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Elimination of Special Ed. Caps in Draft NCLB Reauthorization Irks Advocates

By guest blogger Christina Samuels. This post first appeared at On Special Education.

Lawmakers are wading into the complicated issue of accountability tests as they ponder changes to the law currently known as No Child Left Behind, but a group of disability advocacy organizations are already saying they don't want to see one change that has been floated--an elimination of the cap on students who can be tested to "alternate achievement standards."

Currently, about 1 percent of all students--equivalent to about 10 percent of students with disabilities--can be counted as proficient for accountability purposes on tests that have less depth, breadth, and complexity than the assessments given to their typically developing peers. These "1 percent tests" have been aimed at students with severe cognitive disabilities. (The tests are formally known as "alternate assessments based on alternate achievement standards," or AA-AAS.)

The draft renewal legislation proposed by Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Republican from Tennessee who chairs the Senate education committee, would lift those caps, leaving it up to the states to decide how many students can be counted as proficient when taking these alternate tests.

The Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities' education task force--a coalition of more than 20 groups-- said in a Jan. 21 letter that such a move would "essentially wipe out a decade of progress which has allowed parents, teachers and school leaders to better understand the potential of students with disabilities." 

The organization argues that without a cap, potentially millions of students could moved off an academic track that leads to a regular high school diploma. From the letter: 

We are further concerned that [proposed legislation] does not include a prohibition against states precluding students who take the AA-AAS from attempting to complete the requirements of a regular diploma and a requirement that individualized education program teams be informed of any effects of state and local policies on the student's education resulting from taking the AA-AAS. All students with disabilities, whether they take an alternate or the general assessment, deserve to be college and career ready. Unfortunately, the provisions in your draft would lower expectations for these students and ultimately limit their ability to become fully economically self-sufficient. 

The organization also said that the law's renewal should include an explicit prohibition of alternate assessments based on modified achievement standards (modified standards are supposed to be harder than alternate standards, but not as difficult as the general standards.) Those tests have already largely been phased out by the states that had them, because the Department of Education made it a condition of getting an NCLB waiver or of applying for a Race to the Top grant, but the consortium doesn't want to see them come back.

 These assessments were aimed at students who did not have severe cognitive disabilities, but were nevertheless struggling to pass the tests given to the general population. Up to 20 percent of students with disabilities were allowed to be counted as proficient using those tests, but Secretary Arne Duncan said that the tests weren't allowing students with disabilities to be held to grade-level expectations.

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