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Last Updated: 10/31/2017
 

Law Opens Opportunities for Disabled

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Maria Glod, 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 responsible.


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 it.


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 potential sanctions.


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 special education.


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 significant gains.


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 next administration."


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 accountability system.


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 widen exemptions.


"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 Institute.


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 educated."


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 War II.


"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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