No Child Left Behind and Students with Disabilities

In 2001, Congress passed No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and on January 8, 2002, it was signed into law. This federal legislation is a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). The ESEA came about in 1965, and was the central federal law for precollegiate education. Its most recent reauthorization was in 1994, and it provided federal funding for education programs primarily for disadvantaged students. NCLB defines and describes ESEA’s education programs. It also added new accountability mandates that all states must meet in order to receive program funding. Closing the achievement gap between students of various demographic groups is NCLB’s primary goal. NCLB breaks students up into demographic subgroups, one of which is students with disabilities. This subgroup has significantly lower achievement levels. NCLB has brought more attention to the education and assessment of students with disabilities. However, there are concerns that its impact has not been completely positive. Most concerns are related to the way in which the achievement of students with disabilities is assessed. This paper will address those concerns and some suggested ways to address them when NCLB is reauthorized. The main accountability mandate in NCLB is associated with the assessment of student achievement. NCLB requires states to develop grade level standards for reading, science, and math. Based on these standards, states must also develop adequate assessments. NCLB obliges states to test students in grades 3-8 annually in reading and math. Students only need to be tested once in high school in these subjects. Testing in science is less frequent, twice in elementary school and once in high school. NCLB also requires schools and school districts to measure their yearly progress and report these results to the national government. All schools are required to make adequate yearly progress (AYP) in their reading and math scores. By 2014 all 1

students are expected to be performing at proficiency levels. Students are broken up into subgroups racially, ethnically, and economically. There are also sub groups for students with disabilities and limited English proficiency. These students are also required to make grade level proficiency. If at least one subgroup fails to make AYP the school fails and is deemed “in need of improvement,” (Taylor, Stecher, O’Day, Naftel, LeFloch, 2010). Schools are required to take corrective action, offer school choice, or provide supplemental education services if they fail to make AYP two years in a row. If after five years the school is still not making AYP it will be closed or restructured (Chudowsky & Chudowsky, 2009). Even though students with disabilities are required to take state math and reading assessments annually, the government is somewhat flexible in the way they are assessed. The government allows several different assessment options for students with disabilities. They may take the regular grade level test or a version of an alternate test. Students taking the regular test may take it the exact same way as students without disabilities or they may receive appropriate accommodations. The alternate assessment can be based on similar grade level academic achievement standards, slightly modified standards, or alternative standards all together (U.S. Department of Education, 2007). However, a one percent cap was set in December 2003, for the number of students that could take an alternate assessment and have their scores counted towards AYP. There is a two percent cap set for students to take a modified assessment (Reder, 2007). NCLB is not the only piece of legislature that deals with students with disabilities. President George W. Bush signed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) into effect in 2005 (U.S. Department of Education-Office of Special Education Programs, 2007). IDEA gives states more flexibility in appropriately measuring achievement of students with disabilities. It also provides students with disabilities with additional federal funding and certain legal protections. Schools are required under IDEA to develop individualized education plans 2

(IEP) for students with disabilities to ensure that they are being assessed properly and are making progress towards grade level achievement. It is also the school’s job to properly identify students with disabilities, determine who is eligible for special education services, and find out how to best serve their needs. (U.S. Department of Education, 2007). Fourteen percent of school-aged children in the U.S. receive additional support through special education programs. This is approximately 6.6 million children. Special education is a specially designed instruction that does not cost parents anything. Its goal is to meet the needs of children with disabilities. Learning disabilities make up the largest subgroup of students with disabilities, around 50 percent (Cortiella, 2009). Most people automatically assume that students with disabilities are incapable of performing at their grade level. This is false of course. Only around 25 percent of students with disabilities have severe intellectual impairments (Chudowsky & Chudowsky, 2009). The extra support they receive and IEPs help them to be at the same level of achievement as other students in their grade (Cortiella, 2009). When comparing, on a national basis, the achievement of students with disabilities to students without disabilities it is quite common to analyze National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores. NAEP has been conducting testing for over 40 years. In order for states to receive their NCLB funds, students in grades four through eight must participate in this testing. The majority of educators view this as a reasonable and valid assessor of student achievement. Compared to just state test data, NAEP collects student performance information at the local, state, and national levels, making it a vital component of our evaluation of the progress and condition of the nation’s education (National Assessment of Educational Progress, 2010). NAEP data shows very little improvement in 4th and 8th grade reading scores since the implementation of NCLB. On the 4th grade test, from 2002-2009, average test scores for 3

students with disabilities rose from 187 to 190, while the average test scores for students without disabilities rose from 221 to 224. On the 8th grade test, average scores for students with disabilities rose from 228 to 230. The scores of students without disabilities actually decreased from 268 to 267. The math scores from 2003-2009 showed more prominent results, but were still not exceptionally well. On the 4th grade test the average scores for students with disabilities increased from 198 to 221, while scores for students without disabilities increased from 228 to 242. On the 8th grade test, average scores for students with disabilities rose from 242 to 249. The scores of students without disabilities increased from 282 to 287 (National Assessment of Educational Progress, 2010). Based on this data, reading scores for both students with disabilities and without only increased at most by 3 points. However, there is still a large gap in assessment scores between the two groups of students. In 4th grade, students without disabilities score on average 34 points higher than students with disabilities. In 8th grade they are scoring 37 points higher. Since NCLB, math scores for both groups have increased. The greatest increase is seen in 4th grade students. Students with disabilities increased their average score by 23 points and students without disabilities increased their average by 14 points. The 8th grade scores increased slightly more than the reading scores did, but still nothing substantial. Overall, there is still a significant achievement gap between students with disabilities and students without disabilities. NCLB has been beneficial for students with disabilities in some aspects. It has made sure that they are recognized and not ignored. Because everyone needs to be making progress, most schools are focusing more on helping students with disabilities achieve (National Council on Disability, 2008). Schools are forced to pay attention to all students and their performance, even students with disabilities, so they make AYP. It is important to keep AYP as a requirement for all students. It makes sure that all students are receiving the attention necessary to give them a 4

good education (Cortiella, 2009). Alternate assessments have even allowed students with extreme cognitive disabilities to participate in the states’ assessments and not be overlooked. Because testing is a grade based assessment, there has been a push to put students with disabilities in general education classrooms. Students with disabilities are doing better academically and have a higher graduation rate than in previous years (National Council on Disability, 2008). Many organizations and individuals have identified what they believe to be problems with assessing students with disabilities under the NCLB guidelines. First of all, students with disabilities are an extremely heterogeneous group. NCLB has unrealistic expectations because it does not take into account the wide spectrum of disabilities. Not all students with disabilities are the same, so it is not fair to give them the same assessment or penalize them for needing assistance. It is also not fair to have exceedingly low expectations either (Reder, 2007). It is difficult to come up with appropriate assessments for all students with disabilities. The assessment may be too hard if students with disabilities have to take the regular grade-level assessment with no accommodations. It is too easy, however, if they take an alternative assessment designed for significant cognitive disabilities (U.S. Department of Education, 2007). Standards and assessments vary greatly from state to state. This makes it difficult to compare performances. Some states give students with disabilities a lower grade level assessment. This does not accurately assess their knowledge. It also sets low expectations for them and puts them in a lower level track. This provides them with limited opportunities in the future. Instead of lower level assessments, some states just administer alternative assessments based on alternative grade level standards. There is no consistency among states with how they handle students with disabilities (Cortiella, 2009).


In many schools, students with disabilities are the only subgroup that fails to make AYP. Because they do not make AYP, the whole school fails regardless of how high the other subgroups may have scored. In order to make AYP, some schools and states avoid reporting the scores of students with disabilities. They try to take advantage of the subgroups by manipulating their sizes, making the subgroups larger or smaller, to increase their chances of making AYP. To make the students with disabilities subgroup smaller, it is not unheard of for schools to avoid identifying students with disabilities or even to refuse their admission. If the subgroup does not meet the states’ minimum size requirement, then those subgroups’ scores are not reported. It is possible for students with disabilities to be overlooked and not have their needs met so the rest of the school can meet AYP (Reder, 2007). It is possible to change NCLB to better assess and meet the needs of students with disabilities. One way of improving NCLB is to ensure that students with disabilities are assessed on more than just academic skills. There are other necessary skills that students with disabilities need to develop. It is important to broaden the content that students with disabilities are assessed on. If there is too much emphasis on them leaning grade level content to pass the assessment, they are missing out on part of the special education curriculum. Part of the curriculum

includes occupational skills, life skills, and employability. New and improved assessments need to be developed and funded by the federal government in order to better assess students with disabilities (National Council on Disability, 2008). Another recommendation for NCLB is to change the four year graduation requirement. This would give students with disabilities a longer period of time to master the high school curriculum and other necessary life skills. IDEA and NCLB currently contradict each other on this subject. IDEA is much more flexible in the time students with disabilities have to graduate or meet their IEP goals. It allows them to remain in high school until they are 21. It is important 6

for NCLB to be amended and consistent with IDEA so it does not appear like students with disabilities are “non-completers” because they do not graduate in four years. They deserve the opportunity to finish high school and complete their curriculum in an extended amount of time. For this to happen, schools may need more funding from the government (National Council on Disability, 2008). It is also necessary to align NCLB and IDEA’s data systems and definitions. Both of them require data about programs and student outcomes to be collect and reported, but they use different reporting formats and definitions. The laws need to improve their alignment so data is not being collected more than once. NCLB also needs to be amended so that the success of all students is measured. This includes reporting post school outcomes (National Council on Disability, 2008). It is not plausible that students with disabilities will achieve the exact same standards at the same time as non-disabled students. There are changes that can be made to make a more reasonable, attainable goal. If the government changes the 100 percent proficiency level to slightly lower it would take into account students that cannot attain grade level proficiency. It is also possible to test students with severe disabilities on non-grade level material or to increase the time allowed for reaching proficiency. Students with more severe disabilities could still be required to make adequate progress, just not based on the same standards as students without disabilities. Because their IEP goals are specific to their needs and disability, these goals would make a good proficiency target. The Department of Education’s current proposal for reauthorizing NCLB states the following, “While the primary funding for programs specifically focused on supporting students with disabilities is through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the ESEA reauthorization proposal will increase support for the inclusion and improved outcomes of 7

students with disabilities. The proposal will help ensure that teachers and leaders are better prepared to meet the needs of diverse learners, that assessments more accurately and appropriately measure the performance of students with disabilities, and that more districts and schools implement high-quality, state- and locally determined curricula and instructional supports that incorporate the principles of universal design for learning to meet all students’ needs,” (U.S. Department of Education, 2010). Much of this, such as better trained teachers and assessments, is already stated in NCLB. It also does not mention a substantial increase in funding. There does not appear to be many changes to NCLB that will benefit students with disabilities. I believe that NCLB has been positive in the way that it has brought attention to students with disabilities. I think they should have been receiving this kind of attention all along. Every student is entitled to a good education that provides them with a solid foundation for when they graduate and enter the working world. Some students need more help than others, but everyone deserves a fair chance. However, just because schools know that even students with disabilities need to be proficient does not mean that they are getting a good education. Knowledge gained from teaching to the test is not going to get people very far in life. They need to learn life skills, be challenged, and learn to think for themselves. Students with disabilities are receiving attention which is good, but it now it needs to be channeled to a way that better suits their education. In my opinion, most of NCLB has created negative consequences. One simple assessment is not an appropriate way to test a student’s knowledge and deem them proficient or not. This is true for both students with disabilities and without. NCLB has brought upon too much negative pressure. Schools are too worried about making AYP that they are forgetting


about subjects besides math and reading. Spending so much time preparing for the assessment is wasting time that could be spend engaged in more difficult topics. I think it is reasonable for students with disabilities to be assessed according to the severity of their disability. Schools should still be held accountable for helping students with disabilities make progress and succeed. However, they should be assessed more appropriately if their failing scores alone could cause a school to fail AYP. The government needs to do a better job of making sure students with disabilities are being properly identified and receiving their services. They need to provide more adequate funding to ensure that all of this is possible. I do not think the current legislation does enough to ensure students with disabilities are getting a proper education. It does not strictly enforce the inclusion of students with disabilities. In some ways NCLB is actually making schools push them away because they do not want to fail to meet AYP. I think the Department of Education’s new proposal is inadequate. It recognizes that IDEA provides most of the funding for special education services, but it does not propose to increase its funding. Schools and states cannot train teachers more effectively and improve the curriculum, assessments, or support services without more money from the government. It seems like they are simply providing generic recommendations, some of which are already suppose to be happening because of the current NCLB. Before NCLB is reauthorized, more changes need to be make to ensure that students with disabilities are being fairly assessed and receiving the best education possible.


Works Cited

Chudowsky N.& Chudowsky V., Center on Education Policy. “State Test Score Trends through 2007-08, Part 4: Has Progress Made in Raising Achievement for Students with Disabilities?” 2009. <> Cortiella, C., National Center for Learning Disabilities. “Rewards and Roadblocks.” 2009. &page=0 National Assessment of Educational Progress. The Nations Report Card. 2010. <> National Council on Disability. “The No Child Left Behind Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act: A Progress Report”. 2008. < publications/2008/NoChildLeftBehind_IDEA_Progress_Report.html> Reder, N., National Association of State Directors of Special Education. “Accountability for Students with Disabilities.” 2007.< 1_ACCOUNTABILITY%20FOR%20STUDENTS%20WITH%20DISABILITIES.pdf> Talylor, J., Stecher, B., O’Day, J., Naftel, S., Le Floch, K. U.S. Department of Education. “State and Local Implementation of the "No Child Left Behind Act."” 2010. <> U.S. Department of Education. “Measuring the Achievement of Students with Disabilities.” 2007. <> U.S. Department of Education. “Diverse Learners.” 2010. <> U.S. Department of Education-Office of Special Education Programs. “Alignment with the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act.” 2007. < /index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id= 1344&oseppage=1>


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