NCLB Reforms for Disabled Students

K-12 Testing

A new policy brief from Indiana University concludes that the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law needs substantial revision to address negative consequences for students with disabilities and to make it a tool to meet their real educational needs. With an eye to Congress's upcoming reauthorization of NCLB, the brief recommends changes to the law so it can be more helpful than harmful to disabled students and to resolve conflicts between NCLB and the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).


The brief, from the Center for Evaluation & Education Policy and the Indiana Institute on Disability and Community, credits NCLB for urging schools to focus on the achievement of disabled students, resulting in some short-term gains. It also says NCLB has gotten regular and special educators to work together to meet the law's goals. Much of the brief, however, details the ways in which NCLB's approach to assessment and accountability fails to make sense for disabled students and represents a rollback of progress. For example, the law's narrow assessment criteria may contribute to higher drop-out rates among students with disabilities and may encourage schools to reverse decades of efforts to include disabled students in mainstream classes.


The researchers surveyed Indiana superintendents, principals, and directors of special education and looked at the results of national studies of NCLB's impact on special education students. Of major concern for many respondents was the conflict between NCLB and IDEA. As one rural superintendent said, "I believe that the NCLB Act and [IDEA] are like the right hand and the left hand that are trying to work against each other. The NCLBA sets a fixed, fairly arbitrary standard that all students must meet, while [IDEA] recognizes and institutionalizes the notion that each child is unique and that instruction and achievement standards must be modified in response to that uniqueness."


Another negative consequence is that special education students are losing instructional time for subjects other than math and reading, "For many students with disabilities, the curricular areas that are being ignored are the very areas that they find motivating and often experience success in," according to author Cassandra Cole.


Also, disability advocates around the country expressed concern that because schools often fail to make Adequate Yearly Progress because of their disabled student subgroup, these students are becoming scapegoats for schools' failure. The costs of educating special education students has long been a source of friction between their parents and advocates and the parents of nondisabled students. Any efforts to devote added resources to getting disabled students to score proficient on reading and math tests could be exacerbating existing negative attitudes towards these kids, the brief notes.


--The brief is available at