Under No Child Left Behind schools must for the first time track the progress of all special education and English learning students and make provisions to have nearly all score on par with their peers by 2014.
NCLB requires at least 95 percent of learning disabled (LD) and limited English proficient (LEP) students' scores on math, reading, and soon science, be included in the overall state yearly progress reports.
requirement is intended to help school administrators, parents,
state lawmakers and the Education Department monitor the progress
of students traditionally "left behind" in academic achievement.
But it has sparked heated debates over the effectiveness of standardized
tests for the two groups, and whether or not tests are an accurate
barometer of their academic progress or a drain on time and resources
for special needs students.
Because not all LD and LEP students are capable of taking the same tests as other students in their grade, NCLB provides some allowances and accommodations for special needs children, such as large-print test booklets, extended test periods, small groups or one-on-one testing sessions, helping students write their answers, using braille, sign language translators and computers as well as bilingual booklets for math tests.
Schools that do not meet their state's Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) goals in math and reading are considered "in need of improvement" and compelled to introduce an improvement plan to reach AYP, under NCLB.
Learning disabled requirements
Initially, NCLB allowed 1 percent of special education students to take alternate tests designed to measure the progress of students with severe cognitive disabilities.
But states complained that 1 percent was too small and that the inclusion of LD students' scores with the overall and subgroup assessment results caused many schools to fail.
In Michigan, for instance, administrators said special education students' test scores had caused a third of the state's schools to not meet AYP standards in 2003, the Houston Chronicle reported in Feb. 26, 2005.
response, Education Department Secretary Margaret Spellings in
April 2005 revised this policy, proposing a flexibility rule in
which eligible states could allow an additional 2 percent of disabled
students to take the alternate tests. But critics said many states
would not be able to meet the eligibility requirements, which
include schools showing they have achieved a steady increase in
test results, even if the improvement is below AYP goals.
"The flexibility that [the Education Department] put out there is something that every state needs -- it's not like those students are concentrated in one state or another," Patty Sullivan, director of the Center on Education Policy, told the New York Times in a May 11, 2005 article.
Recognizing that LD students may never attain grade-level academic
achievement, Spellings said the total 3 percent exemption would
apply not only to severely disabled students but also students
with more moderate disabilities, such as mild mental retardation
and serious emotional disturbances.
Advocates of the law say tests ask a lot of special education students, but argue that if students aren't required to be tested, there will be no measure -- or accountability -- to how those students are doing and how much they are learning, or not learning.
Learning Disabilities Association of America, on behalf of dozens of disabilities advocacy groups, endorsed NCLB for its accountability system to "ensure all children ... including those with disabilities, are prepared to be successful, participating members of our democracy."
But the group still raised a number of concerns about NCLB, including "over-emphasizing standardized testing, narrowing curriculum and instruction to focus on test preparation rather than richer academic learning; over-identifying schools in need of improvement; using sanctions that do not help improve schools; inappropriately excluding low-scoring children in order to boost test results; and inadequate funding."
The Education Department counters that the majority of the nation's 6.5 million special education students are capable of taking and passing achievement tests.
"The reality is that for too long, we haven't expected enough and we've made too many excuses that these kids cannot learn," Robert Pasternak, the Education Department's assistant secretary for special education, told the Tennessean newspaper in December 2003. "Some people are saying, 'Oh, we don't want to include those kids in our measurement standards,' and that's nonsense. That's not fair to the kids. That's not fair to the parents. That's not fair to the people who are paying the bills."
"What's fair is to see our kids making progress," Pasternak said.
Some special education experts complain that NCLB counteracts the ideals in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the federal law passed in 1975 that championed meeting the specific needs of each child.
Unlike NCLB, IDEA did not require schools to test LD students' academic progress against the same standards as other students, but focused on the specific concerns and the educational needs of each individual student.
"We've spent all these years believing that we need to address the individual needs of students, but that's been pushed aside somehow," Donna Parker, president of the Tennessee Association of Special Education Administrators, told the Tennessean. "There could be times when the child's needs would not correlate with the requirements of testing."
English learning requirements
NCLB's English language learning requirements are tied to Title III grants, worth about $676 million in 2005.
These funds must be used to assist the roughly 5.5 million limited English proficient (LEP), or English learning, and immigrant students in the United States -- 80 percent of whom speak Spanish as their first language -- achieve high levels in the core academic subjects so they can eventually succeed on the same level as native English speakers, according to an April 2005 Department of Education press release.
Under the law, LEP students, including migratory students whose parents move frequently, must meet the same reading, writing, listening and speaking proficiency standards as all other students by 2014.
The new requirements have the biggest effects in states such
as California, Arizona and Georgia, where LEP students represent
a rapidly growing subgroup. In fact, nationwide, LEP enrollment
has increased by 95 percent from 1991 to 2001 while total school
enrollment grew by some 12 percent, according to a study from
Harvard University's Civil Rights Project.
LEP students must take the standard math tests. The reading tests can be in their native language during their first three years of school in the United States. Those scores are included in the 95 percent participation requirement needed for the school's assessment and to achieve the state's AYP goals.
At the same time, schools must administer English proficiency tests every year to all LEP students and provide special language instruction so that these students can enter English-only classes as soon as possible.
must demonstrate annual improvements in the English proficiency
test scores if they want to qualify for the Title III grants.
States that do not meet performance goals for LEP students stand
to lose up to 10 percent of their language acquisition grants
the following year.
After LEP students have attended school in the United States for at least three years, they must be moved into English-only classes and are usually moved out of the LEP subgroup on the premise they have attained English proficiency.
Due to complaints, the Education Department eased the test assessment requirement in February 2004, saying schools did not have to include the test results of some LEP students during their first year of enrollment, said Kathleen Leos, the associate deputy of secretary of the Education Department's Office of English Language Acquisition. While schools can opt to not include some test results, all first-year non-English speakers still have to take the tests.
The exemption can be applied only once to students who do not demonstrate a grasp of the required content, even with special accommodations, during their first full year at a U.S. school.
In addition, schools can continue to count students who technically are no longer in the LEP subgroup as LEP students for the purposes of AYP calculations for up to two years.
This revision allowed these students to continue taking the reading tests in their native language and to participate in after-school tutoring services to help them master English for up to two years.
The National Council of La Raza called this "an important change because many schools that are successful in helping [English learning students] become English proficient may be unfairly punished under NCLB because these children sometimes continue to lag behind in other academic areas and could lower overall test scores for some schools."
Many advocacy groups have praised NCLB for focusing attention on LEP students, increasing school accountability for their performance and education and providing additional resources for schools serving LEP students, according to a study by Harvard University's Civil Rights Project.
Janet Murguia, executive director of National Council of La Raza, said in a March 8, 2005 speech that the group supported the law and "its provisions that, for the first time in history, call for closing the achievement gap between Latino and other students."
But the Harvard researchers and those from the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards and Student Testing (CRESST) at the University of California cautioned that relying on standardized tests to measure the yearly academic progress of LEP students is not always accurate.
For instance, the CRESST researchers found the tests originally created for native English speakers are less understandable when translated directly into other students' native language, putting the LEP students at a disadvantage.
Whether or not recent changes -- and the NCLB law in general -- help non-English speaking students integrate into regular classes and improve their academic achievement will be evaluated in the coming years.