Education / Politics

Left on the Curb? Reauthorization, Standardization & Special Education

This year marks the fourteenth year since the enactment of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). As a largely unpopular act, lawmakers are up for an interesting year as Congress plans to complete the reauthorization of this act, eight years past its planned reauthorization. With the first Senate Health Education Labor Pension (HELP) full committee hearing taking place last week, redefining school accountability and assessment takes focus for this reauthorization. However, closing remarks from Senator Murphy highlighted a subgroup that is often forgotten when discussing assessment and accountability: special education students.

“Because of the cost pressures on local school districts to provide a full complement of educational services with kids with disabilities… many [children with special needs] were spending a part of their week with the janitor in technical education and being largely ignored,” stated Murphy during the HELP Senate hearing on January 21.

However, under the current NCLB these same students who spend time with the janitor are required to complete the same standardized tests as their classmates. While some special education students may complete the test with accommodations, special education students, teachers and schools are held responsible for achieving these national standards.

At first glance, high-stakes standardized testing incentivizes educators to ensure special education students meet the same standards as peers. The data from the testing can enlighten teachers on the learned skills of the special education students versus the average student. Since the goal with NCLB was to reach educational equity, the motives to include special education students in NCLB is clear. This measure taken to create data and accountability among student groups is a movement in the right direction. However, standardization in special education can put an unfortunate focus on special education students for the wrong reasons.

Some flexibility is offered to educators and students in terms of who gets tested, but this may present an opportunity for some educators to play the system using special education students. NCLB requires ninety-five percent of students from elementary to high school be assessed through annual standardized tests which align with national academic standards in reading and math. Currently, thirteen percent of the student population receives special education services. This means that nationally eight percent of students are special education students who are required to take the national standardized test.

The majority of these special education students do not suffer from extreme mental disabilities. Special education students can fit in the normal range on the intelligence scale. The largest group of special education students classify as students with a specific learning disability which the Federal government defines as average or above average on the intelligence scale.

NCLB recognizes that some students may have significant cognitive disabilities that prevent them from attaining grade-level achievement standards, even with the very best instruction. NCLB allows an alternate assessment based on alternate achievement standards.

A witness to the HELP senate hearing, Dr. Martin R. West, an associate professor of education and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, noted some implications behind standardization in special education.

“Some schools will find a way to game the system. They might reclassify students as being eligible for special education if that exempts them from the accountable pool of students in order to avoid being sanctioned,” stated Dr. West during his testimony. He further elaborated this point by referencing a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

In this study, researchers found that schools pressured to earn a higher grade saw an increase in the classification of low-scoring students as students with disabilities in order to exempt them from the accountability system. In turn, these students suffered large declines in their post-secondary attainment and earnings from a system designed to do the opposite.

In general, accountability in standardized testing stands out as a heavily debated topic in the reauthorization of NCLB. With special education added to the mix, it creates an even trickier situation. Students with all different abilities should be able to meet certain standards. Data should be available for parents wishing to see their child’s academic ability. However, schools must be able to have the resources and funding to adequately prepare these special education students.

Instead of working alongside janitors, these students need teaching from experts. In the reauthorization, lawmakers need to make certain that there is a system with accountability, flexibility and funding. Without this, special education students will be left behind out on the curb just like trash to be picked up.