Washington Post, Monday, March 17, 2008
As Montgomery County ninth-grader Stephen Sabia reads "Romeo and
Juliet" and studies the Holocaust and World War II for honors
history and English, his mother credits an important ally in her
years-long drive to secure the best education possible for her
son with Down syndrome: the federal No Child Left Behind law.
The six-year-old law's requirement to raise student achievement
across the board has forced schools to pay attention as never
before to special-needs children who too often had been written
off as incapable of handling the same lessons as peers in
mainstream classrooms. Students with disabilities have made some
strides in math and reading on state and national tests in
recent years, although experts debate whether the law is
Ricki Sabia, Stephen's mother, said the law "really pushed the
envelope for expectations for Stephen. There is no more question
of whether he should be learning the same material as other
kids. He's been exposed to literature and other academics at a
level I don't think he would have without No Child Left Behind."
With such success stories, many parents of disabled students
offer compelling testimony for the landmark education law amid
signs that Congress could soon revive stalled efforts to renew
Under the law, public schools must advance every year toward the
goal of proficiency for all students in reading and math by
2014. Schools must make gains on tests given in grades 3 through
8 and once in high school, and so must subsets of students,
including ethnic minorities, those from poor families and those
with disabilities. If any group falls short, schools face
The mandate to raise the achievement of special-needs students
-- a broad spectrum that includes children with learning
disabilities, autism and the most severe cognitive impairments
-- has opened more access to grade-level lessons for such
students, many advocates say.
Some educators complain that the law is too rigid and that
schools with dedicated teachers can be unfairly punished when
even a handful of students with disabilities fall short on
tests. Some parents worry that children with significant
disabilities are ill-served if they are pushed into grade-level
classes too far above their abilities, reflecting persistent
debate over "mainstreaming" for special-needs students. There
are also perennial questions about containing the high cost of
Fairfax County School Superintendent Jack D. Dale said the law
has led to more focus on students with disabilities,
English-language learners and others previously "lost in the
averages." With better training and technology to help
special-needs students learn, he said, teams of teachers
routinely work together to customize education.
As a result, Dale said, many special-needs students have made
But Dale said that the goal of proficiency for all students is
unrealistic and that the government should take more steps to
recognize that some may not be capable of grade-level work even
though they make progress.
"I'm not worried about us pushing kids as far as we can push
them," he said. "I'm worried we'll become too obsessed about the
tests instead of a child's needs."
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), chairman of the Health,
Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and an architect of the
2002 law, has said he plans to introduce a bill this spring to
reauthorize it, with adjustments. Many disability-rights
advocates are urging action before President Bush leaves office.
They want Congress to revamp the law Bush pushed to enact, but
keep it strong. They fear the next president, no matter the
political party, will shove reauthorization to the back burner.
"We've got people in place in leadership right now who, I think,
are committed to reauthorization and to making it stronger,"
said Andrew J. Imparato, president and chief executive of the
District-based American Association of People with Disabilities.
"It's easy to bad-mouth NCLB. People feel it's federal
government over-asserting itself. . . . If we don't get it done
this year, I don't think we can count on it bubbling up in the
There are about 6.7 million special-needs children in schools
nationwide, about 14 percent of all students, according to
federal officials. Nearly half have learning disabilities,
including dyslexia. The second-largest group has speech and
language impairments. Others have mental retardation, emotional
problems or other disabilities.
"The vast majority of these kids are capable of learning in
schools what other kids are learning," said Thomas Hehir, a
Harvard education professor who oversaw special education
programs in the Clinton administration.
Students with disabilities have shown promising gains recently
on national math and reading exams, particularly in elementary
school, but researchers say it's unclear whether credit should
go to the law, according to a January report by the National
Council on Disability, an independent federal agency.
More disabled students are earning a high school diploma or
certificate, the researchers found, but many also drop out.
State test scores also show some gains for disabled students in
the Washington area. For instance, 48 percent of Maryland's
special education students last year scored proficient in
reading -- a 20 percentage-point climb over four years.
Kennedy said the law has given special-needs children "the
chance to learn alongside other students and reach their full
potential." A spokeswoman said aides on both sides of the aisle
are trying to hammer out proposed changes.
That achievement trends are even being studied is itself a
victory, said Katy Beh Neas, vice president of government
relations for Easter Seals, a nonprofit group that provides
support to people with disabilities. In the past, such students
often were excluded from testing. "We would never be talking
about the academic progress of students with disabilities if it
wasn't for NCLB," she said.
Disability-rights advocates are pushing for better alternative
state tests for special-needs students. They also want more
training and support for teachers. Many support "growth models,"
which give credit for individual student gains. But their
primary goal is to keep special-needs children in the
Under the current law, about 10 percent of special-needs
students, those with the most severe cognitive disabilities, can
be given credit for simplified math and reading assessments.
Certain other students can take alternative tests. But many
disability-rights advocates say other provisions in the law give
schools too much wiggle room, and they worry that Congress could
"The biggest message from the advocate community is don't go
backwards," said Gary Huggins, director of the Commission on No
Child Left Behind, a bipartisan independent effort of the Aspen
Huggins said that point resonates in his home. His daughter
Amelia, a third-grader in Prince George's County, has speech
delays and a condition that affects her muscle tone, making it
difficult to write. She uses a hand-held computer to type. Like
many disabled children, Amelia has the cognitive ability to do
grade-level work, but she needs a little help getting there.
"It's not that the teachers wouldn't try without" the law, he
said. "It's just nice to have that guarantee. She has to be
Stephen Sabia, 16, a ninth-grader at Paint Branch High School in
Burtonsville, is in a special-ed math class but takes honors
history and English and four other general education classes
with modified lessons and the help of an aide. Last year, he
went to Capitol Hill to tell Kennedy and other senators how the
law has helped him.
In elementary and middle school, Stephen scored below proficient
on the regular math and reading tests the federal law requires,
his mother said, but not by much. "It blew people out of the
water that he was even close," said Ricki Sabia, who is
associate director of the National Down Syndrome Society's
National Policy Center. One recent evening, Stephen acted out
"Romeo and Juliet" and studied cue cards with facts about World
"Challenging classes have taught him to work with people who
have higher academic abilities, yet find his comfort level,"
Ricki Sabia said. "He has moved from being a kid with a
disability to being a learner."
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