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The accountability systems created by the federal No Child Left Behind Act have led to some benefits for students with disabilities, but it’s too soon to link the law with improved academic outcomes for such students, a presidential advisory group says.
The 15-member National Council on Disability, which makes recommendations to the president and Congress on issues relating to Americans with disabilities and their families, released a report Jan. 28 at its quarterly board meeting in New Orleans. Much of the information gathered in the report, produced jointly by the Educational Policy Institute in Virginia Beach, Va., and the American Youth Policy Forum in Washington, came from interviews with dozens of researchers and state officials.
Trying to link academic achievement directly to the 6-year-old No Child Left Behind law was a challenge, said Martin Gould, the director of research and technology for the council. The researchers decided they needed to take a layered approach by examining academic data as well as talking directly with those charged with implementing the federal law.
The council looked closely at the performance of students with disabilities in California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. In those 10 states, students with disabilities appear to be performing better on the National Assessment of Educational Progress when they are in elementary school, but those gains seem to dissipate by the time the students reach middle school.
Students with disabilities also appear to be graduating with diplomas and certificates at higher rates than in prior years, but dropout rates remain a concern, the report says.
All the data cover such a relatively short period of time, however, that it’s hard to draw strong conclusions, the researchers warn.
Still, the interviews with education officials allowed the researchers to describe the complex interplay between the NCLB law and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the main federal law that guarantees the educational rights of students with disabilities.
Though the 1997 reauthorization of the IDEA outlines certain requirements that states and districts must follow for educating such students, the officials who were interviewed acknowledged that NCLB pushed states into compliance.
The National Council on Disability’s recommendations for improving educational outcomes for students with disabilities:
• Maintain high expectations for such students and continue to disaggregate outcome data by subgroups.
• Develop the capacity of teachers to provide differentiated instruction and a more rigorous curriculum.
• Create incentives to attract, recruit, and retain special education teachers.
• Align NCLB and IDEA data systems and definitions.
• Ensure that students with disabilities are measured on more than just academic-skills attainment.
• Increase funding for special education.
Source: National Council on Disability
“Other staffers mentioned that NCLB has given education departments the extra push to make improvements they had already been contemplating,” the report says. “For example, Florida had always promoted the inclusionary model for students with disabilities. However, inclusion in the state’s education system got an even bigger push with the NCLB requirement that 95 percent of all students take the general assessment.”
The U.S. Department of Education has required states to create accountability systems for their students, the report notes, but some state education officials say the federal government has not provided enough guidance on how to create them.
Many educators who were interviewed by the researchers complained that the Education Department wanted major pieces of student data collected, and it wanted them quickly, said Watson Scott Swail, the president of the Educational Policy Institute. But trying to rework student-data-collection systems “is like turning the Titanic around,” he said.
The council also says students with disabilities should be measured on occupational and life skills, as well as academic-skills attainment. Betsy Brand, the director of the American Youth Policy Forum, said parents believed “multiple measures” for children with disabilities were important.
“No one is saying get rid of the state academic accountability,” Ms. Brand said. “They’re saying it shouldn’t be only that.”
Professional development is among the most important issues lawmakers should consider while they debate the reauthorization of NCLB, the report says. A growing number of students with disabilities are educated in a general education setting. However, teacher-preparation and professional-development programs are not keeping up with the need to learn about differentiated instructional techniques, it says.
The NCLB law has tended to focus on a teacher’s knowledge of an academic subject area, Ms. Brand said. But “it’s very important to be able to present the information in different ways,” she said. “I don’t think that most of our general education training comes from that perspective.”
Federal funding for special education should also be increased, according to the recommendations included in the report. IDEA rules require states to spend 15 percent of aid under the law on early-intervention services, the report says, which diverts funding from an already-needy population.
A version of this article appeared in the February 06, 2008 edition of Education Week as Report: NCLB May Be Aiding Students With Disabilities