IDEA 2003: Reauthorization or Retrofit?

Will the new disabilities statutes mesh with the demands of No Child Left Behind? by JUDY L. ELLIOTT
Good news comes to special educators in different packages. Congress came out with a new law that covers all students, including those with disabilities and English language learners. This law, of course, is the No Child Left Behind Act. As a result, superintendents, assessment and evaluation directors and special education administrators are scrambling to ferret out the particulars and comply with the law.

The imminent reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act adds an unknown wrinkle to what inclusive assessment and accountability systems may look like for students with disabilities. Will it be different: an add-on, an overlay or the same as that spelled out in No Child Left Behind?

In any case, both laws point in the same direction of accountability--outcomes over process, parental options, and use of empirically based teaching methods. These laws together provide a long-awaited opportunity for general educators and special educators to work together to bridge the divide that exists between the two fields. Common areas to both fields that are affected by NCLB include access to core curriculum, opportunity to learn, research-based teaching methodology and data-based decision making.

Closing the Gap
One overriding premise of No Child Left Behind is that all students will be proficient by the 2013-2014 school year. While set in the landscape of standards, not all students with disabilities are working on the same standards as other students. Although IDEA 1997 requires students with disabilities to have access to the same standards as general education students, we know many do not.

Some argue that the student's individual education program is the curriculum they should be working on. But what large-scale test of accountability measures and reflects IEP progress? How are these students’ IEP outcomes aggregated and publicly reported? In other words, the IEP simply does not have the capacity to meet the requirements of what both laws, NCLB and IDEA ’97, require.

As it stands the IEP is trying to serve at least four purposes--compliance, instructional blueprint, assessment and accountability. This clearly is not possible or feasible. Therefore, much work remains to provide all students with IEPs access to the general education standards and curriculum with accommodations where necessary and inclusion in assessment and accountability systems. If NCLB is truly about no child being left behind, then the reauthorization of IDEA must align and reinforce many facets of the new law that have been introduced.

Closing the gap for English language learners, be they in special education or not, presents another challenge. The simple nature of students who are learning the English language changes constantly. These students often are reclassified and replaced by more and different ELL students. The cohort of students from year to year is not the same.

This same phenomenon can be seen with students with disabilities. Year to year new and different cohorts of students emerge. Students enter and exit special education on a regular basis. The cohort of students changes constantly. For both populations of students, the range of language acquisition and disability can be vastly different year to year. Closing the gap will not be a simple task.

Assessment of All
While IDEA 1997 requires all students with disabilities to be accounted for in state and district assessment and accountability systems, we know that is not happening at present. In fact, according to the National Center on Educational Outcomes, only 35 states reported the mandated aggregated and disaggregated data of students with disabilities in some of their assessments. Sixteen states reported participation and performance results for students with disabilities on all their tests. To date, most states report the number of students taking tests while nine states report participation rates. At NCEO, this practice is fondly known as “drifting denominators and nimble numerators.”

Then there is the seemingly contentious issue of providing students with disabilities accommodations they need to show what they know without impact of their disability. As required by IDEA 1997, students with disabilities are allowed necessary accommodations on state and district assessments. Yet states still continue to create and approve finite lists of accommodations that are allowed and not allowed on assessments. Most often these lists lack data and empirical evidence to show that they invalidate the test construct, thereby being deemed non-standard or unpermitted accommodations. Lawsuits by parents of students with disabilities abound and are increasing over the denial of necessary accommodations on assessments, especially high-stakes tests. How these students will be included in the required growth or adequate yearly progress as required by No Child Left Behind remains to be seen.

What comes first--the accommodation or the assessment? This issue begs many questions. What exactly is measured when students are denied necessary accommodations? What is measured when they are allowed? Are we about the business of valid assessment or simple compliance? In 1999, the U.S. Department of Education Title I Testing and Assessment Committee perhaps said it best when they published the following statement: "… the purpose of assessment and accountability is to improve the quality of instruction in schools and school systems, rather than simply to measure and report school effectiveness." The real challenge is finding a way to do both.

The No Child Left Behind Act requires early intervention, particularly in the area of literacy. This is good news in that potentially there could be a reduction in the number of students referred for special education testing, predominantly in grade 3, due to reading problems. Under IDEA, all supplementary aids and resources must be documented and tried before a student can be deemed eligible for special education. The two laws seem to mesh nicely here.

However, we all know how litigious the field of special education can be. How then will a parent’s request for special education assessment, especially in the area of literacy, be handled? Should it be different than it is now? For example, if a school district follows the spirit of NCLB and the student in question is provided early intervention but fails to meet a set proficiency standard and continues to struggle, when does it pull the proverbial plug on testing for special education? And when it does, will the district face a due process hearing where compensatory services are sought for the years or the time the student was left to struggle and/or fail without special education intervention?

Parents of students with disabilities who attend schools identified as failing under the federal law and who are instructed by a not yet certified or credentialed teacher may consider filing for due process against their school district under NCLB. But what if a free and appropriate education is being provided? NCLB or IDEA--which will it be? Who will bear the responsibility and cost of these situations?

Reporting Results
Currently many states are re-examining the benchmark or proficiency standards previously set. Prior to NCLB, under the guise of standards-based reform, states developed or revamped assessment and accountability systems and set standards for what all students should know and be able to do. It has been reported that states now are considering and, in fact, lowering proficiency levels in order to ensure more students will meet adequate yearly progress. But what are we about--closing the gap or adequate yearly progress or both? As NCLB stands, statisticians already have eloquently shown that states and districts can meet the academic progress requirements without ever closing the gap. How then will all data of students, including those who use standard and non-standard accommodations, be included in state accountability systems and ultimately adequate yearly progress?

What constitutes a subgroup is also a critical issue. Hurray for students with disabilities or English language learners who now have been included as a subgroup in NCLB. But how many is enough for them to be truly considered a subgroup that will count?

For example, an urban high school of approximately 4,000 students in Long Beach, Calif., failed to meet its state academic performance index. The reason? In a state that mandates a subgroup size of 100 students, one subgroup of 111 students did not meet its state-set growth target. As a result, while the school met its statewide target, the school did not meet its API, even though all of the other subgroups met their growth targets. The hard reality is this: Should 111 students of 4,000 be able to have such an impact on the entire school? The harder reality is, yes, that is what NCLB is all about, leaving no child behind.

This subgroup issue looms large for urban school districts with incredible diversity. When a state dictates a small subgroup size, say 30 students as in North Carolina, large diverse schools and districts will have more subgroups, thereby increasing the chance for schools to fail to make adequate progress.

Potential Backlash
We must anticipate the reauthorization of IDEA will thoughtfully address the unresolved and contentious assessment and accountability issues left in the wake of NCLB related to students with disabilities, including English language learners. Clearly, these issues and those of the qualified teacher and paraprofessional are not solely special education issues. They are issues affecting all children in both general and special education.

Special education carries with it a suitcase full of due process rights, procedures, and required documentation. While perhaps an unintended consequence, special education holds many more opportunities through costly due process hearings to address the problems of a system of services that may not be working rather than spending time and money on student access and learning outcomes.

The potential backlash of No Child Left Behind on the field of special education is ever looming. For the first time students with disabilities are mandated to be included by general education and special education in accountability systems. Test scores and growth targets are to include all students, including those with disabilities and second-language learners. General education administrators are waking up slowly and examining what has transpired in the assessment and accountability environment. How often have you heard an administrator say, "Can you believe special education students are now a subgroup?" If we truly are about leaving no child behind, then all students and teachers need to be well trained, supported and held accountable for standards-based learning and instruction.

NCLB puts teeth in the rhetoric of standards-based reform. Superintendents and boards of education at district and state levels are left to implement a law that some feel requires a retrofitting of current assessment and accountability systems with new requirements. The current IDEA reauthorization efforts also lends a certain level of speculation as to its fit or alignment with NCLB. Five years have passed since the last reauthorization of IDEA. The good part is there is always room for improvement., The bad part is the landscape remains highly litigious and forever changing. The ugly part is that, as a nation, we have not fully implemented the regulations of IDEA ‘97.Reauthorize or retrofit--where are we going and how will we know when we get there?

Judy Elliott is assistant superintendent for special education in the Long Beach Unified School District, 1515 Hughes Way, Long Beach, CA 90810. E-mail: jelliott@lbusd.k12.ca.us