Changes to NCLB in the offing
Educators struggling with reaching state assessment mandates under the federal No Child Left Behind law might get a slight reprieve in the 2006-2007 school year, at least in the realm of special education. During a meeting with education leaders from across the nation Thursday, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings announced new flexibility in testing special education that could allow up to 2 percent of students to take an alternate assessment test, granted they have persistent academic disabilities.
"We have learned a lot over the last three years as our infant law has matured, and these past three years have helped us be smarter about how this law is working in the schools," Spellings said in a release.
"This new approach recognizes that these children should not all be treated alike...This new policy focuses on children."
Spellings said that the flexibility won’t be open to all states, only to those that show a commitment to raise test scores. Some in Washington said the rules will lead to favoritism.
NCLB, enacted in 2002, dictates that all children must be "proficient" in their grade level by 2014. It was a bipartisan education reform law and President Bush’s chief claim to being "the education president."
But the law has come under attack from educators since it was enacted -- not for the principle of holding schools accountable for education, but for funding problems and special education assessment flaws such as testing students by grade and not by instructional level.
There are currently very strict criteria for the Pennsylvania Alternative System of Assessment (PASA) test, which is limited to the most severely cognitively disabled students, about 1 percent of the total population.
All other students are expected to take the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) test, including those receiving individualized instruction due to learning disabilities.
"In a district like Chester Upland, where close to 20 percent of the students are in special education, that leaves a very large gap," said Wayne Emsley, director of assessment for the Chester Upland School District.
Emsley said there are two federal laws butting heads when it comes to state assessment -- the NCLB and Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the set of statutes that say special education students be given individualized education.
"You’ve got one federal law that says you need to instruct this child on their ability (IDEA) and you’ve got another that says you’ve got to test them on their age (NCLB)," said Emsley.
It’s much like asking someone to play violin at a virtuoso level as a requirement for a driver’s license, he said, and the conflicting laws have even led to two school districts in Illinois filing suits against the federal government.
"This issue has caused great concern among Pennsylvania parents, teachers, and administrators and we are hopeful this new flexibility will address many of those concerns," Bethany Yenner, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Education, said in a release Friday.
"PDE is currently reviewing the new policy as it relates to our assessment system to find the best way to assess those students who may not be able to reach grade level achievement due to disability, but who can make significant academic progress."
The William Penn School District has about one in five students designated special education, and those numbers continue to grow.
Superintendent Dana Bedden has commented before on the need to base special education testing on students’ education levels and not their age groups, though he said he does support educational accountability.
Frank Bruno, assistant to the superintendent for pupil services at William Penn, said he couldn’t comment on the potential good an alternate test would do in helping meet NCLB mandates until he had more information.
"Until we get more details on who they say qualifies and how this is going to be done, I couldn’t even guess how it would impact on our scores," he said.
"Of course it would be a benefit, but how great or small I wouldn’t know without seeing the details."
The Daily Times
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES