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.

Q: Are students with disabilities allowed accommodations when taking the state assessments required under NCLB?

A: Yes. Accommodations must be determined by the student’s IEP team or Section 504 team, including the parent. The accommodations should be based on the student’s individual needs and should be similar to those provided to the student during classroom assessment. Decisions about assessment accommodations are not to be made on the basis of disability category; therefore, schools may not develop a predetermined list of accommodations specifically for those students with learning disabilities.

Under NCLB, accommodations are defined as changes in testing materials or procedures that ensure that an assessment measures the student’s knowledge rather than the student’s disability.

IEP teams may not exempt students from participating in a state’s assessment system. The IEP or 504 team determines how a student will participate, not whether a student will participate. Furthermore, out-of-level testing is not allowed under NCLB. Students, including students with disabilities, must be assessed at the student’s assigned grade level.

These provisions will ensure that all students are included and that practices such as out-of-level testing begin to disappear. The requirement of grade level testing will enhance access and exposure to the general curriculum for students with learning disabilities, providing opportunities for accelerated learning for those who previously have been subjected to watered-down curricula and limited expectations.

Q: How are the data from these assessments used?

A: The data are used to determine if a school, district, or state is making progress in student achievement in the areas of reading and math. The NCLB accountability system measures school progress in terms of “Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP).” The amount of improvement needed to meet AYP is defined by each state as part of a comprehensive state plan required by NCLB. Schools that fail to achieve AYP for the students in each grade assessed, each area assessed, and in each subgroup are subject to a series of sanctions.

So, as you can see, the performance of students with disabilities can have a substantial impact on the overall performance of the school. It is entirely possible for a school that achieves AYP for the total school population, as well as all but one subgroup, such as the subgroup of students with disabilities, to be rated as needing improvement under NCLB. It is this level of accountability that will help improve instruction for students with learning disabilities.

Q: What other requirements will help ensure that schools can, in fact, deliver the continuous improvements in academic achievement mandated by NCLB?

A: One important provision of NCLB is the new teacher quality requirements. Schools must ensure that all teachers of core academic subjects are deemed “highly qualified,” which means that the teacher has obtained full state certification or passed the state teacher licensing examination and holds a license to teach in the state.

This requirement applies to regular education teachers. The definition and timeline for highly qualified teachers of special education is contained in the IDEA. However, most students with learning disabilities spend the majority of their instructional time in regular education, so the new requirement will work to improve the quality of instruction for all children, including those with LD.

NCLB Checklist for Parents of Students with LD

Use the checklist below to help ensure that your child participates in and benefits from the NCLB opportunities.

  • Find out if your school is a “Title I” school. Such schools have additional obligations to students.
  • Know the size your state has set for disaggregation of subgroup performance information. This information is available in your state’s NCLB plan.
  • Make accommodation decisions carefully. Accommodations for state assessments should be the same as those used in daily classroom testing situations. Accommodations should not be introduced for the first time during a state assessment.
  • Ensure that your child is being instructed on the academic content standards on which the state assessments are based. Ask questions about the instructional level versus the grade level of your child and the methods being used to provide grade level instruction in core academic areas such as reading/language arts and math.
  • Find out if your child’s teachers are qualified as required by NCLB.
  • Make sure your child attends school on testing days. Know when your school is administering state assessments so that your child’s performance will count.
  • Check out your school’s Report Card. Know how the school is performing overall and in each subgroup. If the school is failing to achieve AYP for students with disabilities, find out how your school plans to address the issue.

Updated January 2010