Three years after the No Child Left Behind Act required that schools be evaluated, in part, on the test performance of students with disabilities, it’s still unclear how the federal rules have affected those students around the country.
But studies in some states have shown that students with disabilities now have more access to the general education curriculum and are getting greater accommodations for their special needs than before the education law was put in place, said a researcher at a well-attended session at the Council for Exceptional Children’s annual convention, held here April 6-9.
James E. Ysseldyke, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, said that while anecdotes and media accounts tend to stress the negative effects of the No Child Left Behind law on students with disabilities, studies and surveys conducted in several states show “the data are more good news than bad news.”
“NCLB needs tweaking, but it probably isn’t as bad as the media paints it to be,” Mr. Ysseldyke said.
Ironically, his presentation came the same week that U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings announced that her department was relaxing some of the regulations in the law that have to do with testing students with disabilities. (“States to Get New Options on NCLB Law,” April 13, 2005.)
But most of the conference attendees, including the Department of Education officials who gave presentations at the event, hardly had time to digest or explain those changes. More than 700 seminars and presentations packed into four days kept the 5,500 teachers and administrators moving quickly through the Baltimore Convention Center.
The council is the largest international professional association dedicated to improving education for students with disabilities and gifted students.
John H. Hager, the assistant secretary who heads the Education Department’s office of special education and rehabilitative services, was the featured speaker at a session about the No Child Left Behind law and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The session was held a few hours after Secretary Spellings proposed a “workable, sensible” flexibility in the education law’s testing standards. Several session participants peppered Mr. Hager with questions, but he indicated that the specifics were still to be worked out by the department and individual states. (“Questions Linger Over NCLB Policy Shifts,” April 20, 2005.)
Later, Mr. Hager said in an interview that the changes proposed by the department, including the introduction of a different testing standard for students with “persistent academic difficulties,” were based on research.
“No Child Left Behind is a dynamic process,” Mr. Hager said. “It is not supposed to be set in stone and never adjusted and never changed. The timing of the changes comes because the department has a dynamic new secretary who wanted to grab the bull by the horns.”
The seminars at the CEC convention ranged from esoteric discussions to more straightforward advice. Several administrators attended one panel that discussed warning signs that a parent might be ready to request a due-process hearing.
Such hearings, often dreaded by administrators as time-consuming and counterproductive, are commonly requested by parents who aren’t pleased with the special education services their children are provided.
Panelists Marion Crayton and Diane J. Dormio, both special education compliance officers for the 135,000-student Prince George’s County school district in Maryland, said principals and teachers should take note if parents ask for copies of their child’s education records, request that a lawyer or an advocate attend a meeting on the student’s federally mandated individualized education program, or refuse to give their consent for student evaluation.
At the same time, Ms. Crayton said, schools should try to avoid making major changes to an IEP when a parent can’t be there. Her district makes several notifications before making a change, she said. Not doing so contributes to a perception by parents that school officials do not consider their concerns important, she said.
To guide participants through the different presentations here, several were broken down into “strands” for specific interest areas, such as international education, or autism and autism-spectrum disorders.
One strand was called “NCLB for All: Adding Up the Testing, Teaching, and Learning Equation.”
Both presenters of that strand said they were revisiting their own earlier research, because they found there were many more educational objectives that students with disabilities can achieve.
“I’m challenging things I wrote,” said Diane M. Browder, a special education researcher at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.