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Education Department Makes Changes to Testing of Students with Disabilities

Testing for students with disabilities has been one of a number of flashpoints as Congress struggles to reconcile bills to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act passed by the House and Senate this year.

And, in advance of those discussions, the U.S. Department of Education has taken a politically symbolic step: It's officially said that states can offer alternate assessments only to the 1 percent of students who have severe cognitive disabilities. That's about 10 percent of students in special education overall. NCLB initially allowed states to use alternate tests for up to 2 percent of kids, or 20 percent of students in special education.

This change has been a long-time in the making. And at this point, the final rule doesn't have much practical impact. States with waivers from the NCLB law—that's forty-two and the District of Columbia—have been allowed to take advantage of the 1 percent rule for more than three years. The change is supported by the National Association of State Directors of Education. And only a very small handful of states without waivers still go with the 2 percent option.   

Still, advocates for disabilities are cheering the move. "It's a fantastic change," said Lindsay Jones, the director of public policy and advocacy for the National Center for Learning Disabilities. The 2 percent rule had become devisive and had very devastating consequences for some kids who were given alternate tests, she said.

The move may be at least partially a signal that the department really wants Congress to stick to the 1 percent rule in rewriting the NCLB law. The 1 percent rule would be in place under the Senate bill. But the House bill gives states a lot more flexibility when it comes to using alternate assessments—there's no clear cap in place, advocates say.

That worries Jones. "We're not incentivizing the right things in that scenario," she said. 

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