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Where Do Special Education Groups Stand on Annual NCLB Tests?

Big changes to the No Child Left Behind Act's testing requirements are likely to play a major role in the congressional debate over NCLB reauthorization, as we told you way back in mid-December. In fact, the now-GOP controlled Senate education committee is planning to hold its very first hearing, on testing, on January 20. (Yup, same day as the state of the union address.) 

It's clear that a cadre of civil rights groups and many in the business community are likely to oppose any bill that includes major changes to the NCLB law's requirement for statewide assessments in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school.

But there's another group that's worth watching and is opposed to scaling back NCLB's testing provisions: special education advocates. Special education organizations lost two of their biggest champions on Capitol Hill recently, when Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., and Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, retired. (Harkin's brother, Frank, was deaf, making the issue particularly personal for him. More in this great story from my co-blogger, Lauren Camera.)

The NCLB law, which requires states to break out student achievement data by particular groups of students, including those in special education, "has provided so much good information we never had before about how students with disabilities are really performing," said Lindsay Jones, the director of public policy and advocacy for the National Center for Learning Disabilities.

That doesn't mean, she added, that there should be overtesting or "bad tests." But annual, statewide, assessments have provided educators with "an important data point" she said, helping to clarify "how kids with disabilities are performing compared to their nondisabled peers." The vast majority of students in special education can and should be up to par with most general education students, she said.  

Back in October, as the testing issue was beginning to heat up in Washington, the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities, which includes the Council for Exceptional Children, the National Center for Learning Disabilities, Easter Seals and other organizations, sent a letter to the leaders of the House education committee opposing legislation that would have scaled back the number of tests required in the law. (Back then, it was Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., who was and still is chairman of the panel, and Miller, who has been replaced by Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va.)

At the time, the groups were referring to this bill, by Rep. Chris Gibson, R-N.Y., that would have called for grade-span testing, and this one, by Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., that would have reduced the number of tests students are required to take. But similar legislation seems likely to be reintroduced in the new Congress, so that letter has taken on renewed significance.

Here's a snippet of what the groups had to say about the proposals:

There is a great need for educators to have access to actionable, relevant, and timely information about student performance so that they can help students achieve. With transparent, easy-to-access, annual data on student performance, parents and educators are armed with the information needed to promote effective solutions to systemic issues at the school, district and policy levels. For these reasons, we cannot support proposals to remove annual statewide assessments. 

And, like the Obama administration, disabilities' groups gave the thumbs-up to a bill introduced in the last session of Congress by Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., that would help districts and states take a hard look at the number and type of tests they require and make changes. Check out this letter on that measure.

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