Sunday, May 11, 2008

NCLB and Special Education

When people ask whether No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is good or bad for special education students, the first response should be: what could be bad about carefully developing and competently teaching challenging curriculum to all students? What could be bad about periodically assessing all students’ progress, and reporting back to the people who are paying the bills for public education, namely, the taxpayers? And what could be good about leaving a certain set of students (such as students with disabilities) behind?

That said, I believe that while NCLB as written has the potential to be good for all students, including those with disabilities, I also believe that as implemented by schools/districts/states and as interpreted by the U.S. Department of Education (the Department), NCLB has not always reached its full potential.

NCLB as written and conceived holds great promise for students with disabilities. First, NCLB focuses attention and resources on special education students in an unprecedented way (as Margaret Spellings, U.S. Secretary of Education, acknowledged – see Press Release on 5/9/07: U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings Delivers Remarks At National Summit On America’ Silent Epidemic - “what gets measured gets done.”).

Second, NCLB increases access to challenging curriculum and highly qualified teachers for special education students by including them as a distinct subgroup under the law and thereby codifying higher expectations for these students, who have historically suffered from appallingly low expectations.

Third, NCLB gives teeth to the requirement in IDEA ’97 (and 2004) that special education students be included in statewide testing schemes. NCLB for the first time sets forth a specific requirement that 95% of students (including special education students) participate in such testing. (And, of course, NCLB carries sanctions for noncompliance with this testing requirement, unlike IDEA.)

Fourth, NCLB has actually resulted in an increased percentage of students with disabilities being included in statewide assessments. As data from the National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) demonstrates, while in the 2000-2001 school year, only one of the states studied had included at least 95% of students with disabilities in its statewide testing, in the 2003-2004 school year, many of the selected states did.

Moreover, according to NCEO data, an examination of seven-year trends of the percentage of elementary special education students who achieved proficiency on statewide reading exams across ten states shows consistent gains in most states. (Data from the Department in its 2006 National Assessment of Title I Interim Reports also indicates an increase in the percentage of 4th grade special education students performing at or above the state’s proficiency level in reading in 14 of 20 states, and an increase in math proficiency in 16 of 20 states, rates that outpaced improvements experienced by all other student groups.)

Thus, one could argue that NCLB has disproportionately benefited special education students.

On the other hand, NCLB’s promise is not being fully reached, in part due to poor implementation by individual schools/districts/states and in part due to excessive flexibility being granted to states by the Department.

For instance, while participation in statewide testing has increased for students with disabilities (as discussed above), such participation has not always been meaningful. For one thing, too many students are tested with out-of-level assessments designed to test knowledge below grade level, as a result of states being unwilling to develop assessments that can allow students with disabilities to fully demonstrate their knowledge on grade level content.

For another, state tests themselves sometimes lack rigor, as demonstrated by a large proficiency gap between students scoring proficient on state exams vs. those scoring proficient on the federal test, the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress).

Further, the Department has shown a disturbing willingness to provide “flexibility” to schools/districts/states through the 1% regulation (allowing 1% of all public school students – equating to about 10% of all special education students – to be judged proficient through use of alternate assessments based on alternate achievement standards, despite a lack of solid evidence demonstrating the appropriateness of this number, which is loosely based on what is considered to be the high end of the estimate of the percentage of students with the most severe cognitive disabilities) and more recently the 2% regulation (allowing alternate assessments based on modified achievement standards for another 20% of students with disabilities who supposedly need more time to reach grade level proficiency, although, again, there is no research that supports this number). (Please note that the 1% and 2% regulations do NOT literally exclude these students from AYP accountability. The performance of students taking these alternate assessments IS counted toward AYP just like other students; however, the number of student scores that can be counted as proficient for AYP purposes is limited per these regulatory caps – although the number of students taking these alternate assessments is not limited. Moreover, few states currently use the 2% option – some have announced that they will not use this option, and others are in the research stage (most utilizing Department grants).

Another area of concern with respect to NCLB implementation and Department flexibility is the minimum subgroup size (the “n” size), which refers to the minimum number of students within each subgroup that a school or district must contain across the grades tested before the AYP requirement comes into play. If the school or district does not have this minimum number of students in the subgroup, then that subgroup is treated as having met AYP requirements. The point of this requirement, as set forth in NCLB itself, is that the “n” size must be a number large enough to yield statistically reliable information and to protect the personally identifiable information about an individual student. However, many states have received approval from the Department to use “n” sizes so big that a large percentage of their schools wind up being exempt from accountability for certain student subgroups. Some have even received approval for “n” sizes that are larger for special education subgroups than for other subgroups. For example, according to a May 2006 research report issued by the Commission on No Child Left Behind, during the 2004-2005 school year, only 11% of the schools in California (that educate a full 10% of all public school students in the U.S.) were required to meet AYP for the special education subgroup!

Finally, the Department has recently announced a pilot program to begin next year involving 10 states, which program would allow a system of “differentiated accountability.” Under this program, sanctions for failing to meet AYP would differentiate between schools that almost met AYP vs. schools that have significant problems. There is speculation that this program could shift focus away from students with disabilities by lessening sanctions (and therefore accountability) for otherwise successful schools that fail to meet AYP simply because of their special education subgroup.

Thus, while NCLB holds great promise for special education students, and appears to have been of substantial benefit to them, poor implementation by schools/districts/states and/or excessive “flexibility” granted by the Department threaten that promise.

* Sandy Strassman-Alperstein, Volunteer Webmaster
Our Children Left Behind (

Copyright 2008 Sandy Strassman-Alperstein

* Also, I want to acknowledge the assistance of Jamie Ruppmann and Candace Cortiella of The Advocacy Institute – - in preparing this response.


Whitesburg said...

I have a question.
According to NCLB, which teacher is responsible for making accommodations and differential teaching in an inclusion classroom, The general education teacher or the special education teacher?
Where is this documented?

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

Hi! Thanks for your question!

We're not aware of any law that mandates who does what as far as differentiation of curriculum is concerned. In a perfect world, all teachers would differentiate the curriculum anyway, principles of universal design for learning (UDL) would be implemented, etc. But we know that doesn't always happen.

Thus, unless it is specified in the IEP, it is unclear who has responsibility to differentiate the curriculum. (And of course, even if it's in the IEP, you'd have to be vigilant to ensure that the IEP is being implemented properly.)

Finally, of course, at least in theory the school district is ultimately responsible for the child receiving a FAPE (free appropriate public education), so the team should be all working toward the child making progress on his/her IEP goals, including differentiating the curriculum as needed to accomplish this.

Hope this helps!

The OCLB Team