No Child Left Behind and Students With Learning Disabilities: Opportunities and Obstacles
Take advantage of the opportunities and overcome the obstacles of the No Child Left Behind Act.
By Candace Cortiella, The Advocacy Institute
The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) includes benefits to students with learning disabilities (LD), as well as some barriers that might prevent these same students from enjoying all of the opportunities in the law. In this article, parent advocate and special education expert Candace Cortiella addresses questions about NCLB of interest to parents of kids with LD, and provides a checklist of NCLB-related actions parents can take on behalf of their children.
Q: What is the No Child Left Behind Act and why is it important?
A: First a little background: (NCLB) is the latest version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the major federal education law that was first enacted in 1965. Title 1 of the ESEA provides the single largest source of federal funding for public schools. No Child Left Behind builds upon education reform efforts that started during the Clinton Administration with the passage of Goals 2000 and the Improving America's Schools Act in 1994.
Unlike previous versions of the ESEA, NCLB seeks to improve educational outcomes for disadvantaged students and close the achievement gap between various subgroups of students, including those with disabilities, by imposing new requirements for standards, assessments, accountability, and parental involvement.
Q: Are students with LD included in the accountability system of NCLB?
A: Yes. In fact, NCLB requires all schools to test all students, including students with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) and 504 plans. According to the requirements of the law, a state's assessment system must be designed to be valid and accessible for use by the widest possible range of students.
To increase the accountability of at-risk groups of students and begin to close the achievement gap, NCLB further requires that schools, school districts, and states disaggregate, or separate out, the test results for several subgroups of students. Students with disabilities who are receiving services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), that is, students with IEPs, are one of the subgroups that must be reported.
- Economically disadvantaged students
- Students from major racial and ethnic groups
- Students with disabilities under the IDEA
- Students with limited English proficiency
All students must be tested annually in grades 3-8 and once in high school (during the grade 10-12 span) in reading and mathematics. Schools must tests students in science at least once in elementary, middle, and high school. These assessments must be aligned with state academic standards. Schools must report the scores of the statewide assessments to parents in the form of a "report card." States must bring all students up to the "proficient" level on state tests by the 2013-14 school year.
The NCLB requirement to report on the achievement of these subgroups will provide enhanced opportunities for students with learning disabilities receiving special education services. As one Congressman stated, "NCLB will put a harsh spotlight on our most vulnerable students and provide the first step in recognition that we have been failing too many students for too long."
However, states set a minimum number of students that each subgroup must contain before the data for that subgroup needs to be used for purposes of determining achievement for the subgroup as well as reporting to the public. The minimum number of students in each subgroup is to be based on what would be sufficient to yield statistically reliable information as well as to make sure that disclosing the results for a particular small subgroup would not, in fact, result in revealing the identity of the students in that subgroup.
There is substantial variation in the minimum subgroup size set by different states. A survey of 37 states found the required minimum number ranging from three to 40, with 10 as the most common. In some states the minimum number of students in the disability subgroup has been set higher than that in other subgroups. Public reporting of subgroup performance is intended to highlight achievement gaps and motivate schools to close those gaps, but those schools that can escape this scrutiny because of subgroup size may not focus the same level of effort on students whose results aren't reported. Additionally, schools can avoid a "needs improvement" rating under NCLB if the subgroup doesn't meet the state minimum. This provision could result in schools attempting to limit the number of students with learning difficulties it qualifies for special education services.
One other NCLB requirement is important to note. Schools must test at least 95 percent of the student body (as a whole and by subgroup). This provision is designed to allow for absenteeism on testing days. Parents of students with learning disabilities should make every effort to ensure that their students participate in state assessments by making sure the student is present on testing days. Lack of participation by students with disabilities via absenteeism should not be encouraged by schools.