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House ESEA Bills Would Damage Some Students' Access to Diplomas

A pair of bills attempting to rewrite parts of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—what's now called No Child Left Behind—could be devastating for some students with disabilities, advocates for these students say.

Some of the major issues are with how the bills would upend the accountability system now in place because of NCLB. The House education committee will consider the bills Tuesday, and as my colleague Alyson Klein writes, they leave much to be desired by many groups.

But another problem for advocates is that access to high school diplomas for some students with disabilities could be jeopardized by some of the provisions in the bill regarding alternate testing. Currently, some students with severe cognitive disabilities take alternate exams that can eliminate them from qualifying for a traditional high school diploma. The bills incorporate regulations developed by the federal Education Department governing these exams.

Over the years, some students who take this alternate exam have lost some of their access to general education classes, taking them off the track for a standard diploma all together, the National Down Syndrome Society says.

In one survey by the NDSS and other groups, many parents said they did not realize that if their children took an alternate test, their access to a diploma could be affected.

In addition, while the number of students who can take these alternate exams is now capped to 1 percent of all students—a number that some think is too high as it is—the bills would erase that cap.

"To do so," the society says, "would lower academic expectations and violate the legal rights of millions of students with disabilities. Students who take this assessment are often taken off diploma track as early as elementary school, are removed from general education classes, have limited access to the curriculum and have less qualified teachers."

The National Center for Learning Disabilities is also worried about the elimination of the cap.

"Rather than continuing to support students with disabilities in achieving a high school diploma and pursuing employment and postsecondary education, the bill virtually encourages schools to expect less from students with disabilities," the NCLD said. "This will jeopardize their true potential to learn and achieve."

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