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Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Don't Let Special Needs Students Fall Behind

From the U.S. News & World Report Blog
"Knowledge Bank" 

By Carmel Martin
April 2, 2015

"The question Congress should be asking is not whether to roll back the protections for students with special needs, but rather how to sustain and accelerate the momentum over the next decade."

When she was six years old, Merrill Pollard was diagnosed with dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia and ADHD. For years, Merrill was shuttled back and forth to learning specialists, occupational therapists and speech therapists. While her mother, Lyn Pollard, worked hard to open every door for her child, she worried that Merrill would never have the same opportunities as her normally-developing peers even though Merrill “has the same hopes and dreams as other kids.”

“I don’t want my daughter to have a different [educational] experience … When my daughter has the right accommodations on a test then she may do as well – if not better – than students without disabilities,” Lyn Pollard said recently.


Special Report

Historically, students like Merrill did not have the opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge in the classroom. The stark reality is that our public education system has a long history of not adequately serving students with disabilities. Before the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which guaranteed that students with special needs receive a free public education, was enacted just 40 short years ago, many of these students simply didn't go to school.

That law, in its 1975 incarnation and several subsequent reauthorizations, has driven tremendous advances towards focusing attention and resources on students with special needs. The No Child Left Behind Act – albeit deeply flawed and long overdue for an overhaul – built upon its foundation. It raised expectations for students with disabilities, ensured that the vast majority of students with special needs were held to the same standards as all students and created meaningful accountability when students with disabilities failed to advance academically.

Some lamented that these requirements were too onerous, arguing that schools were being set up to fail because students with disabilities could not be expected to advance at comparable rates as other students. But the requirements stuck and we have seen an impact: a 16 point gain in graduation rates, a nearly 20 point gain in math and reading scores, and a 20 point decline in dropout rates since 2001 when No Child Left Behind was enacted, according to a new analysis released today by the Center for American Progress.

Teachers, students and school leaders desperately need and deserve a reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act that contains a 21st century accountability system, provides high-quality early childhood education, drives fair funding for schools serving students living in poverty and supports and elevates teachers.

But one aspect of No Child Left Behind that shouldn’t change is its inclusion policies for students with disabilities. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., recently said about reauthorization, “I have no interest in going back to a world in which disabled kids get a fundamentally different education of inferior quality than non-disabled children.”

Unfortunately, that very scenario is a real possibility. Proposals introduced by Republicans in the House and Senate would do away with key policies in place that protect students with disabilities.

No Child Left Behind in its current state has run its course. But as Congress attempts to reach an agreement on the long overdue reauthorization, it is imperative that we do not lose sight of how far students with disabilities have come since the law's passage. The question Congress should be asking is not whether to roll back the protections for students with special needs, but rather how to sustain and accelerate the momentum over the next decade.

At a minimum, we must hold students with disabilities to high achievement standards, provide necessary instructional supports and services and only administer alternate assessments to students with the most significant cognitive disabilities.


Carmel Martin is executive vice president for policy at the Center for American Progress.

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