No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) has been law now for more than a decade. With both Democrats and Republicans recently starting its reauthorization process, it is time to consider special education for students with disabilities that continues to raise various challenges.
Assessment of students with disabilities is perhaps the most difficult issue in No Child Left Behind. For decades students with disabilities were not assessed or even educated along with their peers. That changed with the passage of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). It mandated that students with disabilities participate in state assessments. States argued it was unfair for students with severe cognitive disabilities to take a general test because they were unable to demonstrate the skills being assessed.
To address state assessments and the participation of students with disabilities, the Department of Education issued regulations allowing states to alter assessments for some students. Students who received special education were permitted to have modifications to the state testing such as extra time, a reader for content testing, a calculator for math and so on. Students with the most severe cognitive disabilities could take an alternate assessment that covered less content and included less challenging questions. The Department also placed caps on the number of students whose scores could count as proficient on modified (2%) and alternate (1%) assessments. The intent of the policy was to ensure all students were counted and also to recognize that students with severe disabilities may not reach grade level proficiency.
Despite these changes, the core policy conflict remains. Some schools inappropriately administer modified assessments to students who could achieve proficiency on the general test to artificially raise scores. However, many of those students rightly take a modified assessment or an alternate assessment. The assessment of students with disabilities will remain problematic until researchers can gain a better understanding of all cognitive disorders. Until then policymakers will have to balance setting high expectations without overburdening schools and students.
Congress should update modified assessments and reauthorize alternate assessments but without a cap in its review of NCLB. Research indicates that very few students have the most severe cognitive disabilities but some districts may have a significantly higher rate of students with severe disabilities due to several factors. Punishing the district for doing a good job with students with disabilities is not the way to show that all learners are valued.