Special Education

Panel Weighs NCLB and Students With Disabilities

By Christina A. Samuels — April 03, 2007 3 min read

The federal No Child Left Behind Act has prompted a significant improvement in the education of students with disabilities, a panel of education experts told a House subcommittee last week.

However, crafting a testing policy that can adequately measure achievement of students with such a variety of needs, from mild learning disabilities to profound developmental disabilities, continues to be a challenge, as is finding highly qualified teachers to educate such students, the witnesses said.

The March 29 hearing was the latest on NCLB issues being held by the House Education and Labor Committee’s Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education. Rep. Dale E. Kildee, D-Mich., the subcommittee chairman, said that the same principles that underlie the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act also apply to NCLB. Like the IDEA, the No Child Left Behind law recognizes that children with disabilities “must overcome unique hurdles to get their education,” he said.

“That doesn’t mean that these children can’t achieve what their nondisabled peers achieve—only that they need special help to achieve it,” he added.

Michael L. Hardman, the incoming dean of the college of education at the University of Utah, in Salt Lake City, said that his university was trying to ensure it graduates teachers who are prepared to instruct a diverse group of students, including those with disabilities, alongside the general education population.

“In many parts of this country, general education and special education teachers are still being prepared in total isolation from each other,” said Mr. Hardman, a former chairman of the university’s department of special education. Collaboration, he said, “becomes the key to raising expectations.”

Testing Challenge

States continue to have difficulties testing students with disabilities, said Rachel Quenemoen, the technical assistance team leader at the National Center on Educational Outcomes, based at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities.

The last 10 years have shown that even students with severe disabilities can demonstrate achievement in parts of the academic curriculum, a far cry from when such students were only given lessons in life skills, she said.

Because of the NCLB law’s focus on high expectations for all students, “we now have a powerful lever—perhaps the most powerful one in the past three decades—for reducing and eliminating the achievement gap for students with disabilities,” Ms. Quenemoen told the subcommittee.

But it’s important to stay focused on students with disabilities, and not try to hide their performance by adjusting testing systems so that scores for such students can be discounted, she added.

“At this point, we cannot accept the argument that we should accept far less,” Ms. Quenemoen said.

Jane Rhyne, the assistant superintendent overseeing programs for exceptional children for the 129,000-student Charlotte-Mecklenburg County school district in North Carolina, also addressed the concern that students with disabilities are being overlooked through extremely large “N” sizes, or the minimum subgroup size that counts toward schools’ and districts’ accountability under the federal education law.

Minimum subgroup sizes, which are set by each state, range from as few as five students to more than 40 students. One result of a large N-size is that individual schools are less likely to have to report test results for a particular subgroup.

“With that wide disparity, a lot of students with disabilities are being left out of the accountability system,” Ms. Rhyne said. She favored a recommendation from the Council of the Great City Schools that N-sizes be no greater than 30 students, and that subgroup sizes should not change for different categories of students.

Rebecca H. Cort, New York state’s deputy education commissioner overseeing services for individuals with disabilities, told the subcommittee that NCLB should add provisions for students who can learn subjects at the same breadth and depth as their peers, just more slowly. That would allow a student who is reading at a 3rd grade level to be tested at that level, even if the student’s chronological age placed him or her in a higher grade. That is not currently allowed.

“A school will then be held accountable for that student’s learning on subject matter they have been taught,” Ms. Cort said.

A version of this article appeared in the April 04, 2007 edition of Education Week as Panel Weighs NCLB and Students With Disabilities

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