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Special Education Groups Criticize House NCLB Rewrite

Groups representing special education administrators and teachers as well as people with disabilities have given a big thumbs down to a House bill that would reauthorize the long-delayed Elementary and Secondary Education Act, also known as No Child Left Behind.

My colleague Alyson Klein has done a thorough job explaining the political machinations behind the bill, known as HR 5 or the Student Success Act, which passed yesterday on a 221-207 vote. No House Democrats voted in favor. The Senate education committee passed its own version of the ESEA in June, but it has yet to be taken up by the full Senate.

Among the problems with the bill, according to these advocacy groups, is that it reduces what they see as protections for students with disabilities. For example, No Child Left Behind requires that test scores of students with disabilities be counted separately from students as a whole, for accountability purposes and many in the special education community believe this requirement has forced schools and districts to pay more attention to how they're teaching this group. The House legislation would eliminate this focus.

The House legislation also does away with a cap on the number of students with significant cognitive disabilities whose test scores on so-called "alternate academic standards" can be counted as proficient under the law. Currently, 1 percent of students—equivalent to 10 percent of students with disabilities—can take these tests and be counted as proficient under NCLB. These groups believe removing the cap might prompt schools and districts to steer more students to these tests and away from the same education and standard diplomas that their typically developing peers receive.

Here's a sampling of some responses from various groups:

The National Association of State Directors of Special Education, in Alexandria, Va., wrote in a letter to lawmakers about the "low bar of achievement" set by the bill. "The vast majority of students with disabilities do not have cognitive disabilities. They CAN be successful in learning to regular, high academic standards IF they are taught to these standards," the letter said. (The emphasis is theirs.)

The Arlington, Va.-based Council for Exceptional Children says the bill as currently structured has "major accountability loopholes." In addition to the other concerns noted above, the organization worries about the elimination of any federal support for gifted students. "HR 5 eliminates the only federal program dedicated to addressing the needs of high-ability students from disadvantaged backgrounds, the Jacob K. Javits Gifted and Talented Students Education Act. Additionally, H.R. 5 eliminates the definition of 'gifted and talented' and fails to incorporate any of the comprehensive changes proposed by the TALENT Act (HR 2338), CEC-endorsed legislation which seeks to close achievement gaps at the top performance levels between low-income and/or minority students and their more-advantaged peers, known as the 'excellence gap.'"

The Consortium For Citizens with Disabilities education task force said in a letter that the bill eliminates baseline preparation standards for teachers. "We believe it is a grave mistake to eliminate requirements that all teachers should be fully certified by their state and have demonstrated competency in their subject matter. All students deserve teachers who are fully-prepared on their first day in the classroom and who prove themselves effective once there," the letter states.

And finally, the National Center for Learning Disabilities, which represents children and adults (learning disabilities is the biggest group of students covered under the Individuals with Disabilities Act) repeated an earlier statement that the bill represented "a full retreat from accountability."

James H. Wendorf, the executive director of the organization, continued: "The bill also includes a gateway to vouchers provision that would dilute federal education funds and squander scarce federal resources. This provision would allow funds to be transferred to schools regardless of their quality or evidence of success, potentially leaving millions of students without access to the resources they need to achieve."

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