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Last modified: Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Report: No Child Left Behind is out of step with special education

Survey reveals conflicts for school administrators

Nov. 15, 2006

EDITORS: The No Child Left Behind Act is scheduled for reauthorization in 2007. Federal hearings are currently underway to determine potential revisions to the law. The policy brief described in this release is intended for use by state and federal decision makers who are presently reviewing reports on the implementation of the act.

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- How has the No Child Left Behind Act affected students with disabilities? A report issued today by the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy and the Indiana Institute on Disability and Community, both at Indiana University, outlines both the positive effects and the unintended consequences of the law. The report indicates that while efforts to meet NCLB accountability standards have improved short-term student outcomes, the act's narrow assessment criteria creates pressure for schools to reverse inclusion efforts and may contribute to higher drop-out rates among students with disabilities.

Researchers at CEEP and IIDC conducted a statewide survey of school administrators in Indiana in addition to reviewing data from a range of national studies. They report that progress toward NCLB objectives is evident among students with disabilities, but most states are not making Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) as defined by the act due to the special education subgroup. This situation puts pressure on schools to remove special education students from general education classrooms, undoing years of progress toward inclusion in mainstream schooling.

"Few people would argue with the intent of No Child Left Behind. We do need high standards, and we do need to be accountable for every child in every school. But there have been a number of unintended consequences that have had a negative impact on students with disabilities," said Sandi Cole, director of the IIDC's Center on Education and Lifelong Learning and author of the report. "The best and most positive effect that NCLB has had on special education is that students with disabilities now count as part of the assessment system.

"But the system needs to make sense," she continued. "Don't we want to know how much a child is progressing towards the standards? Don't we want schools to be measured according to that progress? Right now, they either pass or they fail. We need a system that values learning and growth over time, in addition to helping students reach high standards."

The policy brief can be viewed at The brief cites many positive effects of NCLB, including access to high standards and curriculum, improved test scores and enhanced collaboration between special education and general education teachers.

The unintended consequences identified in the report include a narrowed curriculum and a "scapegoat" mentality that casts special education as the obstacle to schools trying to make AYP. In addition, Indiana administrators who responded to the survey indicate that NCLB testing has led to higher numbers of students with disabilities dropping out of school.

The report also points to a central conflict between the two federal mandates affecting special education -- NCLB and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act, originally passed in 1997 and reauthorized in 2004. IDEIA calls for individualized curriculum and assessments that determine success based on growth and improvement each year. NCLB, in contrast, measures all students by the same markers, which are based not on individual improvement but by proficiency in math and reading.

"Schools are being asked to do two very different things," Cole said. "On the one hand, they are accountable for each student's Individualized Education Program under IDEIA and they need to measure progress over time. But No Child Left Behind measures achievement based on a standardized score at one point in time during the year, and does not give schools credit for a student's IEP goals."

The policy brief offers the following recommendations:

Revisions to NCLB

  • Implement growth models to track individual student progress.
  • Permit states to set separate starting points and trajectories by subgroup, school and/or district that are based solely on performance (not on demographic factors). These targets would still need to ensure that by 2014 all students will either be proficient or on their trajectory toward proficiency.
  • Ensure that any school or district that is on a trajectory to make proficiency before 2014 is included in the definition of "safe harbor."

Indiana implementations

  • NCLB allows states to create a three-tiered system of alternate assessments for students with disabilities, but Indiana currently utilizes only one alternate assessment that applies to students who have severe cognitive disabilities. Indiana should implement a second alternate assessment to be used with students who have cognitive disabilities that are not severe.
  • Indiana must seek greater alignment between NCLB and Indiana's P.L. 221 school improvement initiative. Both systems have advantages: P.L. 221 recognizes both overall student performance and improvements in student performance, while NCLB disaggregates subgroup scores so that the performance of special education students can be monitored. However, due to conflicting requirements, schools cannot be expected to meet both criteria.

The mission of the IIDC is to work with communities to welcome, value and support the meaningful participation of people of all ages and abilities through research, education and service.

CEEP promotes and supports rigorous nonpartisan program evaluation and policy research primarily, but not exclusively, for education, human services and non-profit organizations. Its research uses both quantitative and qualitative methodologies.

To speak with Cole, call 812-855-6508 or e-mail