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Statement of Patti Ralabate

Submitted by NEA to the Aspen Institute's
Commission on No Child Left Behind

August 2, 2006

Members of the Commission:

Thank you for this opportunity to speak with you today about the impact of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) on students with disabilities.

My name is Patti Ralabate, and over the past three decades, I have advocated for students at Individualized Education Program (IEP) and Child Study Team meetings; provided professional development on special education and No Child Left Behind for NEA's 2.8 million members; and edited and authored numerous guides for educators, including on the intersection of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and NCLB, autism, collaborative team decision-making, disproportionality, accessible classrooms, and working conditions for special educators.

I joined the staff of the National Education Association (NEA) in January 2002 as the Senior Professional Associate for Special Needs to serve as the association's in-house advisor on special education and students with disabilities. Even before coming to NEA and, particularly since the enactment of IDEA 1997, I have played an active role in special education training, policy, and implementation. Now, at the NEA, I coordinate and author professional development books, online tools, and training modules for our members. I also coordinate technical assistance to our state affiliates as they grapple with implementation of both NCLB and IDEA.

My testimony today reflects the views of the members of the National Education Association on the impact of No Child Left Behind on students with disabilities and their teachers. Most importantly, however, my testimony reflects my first-hand, real-life experience teaching thousands of children, having worked for 27 years as a speech-language pathologist in Connecticut public schools.

I'm proud that my association, the NEA, has long supported the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) and IDEA. During the last ESEA reauthorization, we supported the laudable goals of No Child Left Behind—closing achievement gaps, raising overall student achievement, and ensuring all students have a qualified teacher. We also supported a number of specific elements in the new law, including the targeting of Title I funds to the neediest schools and students; disaggregation of test data by subgroup; and programs for dropout prevention, after-school learning opportunities, and math and science education. We continue to support all of these elements.

We also support the inclusion of students with disabilities in accountability systems. We believe this is critical to ensure proper assessment of their educational needs and to help them reach their highest level of achievement. However, we believe changes are necessary, particularly to areas of NCLB that were perhaps not written with students with disabilities in mind. I would like to focus my testimony on those areas.

Appropriate Alternate Assessments

NEA recommends significantly more research, technical assistance, and professional development for all educators (including state and district level administrators) about what constitutes valid and reliable assessments for the full range of students with disabilities. We also recommend appropriation of additional funding for development of high quality tests—resources that have been dwindling over the last two years.

We are concerned about the availability of valid and reliable standardized assessments.
NCLB requires assessments to be built upon states' content standards, which in turn are to be aligned with statewide assessments. Yet, four and a half years into the law, only ten states have received full approval from the Department of Education for their content standards and assessment systems. In many cases states have not received final approval due to their lack of valid and reliable accommodations and alternate assessments for students with disabilities.

While implementation of NCLB has brought a welcomed increase in flexibility, it has also brought a commensurate increase in complexity. For example, students with disabilities can be assessed in five different ways: 

  • Regular grade level test based on state content standards;
  • Grade level test with accommodations;
  • Alternate assessment based on grade level content standards;
  • Alternate assessment based on modified standards; and
  • Alternate assessment based on alternate standards.

For accountability purposes, the U.S. Department of Education limits use of proficient scores on assessments based on modified standards to two percent of the school population and the proficient scores on assessments based on alternate standards to one percent of the school population. The two percent policy was issued as a proposed regulation on December 15, 2005, but is still not final.

We appreciate the Department's acknowledgement of the need for a variety of assessment methods for students with disabilities. We are concerned, however, with the lack of guidance to states, and, therefore, to educators, about how to create these modified and alternate standards. In fact, alternative formats for grade level assessments and assessments based on modified standards are available in very few states. In addition, wide variations among states about allowable accommodations have led to confusion and inappropriate assessments when students move across state lines.

The last reauthorization of IDEA—which NEA supported—appropriately required alignment of all IEPs with state content standards in a way that is appropriate for every child. We have created several guides for our members about how to write effective IEPs aligned with content standards. Unfortunately, these tools are not nearly as useful as they should be given the lack of direction to states and local districts about how to design modified and alternate standards that are appropriate to the wide range of students with disabilities and compliant with NCLB.

As a result, students with disabilities are tested in formats that do not allow them to demonstrate their capabilities. Teachers and parents are expressing frustrations with the NCLB assessment system. And, students who are not participating in appropriate assessments are feeling defeated or shortchanged. 

We propose elimination of the one and two percent limits on the percent of proficient test scores based on modified or alternate standards that can count toward Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). Instead, we propose allowing each student's IEP team, with involvement of the student's parents, to determine the most appropriate assessment for the student, and then allowing use of the scores on these tests for AYP purposes without limits. The scores for all students should count toward AYP making every school and district responsible for the progress of every student.

Nothing better illustrates our concerns with the current assessment system than the words of our own members talking about their students. At NEA's recent annual meeting, our members shared their stories about the impact of NCLB on their students. These poignant accounts paint a much clearer picture of the problem than any theoretical testimony I can give here today. For example, Natalie Gaza, a special educator from Los Angeles wrote,

"I became a special education teacher for two reasons-because I wanted to both teach and advocate for people with disabilities. While going through the teaching credentialing program, I envisioned myself empowering and educating a group of students who have been left behind in the past. What I didn't expect to be doing was administering tests that were not only inequitable, but unjust and cruel. I will never forget my first year of teaching, only four years ago. A student in the fifth grade - whose ability and performance level as determined by his IEP to be at 2nd grade, forced to endure days of a test at an ability level he in no way could perform - burst into tears. As he sat sobbing and clutching his pencil, I too felt like crying. I believe in accountability and assessment. I do not believe in cruel and unusual punishment. When is this going to stop?"
Fredria Sterling from Lawrenceville, Georgia shared her story as follows: 

"I have been an educator for the past 30 years. I presently teach middle school aged learning disabled students. The NCLB legislation has greatly impacted their student achievement. These students are required to learn the same material as their regular education peers even though their cognitive learning abilities are impaired. I see the distress in their faces when they are faced with standardized tests, end of nine week assessments and county assessments. Too much material is required for them to learn in such a short period of time. Each spring I must coach them on test taking strategies and practice tests to prepare them for the high stakes test in our state. In order for these students to be successful and enjoy learning as in past years I believe that we must take them where they are and work to bring them to the level where they should be at their own pace. The NCLB legislation has caused much stress and anxiety for teachers as well as their students. Teachers want their students to learn but we must face the reality that all the students we serve don't come to the table with the same skills and abilities. So it is impossible for every student to be on the same level by 2014."

And, Janet Eastman of Cocoa, FL writes,

"I had a 5th grade student with Cerebral Palsy, oscillating eye movement, confined to a wheelchair who was required to take the 5th grade Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test (FCAT). He had some modifications, however it took him 2 weeks 5 hours a day to complete all sections of the test. Needless to say he did not pass. There were other tests that could have been utilized to access his capabilities."

Testing Accommodations

We are also concerned about the lack of guidance and uniformity on allowable testing accommodations for students with disabilities. Major test makers across the country have been particularly slow to write into test administration protocols the various types of accommodations that can and should be used with many students with disabilities.

For example, scores were invalidated for a group of blind students who scored proficient on an NCLB-mandated test because the test was read aloud to them. This accommodation is allowable and widely used in all other testing scenarios but was not part of the test protocol in this instance. As a result, the students' scores were reported as zeroes in the school's AYP calculation. This illogical consequence could have been avoided with the inclusion of appropriate protocols.

The Impact of Sanctions

Establishing high standards for all students is an important and laudable goal. For decades, students with disabilities have not been held uniformly to the same expectations as other students, resulting in lower expectations and poorer outcomes. We strongly support efforts to rectify this situation.

However, we are concerned about the heavy-handedness of NCLB sanctions imposed when a subgroup, such as students with disabilities, does not meet proficiency levels. The punitive, rather than supportive, system is causing some school personnel to engage in pressure tactics that can have serious negative effects on students. For example, school leaders in some districts have dictated full inclusion of students with disabilities in general education classrooms, regardless of whether that is the most appropriate placement for individual children. 

On the other hand, several studies have suggested that students who have less ability to pass assessments are likely to be moved into segregated programs or schools so their results won't count against the AYP performance of the neighborhood school. In a recent research study (Ward, 2003) special education teachers reported that inclusion of their special education students in state assessment (i.e., TAAS) was having a negative effect on their schools' inclusive practices. Likewise, the Center for Education Policy (CEP) (2005) reported that school leaders were more reluctant to accept students with disabilities from out of district due to concerns that they might impact the school's ability to make AYP.

I have also heard personally from numerous teachers that they are pressured to assess students with alternate assessments so that the results won't be counted toward AYP, even when the students could take the grade level test. Researchers (Nagle and Crawford, 2004) have confirmed that some principals are reluctant to include low performing students with disabilities in general education classrooms and are pressuring IEP teams to assign students to take alternate assessments. At a minimum, this practice undercuts the authority of school IEP teams to make appropriate placement and assessment decisions, and may also violate IDEA's least restrictive environment provisions.

Use of Growth Models

Classroom teachers know that learning is best measured over time, as opposed to the current snapshot, all-or-nothing approach that measures student achievement on one day out of the year. This is especially true for students with disabilities.

NEA believes that the use of growth models in NCLB accountability systems will provide a more fair and accurate way to determine whether all students are learning. NCLB-mandated tests should be used to diagnose learning problems and provide educators with the data to make necessary instructional adjustments to meet the needs of all students. Using a growth model would allow for more timely transmittal of data to educators—which would be particularly helpful for students with disabilities for whom precise instructional strategies are essential to ensure academic progress.

"Highly Qualified Teacher" (HQT) Requirements

Implementation of NCLB's highly qualified teacher requirements has posed unique problems for special education teachers who may be responsible for teaching multiple core academic subjects. Congress has asked states to develop Highly Objective Uniform State Standards of Evaluation (HOUSSE) to permit veteran teachers and new special education teachers to demonstrate core content competency. Although each state was given the opportunity to develop a HOUSSE based on its particular teacher licensing and evaluation system, many states have not developed a HOUSSE that would allow special educators to demonstrate competence in multiple subjects.

This problem is further exacerbated by the fact that the Department of Education recently instructed states to eliminate the use of HOUSSE except for a limited number of situations, including for certain new special education teachers. This not only violates the law and reverses previous Department guidance, but it will make it even more difficult for special education teachers and other veteran teachers to meet the HQT requirements by the end of the 2006-07 school year.

Our nation has faced a recognized shortage of special education teachers for nearly a decade. NCLB's highly qualified provisions have exacerbated this shortage. It is difficult to find licensed special education teachers who are also certified in multiple core content subjects. Special education teachers are often spread thinly across multiple classrooms with unreasonable student caseloads. Some districts have tried to address the shortage of special education teachers who are highly qualified in the core content areas by placing students with disabilities in general education classrooms. This is not the answer.

Common sense flexibility is needed in the HQT definition as it applies to special educators. NEA believes that fully licensed and certified special education teachers should be considered to meet the highly qualified standard. Special educators must be available to help general classroom teachers adapt instructional strategies and to support the instruction that takes place in general education classrooms. 

Our members have shared the impact of NCLB on the special education teaching force. Jeff Cobb of Chesapeake, VA writes,

"Special education teachers are leaving my school and our profession already at greater rates than other groups. The inflexible demands for being 'highly qualified' add to their burden and lessen their effectiveness. Instead of taking additional courses and learning new teaching strategies, these proven professionals are compelled to demonstrate subject area proficiency that does not help them meet the specific needs of their students."

Professional Development

Prior to implementation of NCLB, many school districts were moving toward co-teaching and collaborative teaching models. We strongly support high quality professional development programs for both general and special education staff to ensure continuation of these effective practices.

Closing the achievement gaps requires that all educators know how to work in a collaborative teaching environment and that school leaders can support and facilitate effective teaming. Teacher preparation programs need to prepare both special educators and general educators to be complementary teaching partners for students with disabilities and all students who are struggling to learn. And, recruitment and retention programs for special educators need to provide adequate working and teaching conditions.

Despite the need for additional resources to implement these initiatives, Congress is poised to cut funding for NCLB teacher quality programs. In fact, the House Appropriations Committee has recommended a cut of over 10 percent (or $300 million) while the Senate Appropriations Committee proposed a cut of $140 million.

Before I conclude, I would like to share one more story from an NEA member. Beth Sivrais of Chula Vista, California writes:

"In theory, No child left behind sounds good on paper. I do believe that all children learn and need to be provided the best education possible with as much academics as they can handle. For my students that is rooted in the functional skills. The state of California has an alternate test and curriculum that attempts to address their needs. The test is labor intensive. I am the only one that can give it and it takes at least an hour for each student and must be given one on one. It takes the entire two week testing window to do this. I don't agree that the skills are all appropriate. For example, students taking Level I who function at two years or less were asked to point to the first letter of their name. They don't even recognize their name. It is also very language-based and puts students with autism at a disadvantage even though they tend to be the ones with better academic skills. It also expects a lot of writing and anyone that knows this population would know that fine motor skills are a major weakness for the majority of my students. The test is not clear on modifications (pictures instead of words, etc). I like that we are placing value on my students and their education, but it will be very difficult to get them to the proficient level. It is also not right for us to stress out our less severe students in special ed by making them take their grade level tests. They are placed into special education for a reason. They are unable to work at grade level. They need to develop a test to meet the needs of students that fall between those working from the regular ed curriculum and the alternate curriculum."

I hope you will remember the words of all the NEA members who have shared stories about their students as you move forward on recommendations to improve NCLB. I also encourage you to review NEA's Positive Agenda for the ESEA Reauthorization. This comprehensive set of policy proposals, adopted at our annual meeting, sets forth our views of what needs to be changed in and added to NCLB. It is available on our website at (PDF, 186 KB, 34 pages ).

Thank you again for the opportunity to address these important issues. I will be happy to answer any questions.