believe there were a number of children in our schools whose needs were not being met under the current structure,” Mr. Simon said. “It was obvious it was time for something to be done. This was done to benefit children.”

However, Texas is still an “outlier,” Secretary Spellings said. “We’re in discussions with them right now.”

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