WASHINGTON – A Silver Spring mom told a House committee Wednesday to resist claims that the No Child Left Behind Act is too rigid for disabled children, saying the law has pressured schools to better track the progress of special education students.
Ricki Sabia said her 12-year-old son, Stephen, who has Down syndrome, needs help reading directions to standardized tests and filling in multiple-choice bubbles — but that after that help is provided, his tests should be held to the same standard as others.
“We should stay the course of No Child Left Behind and not succumb to pressure to weaken standards for children with disabilities,” she said.
But other advocates have said No Child Left Behind requirements are not flexible enough to accommodate students with disabilities.
“It (the act) calls for all children to meet certain standards, and when it comes to disabled children, the way in which they would meet those standards is very hard to imagine,” said Maryland State Teachers Association President Pat Foerster.
“Some kids are so terribly handicapped, there is nothing that you can buy off the shelves that you can use to assess their reading or math,” said Foerster, a former special education teacher.
The No Child Left Behind law, enacted in January 2002, requires testing of all students in reading and math. Schools that fall behind are required to give extra help to their students and could lose funding if they do not bring test scores up.
While the act applies to all students, it lets disabled students take the test with or without test-taking accommodations like those provided for Stephen. Severely disabled students can also take an alternate assessment. In Maryland, that assessment requires student work samples that show reading and math abilities.
Alternate assessments are not likely to boost a school’s overall scores: No more than 1 percent of a school’s “proficient” scores can come from such alternate tests. Schools can apply for a waiver to exceed 1 percent, but supporters of the current law said that should not be necessary.
Sabia said she understands the urge to “protect the kids,” but that without the assessment requirements, schools cannot be held accountable for teaching disabled students.
“The thing we have to protect them from is graduating without reading and graduating without the means to get a job,” she said.
But Foerster said schools will be held accountable for those disabled kids’ scores, even though the schools have not been given the resources to implement the appropriate testing alternatives. The National Education Association estimated that federal No Child Left Behind funding fell short about $32 billion in 2003.
The act “says all the right things . . . but it is so inflexible, and it lacks the funding,” Foerster said.
Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., questioned witnesses about resources, saying, “If we don’t get all the resources we need . . . holding the state accountable puts everyone on edge with each other.”
But Sabia and other witnesses said states have enough resources to make the testing provisions work, if they are “more creative” in how they spend money.
“Funding has always been an issue. It’s not a new issue because of No Child Left Behind,” said Martha Thurlow, director of the National Center on Educational Outcomes, at Wednesday’s hearing. “We need to think creatively and change what we do . . . because what we’ve been doing hasn’t been working.”
Nancy Reder disagreed. The deputy executive director for the National Association of State Directors of Special Education said members of her organization do not see “enough federal resources.”
But Sabia testified that fully including disabled students in regular classrooms would cut costs because there would be no need for “two parallel systems,” one for regular children and one for disabled children.
“When you’re running two school systems, there are a lot of added expenses,” she said. “With NCLB (the act) you have one school held accountable for all students.”
She admitted her family was lucky because she is an attorney and could help integrate Stephen into regular classes before the No Child Left Behind took effect. But Sabia said she hopes No Child Left Behind, now in its third year, “will do the same thing for parents who don’t have resources.”
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