NCLB and Students with LD: Myths, Facts and What the Future Holds
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During this LD Talk, our expert, Candace Cortiella, will answer your questions about No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and discuss how and why the National Center for Learning Disabilities is a strong proponent for many of the provisions under NCLB, as they relate to students with learning disabilities.
As executive director of the Advocacy Institute, a parent of an adult child with learning disabilities and a member of NCLD’s Professional Advisory Board, Candace Cortiella is uniquely qualified to answers your questions, dispel common myths about NCLB and to provide insights into implementing NCLB in the future.
Don't miss the opportunity to have this true advocate share her experience and expertise with you. Please take a moment to ask us your most pressing questions about assessment and instruction under NCLB -- tell us about the realities your children or students with learning disabilities face as their schools work to implement NCLB. We want to learn more about the topics under NCLB that are most important to you.
In addition, by participating in this Talk you will get a first look at NCLD’s new publication, "Challenging Change," a report that highlights how several schools and school districts are seeing results as they work to improve academic outcomes for students with disabilities under NCLB.
The National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD) has a special interest in the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) as the law focuses on improving academic achievement for all children, including improving instructional practice for children who struggle with learning. While the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) mandates the provision of a free appropriate public education (FAPE) for students with disabilities, it contains no provisions setting high expectations and holding schools accountable for their progress. It is NCLB that has provided the long-needed requirement of school accountability and emphasis on doing what works to improve results for students with disabilities.
Under NCLB, accountability is achieved by requiring:
- High academic standards for all students;
- Annual academic assessments in reading and math for all students (includes grades 3-8, and once in high school)
- Reports cards that disaggregate student achievement by subgroups, including students with disabilities, and,
- Sanctions for Title I schools that fail to show continuous improvement toward the goal of having ALL students performing at proficient levels in reading and math by 2014.
Each state develops its own grade level academic content standards – what all students need to know and academic achievement standards – how well students need to know the content standards. States also design the assessments used for annual testing.
NCLD's new report, Challenging Change, highlights how two schools and three school districts from around the nation are working to dramatically improve the academic achievement of their special education students. The educators profiled have taken on the challenge of implementing reforms that lead to significant progress for students with disabilities—nearly half of whom have learning disabilities (LD). Download this important report today!
Our expert today – Candace Cortiella – has written and presented extensively on NCLB and its impact on students with disabilities. We look forward to the dialogue with you on the many aspects of NCLB and welcome both of you to this discussion.
–Laura Kaloi, NCLD's public policy director and moderator of today's online chat.
Read more about Candace Cortiella
NCLB requires schools to bring all students – including most students with IEPs – to the “proficient” level (or above) in reading and math (based on states’ academic content and achievement standards) by 2013-2014. Incremental improvement toward that goal must be demonstrated every year through the required assessments (reading/math annually in Grades 3-8 and once in high school, between grades 10-12). Schools and districts that fail to achieve the required level of percentage of students proficient on these assessments do not make AYP and must engage in improvement activities. In addition, schools that receive Title I funds must make school choice available to all students in the school after 2 consecutive years of not making AYP. After 3 consecutive years, Title I schools must continue to offer choice while also providing supplemental educational services to low-income students. Additional “sanctions” for schools that continue to not make AYP are added each year.
In addition to the basic AYP requirements, NCLB also includes the Reading First grant program that has provided billions of dollars of additional funding to schools with very low reading achievement.
Additional information about using NCLB requirements to help struggling students is available in “Making NCLB Work for Children Who Struggle to Learn: A Parent's Guide.”
Special education – as defined by IDEA – is “specially designed instruction, at no cost to parents, to meet the unique needs of a child with a disability, including instruction conducted in the classroom, in the home, in hospitals and institutions, and in other settings …” [20 U.S.C. §1401 (29)]. “Specially-designed instruction is defined as “adapting, as appropriate to the child’s needs, the content, methodology, or delivery of instruction to address the unique needs of the child that result from the child’s disability; to ensure access of the child to the general education curriculum, so that the child can meet the educational standards within the jurisdiction of the public agency that apply to all children.” [34 CFR §300.39 (b)(3)]
So, based on these definitions, students who are found eligible for special education due to a reading deficit should NOT be considered as unable to become proficient on grade-level reading assessments. Rather, these students should receive the intensive, specially-designed instruction that is necessary to get them to a proficient level.
It is important to remember that proficiency on state standards, as measured by state assessments, is not necessarily a terribly high degree of difficulty. In fact, several studies have looked at the percentage of students within each state who are performing at the proficient (or above) level on state assessments compared to the percent of students performing at the proficient level on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in 4th grade reading. As the map here shows, one study found that more than half of the states had a proficiency gap of 41-60 percent – the gap between the rate of proficiency on NAEP vs. state assessments. This indicates that many state academic content standards in reading lack rigor.
So, before we sell students with reading disabilities short – by claiming that their reading difficulties preclude them from performing at a proficient level – we should look carefully at exactly WHAT the level of proficiency on state assessments requires -- see page 17 of NCLD's Rewards and Roadblocks report. Students with disabilities are showing significant improvement on the NAEP, most likely a result of the accountability this group has gained because of NCLB. The National Center for Learning Disabilities reported on this improvement in a press release available here.
Standardized, norm-referenced achievement testing certainly has a place in the instructional program of students with LD – particularly for pinpointing particular areas of weakness in order to formulate a student’s specially-designed instruction. As for the issue of read-aloud – this accommodation is useful under certain circumstances, particularly when trying to measure comprehension (vs. decoding skills). It is, however, an accommodation under much debate across states with regard to its use in large-scale testing. NCLD examined the issue of testing accommodations in a report released last summer, “State Testing Accommodations: Their Value and Validity”.
Are the requirements on NCLD realistic with regard to the requirements for the severely disabled students needing to pass assessments that are beyond their cognitive abilities, now and, most likely, in the future?
The chart below shows the breakdown of special education students by disability category. Only those categories marked ** would, in fact, by definition seem to indicate a disability with severe cognitive deficits such that would preclude instruction in the general education curriculum (with special education supports and services).
Recognizing that some students with disabilities will not be able - because of the severity of their disability - to attain proficiency on grade-level even with the best instruction, NCLB federal regulations allow an alternate assessment based on alternate achievement standards (AA-AAS) for students with significant cognitive disabilities. All states currently have this assessment in use as part of their assessment options. IEP teams decide how a student with disabilities will participate in the state assessment system.
Another alternate assessment is also allowable under NCLB – called an alternate assessment based on modified achievement standards (AA-MAS), which is available for limited numbers of IDEA students. Some states have an AA-MAS in place, others are in the process of developing, still other states have decided not to develop such an alternate. Readers can check with their state department of education on the status of an AA-MAS. It is important to remember that, regardless of the type of assessment a student takes, the results are part of the overall student results for the school, as well as the “students with disabilities” subgroup, as required by NCLB, for AYP purposes.
Additional information on the assessment options allowable under NCLB can be found in NCLD’s Parent Advocacy Brief, Understanding Assessment Options for IDEA-eligible Students.
Details of the alternate assessment based on modified achievement standards is the focus of a guide from the National Center on Educational Outcomes.
So, the ‘exit exam’ imposed by your state is a state policy. About half of the states currently have “exit exams” that students must pass to receive a regular diploma. Some states have developed other types of diplomas that can be awarded to students – including some students with disabilities – who are not able to pass the required exit exam or exams. The impact of exit exams on students w/ LD is the subject of NCLD’s Parent Advocacy Brief, “Understanding High-Stakes Testing and Its Impact on Students with Learning Disabilities.
You and your son’s IEP team should begin now to plan out an instructional program that will accelerate his rate of learning in order to get his reading and math skills to a level that will enable him to pass the state exam(s). There should be multiple opportunities, remedial services, and alternate ways to show knowledge for the state exam(s). Also be sure to investigate the alternate diplomas your state is offering.
I think that we have good reason to feel that help is on the way. First, initial discussions about the reauthorization of NCLB - which will be accomplished within the next year or so by Congress - have contained suggestions to deal with this issue. The most dramatic suggestion would be to set in law a MAXIMUM number - say 20 or 30 - that states could not exceed. NCLD has been a strong advocate for new provisions in the next iteration of the ESEA (NCLB) to limit "n" sizes so that more schools will be accountable for subgroup performance in AYP determinations.
Next, we have a new regulatory requirement now in effect that requires all states that have been using a higher 'n' size for the student with disabilities subgroup to use the same 'n' size for all subgroups, beginning next school year.
Lastly, we have a PROPOSED regulatory change that would require states to provide much more information to the US Dept. of Education in defense of the 'n' size they are requesting to use. If these proposed regulations go into effect, USED will begin a highly degree of scrutiny in this area.
We should also not forget the power of constituent advocacy at the state level. Parents should look into the issue of 'n' size within their respective states. They should ask how many schools in the state are NOT required to make AYP for subgroups because of the 'n' size in use...if that percentage is high, than the matter needs examination.
An example of the impact of 'n' size is found below. It shows that the current 'n' size used by California results in 89% of schools in the state not needing to make AYP at the subgroup level for special education students. A change in the 'n' size - from the current 100 to 20 - would result in 70% of schools needing to achieve AYP for the subgroup. That's a huge change in accountability!
The degree and area of differentiation is driven by a students IEP. The standards-based accountability system imposed on states by NCLB has, however, helped drive a new approach to formulating IEPs for students with disabilities. This approach, called "Standards-based IEPs" - puts the state academic content standards for the students ENROLLED GRADE at the center of the IEP process. This approach helps teachers design interventions - differentiated instruction - that is aimed at getting students to proficiency on state assessments.
This new approach is the topic of a new Advocacy Brief from the NCLD, "Understandint the Standards-based Individualized Education Program (IEP)".
The IEP's of all students w/ LD should be based on state standards - their teachers and their parents should have a thorough understanding of exactly how the student is performing compared to his/her enrolled grade. Only then will we be putting students on the trajectory needed to achieve proficiency.
"Modifications" are different that accommodations - they actually change (to some degree) what is being measured by the assessment. The alternate assessment on modified achievement standards allowable under NCLB regulations - is another way to assess students with disabilities who are several grade levels behind in academic skills. The ways that the assessment 'modifies' the particular achievement standard is discussed in the NCEO guide.
As for the testing of kids with disabilities – NCLB does require that ALL students be tested annually in reading and math in grades 3-8 and once in high school. Testing students – including those who receive special education services – is a way to hold schools, districts, and states accountable for their performance. Prior to NCLB, many students with disabilities were not included in state assessment systems (despite IDEA’s requirement that they be included) OR they were tested below their enrolled grade level. The result was a lack of information about their level of achievement, a lack of attention on behalf of schools, and a lack of awareness among parents about just how their child was performing in relation to state standards and their non-disabled peers.
While making the transition from years of little or no accountability for the performance of special education students to the standards-based accountability system imposed by NCLB is difficult, students are and will continue to benefit. The efforts of schools and districts profiled in NCLD’s new report, "Challenging Change: How Schools and Districts are Improving the Performance of Special Education Students" illustrate the impact of this new accountability.
First, the National Center for Learning Disabilities does, in fact, support incorporating a measure of student growth into the criteria for determining if a school makes "adequate yearly progress" under NCLB. Several states have already begun to use a growth model under a pilot program created by the U.S. Department of Education (USED) some time back.
Many anticipate when NCLB is reauthorized by Congress – which should occur in the next year or so – a growth model will be added to AYP. Certainly, everyone agrees that schools [and teachers] should get credit for student growth. However, proficiency still remains the goal for all students under the current guidelines established by USED. A measure of ONLY student growth would do little to move the nation’s school children to an acceptable rate of performance in reading and math – particularly those students who are part of groups that historically under-perform.
We also need to work much harder at not letting students – including students w/ LD – get so far behind that it becomes almost impossible for them to catch up. Changes made in the 2004 update of IDEA reagrding how students are identified and found eligible for special education in the LD category should – over time- lead to earlier intervention for struggling students.
The National Center for Learning Disabilities has played a critical role in trying to bring about needed changes to these procedures and to get help to students earlier so they don’t fall years behind. No Child Left Behind also helps in this regard, bringing needed attention to the performance of all students and particular groups of students so that schools can formulate instructional changes that help students make consistent progress.
Many states were already administering state assessments in reading and math, and many other areas, prior to the enactment of NCLB. It is the accountability provisions of NCLB that have garnered such attention. However, if US students had been showing significant improvements in reading and math, it is doubtful that the US Congress would have enacted such dramatic changes to the ESEA when it reauthorized it in 2001 - calling it "No Child Left Behind."
In many ways, NCLB is NOT asking for states, districts, and schools to do MORE - but rather, to do things DIFFERENTLY. The cost of doing something differently - such as researched-based reading instruction - shouldn't be substantial, especially once the system is retooled via curriclum, professional development, etc.
There is a need for more advocacy regarding the federal government's contribution toward education - both under NCLB and IDEA. Members of Congress need to hear from their constituents that education appropriations need to be dramatically increased. Lack of IDEA federal funding is the focus of an article that I wrote for Exceptional Parent magazine. The National Center for Learning Disabilities works hard on this issue every year in Washington, along with other disability organizations.
Excessive use of 'modifications' can certainly interfere with real remediation. Over-reliance on accommodations can have the same effect. This is why there are limits on accommodations that can be used during state assessments, and why NCLB put strict limitations on the use of "out of level" testing for students with disabitilies. Therefore, NCLB is providing for a more accurate look at how students with disabilities are performing . Everyone should be grateful for this new level of transparency and accountability.
In preparing the new report, Challenging Change: How Schools and Districts are Improving the Performance of Special Education Students we found that a component of all effective programs is inclusive practices - putting special education students and special education teachers in general education classrooms along with general education students and teachers. This type of instructional arrangement also provides an opportunity to special education teachers to assist struggling general education students with particular interventions , strategies, accommodations, etc. while not jeopardizing the obligation that the special education teacher has to the IDEA-eligible students. This type of benefit is allowable under IDEA.
My advice to the new special education teacher is to discuss her concerns with her principal and to ask for more clarity regarding her responsibilities and obligations to non-IDEA eligible students and their teachers. After all, progress on the IEP goals of the students assigned to the teacher should be the first priority. I suspect that parents of students who fail to meet IEP goals won't be happy to hear that their students didn't make the anticipated progress because the teacher was assisting students without IEPs - whether through teacher consultation or direct services.
Some states have been using a "growth model" as part of a pilot program established by USED. These states have not reported significant differences in the number of schools achieving AYP when student 'growth' is factored in...so the question of how much difference this change will make remains unclear. Still, we should expect some changes to the current "status" model of AYP determination in NCLB when the law is reauthorized by Congress.
Minimum subgroup size, frequently called “minimum-n” or simple “N-size”, refers to the minimum number of students within each subgroup a school or district must contain across the grades assessed before the requirement to achieve AYP for the subgroup is required.
The required subgroups under NCLB are:
- Economically disadvantaged students;
- Students with disabilities (IDEA-eligible);
- Students with limited English proficiency;
- Students from major racial/ethnic groups.
In other words, if a school (or district) does not have the minimum number of students for a subgroup, that subgroup is treated as meeting AYP for the purposes of determining whether the school (or district) met AYP.
The NCLB requirement that schools and districts separate out the performance of these important student groups - including students with disabilities - is essential to learning what lies beneath the total school performance. Too often, the total school performance indicates adequate, even outstanding, academic performance among the students while certain groups of student within the school population are in fact doing very poorly. NCLB's requirement to report separately on the performance of subgroups is critical to improving the achievement of the students who historically perform poorly.
States submit a proposed ‘N-size’ as part of their NCLB Accountability Plan to the U.S. Department of Education for approval. Guidelines for establishing the ‘N-size’ are articulated in current NCLB as:
- a number large enough to yield statistically reliable information, and
- protect personally identifiable information about an individual student.
Such requirements would suggest that an acceptable ‘N-size’ would, in fact, be quite low. In turn, a low ‘N-size’ would hold most schools in a state accountable for the performance of important subgroups of students.
One of the difficulties, however, has been a lack of leadership by the US Dept. of Education with regard to establishing the criteria for what 'scientific research' is in education. The "What Works Clearinghouse" was established to help with this, but moved slowly to identify materials and practices for the field. The US Dept. of Ed recently introduced a companion web site to the WWC, the "Doing What Works" to show its ongoing commitment to support the implementation of research-based practices in the classroom.
Annual goals set forward in the student's IEP should reflect the expectation for the student's ENROLLED GRADE -- but only in the areas of the student's deficit(s) - such as reading or math. Goals for other areas, such as behavioral, are also included as needed.
Goals in academic areas should reflect BOTH the grade skills the student needs to master, but also access skills related to the grade-level standard(s) that the student must learn.
Additional information is available in the Advocacy Brief recently released by NCLD available here.
However, there are a multitude of reason why a student’s IEP cannot and should not be used for NCLB accountability. Specifically, these are:
- The IEP outlines agreed upon services and supports required to address the individual needs of a student that enable him or her to participate in the regular education curriculum aligned to the standards set for all and with his or her peers without disabilities to the maximum extent appropriate.
- The IEP serves as a tool for monitoring individual child progress based only on the effectiveness of the individualized services and supports developed to address the student’s disability related educational needs.
- The IEP is not designed or utilized as a tool for holding schools accountable for ensuring that students with disabilities are taught to the academic content and achievement standards established by the state for all students. As a result, a student's annual goals are often set too low and do not align with state or district content standards.
- It is not possible to aggregate performance data from IEP goals to use as valid, reliable data in determining accountability at a school, district or state level .
- There are no consequences attached to a student’s failure to attain individual IEP goals.
- IEP teams do not make curriculum decisions.
- Some 14 percent of public school students currently receive special education supports nationally. The rate is as high as 20% in some states. To exclude students with disabilities from the determination of Adequate Yearly Progress as required by NCLB, or to marginalize their participation by using IEP goal attainment as an alternative measure will limit accountability for one of every 5 to 7 public school students and will surely result in a violation of their civil rights under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.
The National Center for Learning Disabilities does NOT support the use of IEP goals for school accountability in NCLB. The U.S. Dept. of Education is also "on the record" (in non-regulatory guidance) that IEP goals are not acceptable ways to measure student proficiency for purposes of NCLB.
Also, are private schools & home schools required to meet NCLB standards?
In some states, parents are allowed by state law to OPT their child OUT of the state assessments -- this applies to ALL students - not just students with disabilities.
Students who are in private school and who are home schooled are not required to take the assessments required by NCLB. However, if a student with an IEP is placed in a private school by his/her IEP team, then the student MUST be assessed as required by NCLB and his/her performance should be incorporated into the school that the student would attend if not disabled.
Today's live Talk has concluded. Thank you to Candace Cortiella for her thoughtful and informative answers and to the participants for their questions.
Additional resources from NCLD related to this topic: