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ESEA Proposals, NCLB Waivers Trouble Special Ed. Advocates

Proposed changes by some Republican senators to the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act, now called No Child Left Behind, could push more children with disabilities away from taking the same kinds of tests as their classmates. That could limit how many students with special needs are included when schools and districts are held accountable for their students' progress, the National Center on Learning Disabilities told several senators in a letter this week.

One proposal would allow unlimited use of test scores from alternate assessments for students with disabilities. Existing limits prevent school districts and states from counting the scores from alternate assessments for students with severe cognitive disabilities for more than 1 percent of all students. Another type of modified test can be taken by some students with disabilities, as long as the scores of no more than 2 percent of all students are counted from this type of test. Only a few states use this rule, because only those states have exams that are approved by the U.S. Department of Education.

There have been concerns about both of these exceptions since they were created. Special education advocates reason that 1 percent of students, or about 10 percent of all students with disabilities, is too large a number in the first place. Not that many children have a significant cognitive disability, they say. And the other exam, for other children with disabilities, has also been questioned because of fears that some schools assume students with disabilities who scored low on general assessments could never master grade-level content. Earlier this year, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan vowed to abandon this provision going forward.

In its letter, NCLD said an analysis of the use of these exams has found that thousands of poor, black students took them, placing them in a modified track that may not support graduating with a regular diploma; students who are proficient on the general assessment took the alternate test "for no apparent reason other than the fact they are students with disabilities;" large numbers of students with learning disabilities, attention-deficit disorder, speech/language disorders and other disabilities took the modified tests although these disabilities should not warrant the need to be placed into these assessments; and the use of these tests reduced student access to the regular classroom and general curriculum, further segregating them and reducing their opportunities to achieve with their peers.

The proposals have other problems, too, the NCLD said.

The bill doesn't limit the scores that can be used in school accountability systems, the group said, giving schools an incentive to place students in special education, "rather than focus on the instructional needs of those requiring interventions and targeted instruction. Ultimately, this policy will reverse the expectation that millions of students with disabilities can achieve college- and career-ready standards."

This week, President Barack Obama is scheduled to unveil ways in which No Child Left Behind can be modified as he awaits Congress' action on revamping the law. The National Council on Disability sent Duncan a letter this week with its own set of concerns about the waivers he will issue.

That group wants the "2 percent rule" eliminated, and students to be assessed for and have access to Augmentative and Alternative Communication technology before they are given the "1 percent" exam. The group also wants to require states that apply for waivers to set goals for increasing students with disabilities' access to the general education classroom.

Both groups said that No Child Left Behind has been beneficial for students with disabilities, with parents and school districts for the first time able to track and monitor the achievement of these children in comparison to other kids, and they want to be sure that progress continues.

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