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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.

NCLB Subgroups

  • 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.

Candace Cortiella's work as Director of the nonprofit The Advocacy Institute focuses on improving the lives of people with learning disabilities, through public policy and other initiatives. The mother of a young adult with learning disabilities, she lives in the Washington, D.C., area.


Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

05/7/2012:
"I think that the NCLB act has helped Challenge the young and older children with disabilities. I hope it is positive for the families of the disabled and special need children "
01/4/2012:
"What can you do to a teacher who has discriminated against one of there students due to him/her having dislexysia??? "
08/9/2010:
"My son was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder, attention deficit-hyper activity disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, mood disorder, and emotional disorder. Half way through the school he was put on mediation, he was having a problem with his school work and being bullied. After he started the meds, he started bringing his grades up. English was his worst subject and he asked his teacher numerous times to help him and she didn't.He thought he passed because he brought his grade up to a low D. His teacher failed him and the school is making him repeat the 7th grade because he failed English. I don't think he is being treated fairly and with his emotional disorder I think I might have a problem with him being held back in the 7th grade instead of being sent to the 8th and possibly making up 7th grade English. They told us he could go to summer school for $150.00 but I let them know we were not financially able to pay that and they said he would just have to be held ! back. "
11/17/2009:
"my son has been on a iep starting when was 3 he has done fine till moved to the school he is in now they haev fough me every way they can to get him out of this school my son can only read and spell at 2 grade level and they know this they give him books to read if he dont do the work they put him in detention if he stands up for himself they kick him out of school and do nothing to the outher kids for picken on him i called the resolution center they called the school after that they found every thing they could on him from haveing a hole in his pants to fighting with kids who pick on him to the point wear they kicked him out for the rest of the year this took less then 3 weeks what can do with schools like this "
07/10/2009:
"THIS IS A GREAT ARTICLE. I LEARNED A LOT. I AM TRYING TO FIND A WAY TO GET HELP FOR MY GRANDSON IN SCHOOL. HE IS ADHD AND I DO NOT THINK THE SCHOOL CARES AS LONG AS THEY CAN FIND A WAY TO KEEP THEIR AYP SCORE UP. THEY EVEN ASK US NOT TO SEND HIM TO SCHOOL ONE YEAR DURING TESTING. HE WAS PROMOTED TO 5TH GRADE THIS YEAR BUT BE KNOW HE SHOULD NOT HAVE BEEN. THE SCHOOL IS RATED A 4 BUT SHOULD BE LESS. MY DAUGHTER IS WILLING TO MOVE TO ANOTHER SCHOOL IN MADISON COUNTY ALABAMA, BUT HOW CAN WE CHECK OUT THEIR LD PROGRAM BEFORE SHE MAKES THE MOVE? JUST BECAUSE A SCHOOL HAS A 9 RATING, DOES NOT MEAN THEY HAVE A GOOD LD PROGRAM. PLEASE RESPOND."
05/18/2009:
"My child has had an IEP since K-grade,he is now in the 5th.this shcool year his teacher had mass problems in class ( falling asleep attendince and other behavioral problems) and I am afraid that it may have delayed my childs education for one more year how should I address this with the shcool ?I feel like my childs education has been compromise. Who is responsible?"
04/7/2009:
"my son is having behavioural problems at school the school keeps kicking him out so he is falling more behind he is going to be going to high school next year and i do not feel he is ready but the school will not teast him beceause it is the end of the school year nor do they address his AHDso what can i do to to help him get what he needs to to be"
03/20/2009:
"My daughter does not like to learn. Her world is about fun and play. She finds ways to lie about her homework and does not stay on task at school. Teachers are getting tired of her. She cant stay focus. She has behavioural problems and lies alot. She can be a good child and sometimes wants to learn but then she gives up quick. "
11/19/2008:
"My child attends a very pricy private school and I have to pay extra for the time she has with her special education teacher, who, by the way, I don't think has the proper qualifications. Do I have any rights under Arkansas Law to have her special education fees be waived?"
10/1/2008:
"ia the school responsible to provide my son with an alternative learning environment if he has been arrested at school? he has behavioral issues and has been on an I.E.P. since the third grade."
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