In January of 2002, President Bush signed a landmark piece of legislation into law, referred to as the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act. This legislation was intended to ensure that every child complete the first several years of school with the required reading skills to successfully negotiate the increasingly complex curriculum from grades 4 through 12 (Simpson, LaCava, & Graner, 2004; Yell, Katsiyannas, & Shiner, 2006). The legislation requires states to implement a statewide plan for reading instruction, based on research-proven reading instructional principles, to ensure that no child is left behind in reading prior to grade 3.
With the passage of No Child Left Behind, a variety of issues have arisen that impact educators, generally, and special educators, in particular. These include, at a minimum, the issue of high-stakes assessment, meeting adequate yearly progress (often called AYP; Yell et al., 2006) toward achieving statewide educational goals, and the issue of the qualifications of teachers themselves—namely, the "highly qualified" teacher. These issues have been hotly debated among educators and likely will continue to be critical issues for teachers in the years to come.
While various state assessments have always been part of the education scene, only as recently as 1997 did federal legislation mandate that students with disabilities were to be included in statewide assessment programs (Kohl, McLaughlin, & Nagel, 2006). Such a mandate resulted from the worthy goal of ensuring that students with disabilities can participate in the benefits derived from studying the general education curriculum; thus, this mandate was a part of the broader national move toward inclusion.
More recently, the No Child Left Behind legislation has mandated that states develop a series of high educational standards and institute appropriate required assessments to document that students are meeting these standards (Elliott & Marquart, 2004; Fletcher et al., 2006; Ysseldyke et al., 2004). In essence, the federal legislation requires states to administer assessments periodically and to ensure that all students—and, in particular, various subgroups of students within the schools, such as racial minorities or students with -disabilities—are achieving success toward learning the standards in the school curriculum. This was the origin of the title for this legislation—no child should be left behind in reading during the early grades.
Whereas NCLB only dealt with assessment in the elementary grades (Yell et al., 2006), this emphasis on assessment has revitalized the entire "assessment for accountability" issue. In many states, passage from grade to grade, or even graduation from high school, may be associated with successful completion of the required assessments in various grade levels. Thus, some of these assessments have high stakes (i.e., serious effects and implications) for various learners, including students with disabilities. Of course, accommodations for various disabilities are allowed under the guidelines; for example, many practitioners allow extra time as one accommodation for students with learning disabilities (Elliott & Marquart, 2004; Kohl et al., 2006).
Still, there is considerable debate—not to mention some degree of anger—among special educators relative to the implementation of the various high-stakes assessments, as well as other provisions of the No Child Left Behind legislation. One recent press release by the Council for Exceptional Children proclaimed, "No Child Left Behind Makes No Sense for Students with Disabilities" (CEC, 2003). In the national press, high-stakes testing has both been praised as resulting in improved education for students with disabilities as well as cursed for resulting in higher dropout rates (Ysseldyke et al., 2004). Further, while more research is certainly needed, the extant research indicates that such testing is having both positive and negative effects on students with disabilities. Interest Box 14.1 presents some of the research conclusions—both positive and negative—relative to implementation of high-stakes testing.
While the NCLB legislation did not initiate the move toward high-stakes testing, the use of assessments has certainly received increased emphasis because of NCLB. As an educator, you will hear many debates about both NCLB and high-stakes assessment during your teaching career, and you may find that your school struggles with various provisions of that legislation for many years to come.
Interest Box 14.1: Possible Positive and Negative Effects of High-Stakes Assessment
Possible Positive Effects of High-Stakes Testing Mentioned In the Literature
- Improved performance of students with disabilities on statewide assessments. This may suggest increased study efforts on the part of the students.
- Increased participation rates of students with disabilities. While many states historically excluded students with disabilities from local or statewide testing programs, the NCLB legislation has decreased such exclusion and increased participation on these assessments.
- Increased expectations for students with disabilities due to the setting of higher curriculum standards.
- Increased alignment between IEP goals and objectives and standards on the state curriculum. Thus, special education students have benefited from increased exposure to the general education curriculum content.
- More students with special needs are placed in general education classes.
- Increased graduation rates among students with disabilities, according to some research reports.
Possible Negative Effects of High-Stakes Testing Mentioned In the Literature
- Increase in students referred and identified for special education services.
- Increased dropouts resulting from high-stakes testing required for high school graduation.
- Narrowing of curricular emphasis to include only content assessed on the tests.
- Less teacher flexibility to emphasize local content that may not be emphasized on the statewide assessment (i.e., teachers may be less likely to teach about the science of the cleanup of Lake Erie for schools located on the lake, or to teach Civil War history for schools located near Civil War battlefields).
- Possible detrimental effects on motivation of students with special needs, or other learners who are challenged by the curriculum.
- Increased test anxiety or school anxiety among students with learning disabilities.
These are some of the possible positive and negative effects of high-stakes testing mentioned in the literature (Elliott & Marquart, 2004; Fletcher et al., 2006; Ysseldyke et al., 2004). More research is needed before these effects can be documented with certainty.
Adequate Yearly Progress
The NCLB legislation also mandated the establishment of yearly goals for schools and school districts, and these goals are generally stated in terms of the average achievement levels for students and subgroups of students within the schools (Yell et al., 2006). Of course, the establishment of rigorous goals is intended to emphasize and enhance learning for all students, and this is certainly a worthy goal. Further, goals were established in such a fashion that the benchmarks or criteria for having meet the standards increase each year through the year 2014. Thus, schools might be expected to have 75% of third graders achieving the goal of reading at grade level by the year 2004, while the goal for 2005 might be for 80% of all students to be reading on grade level. Of course, the school would have various specialized breakdowns of these goals, relating to various educationally challenged groups of students. For example, the school might also have goals related to minority children, non-English-speaking children, or children in special education (e.g., 80% of all minority children reading on grade level by 2005, etc.).
Of course, every school faculty member wishes to meet their school goals, and this can be a hotly debated local issue. Newspapers around the country have begun to report whether individual schools have met their standards or not. Thus, school faculty are very concerned with meeting adequate yearly progress toward their goals.
However, there have been a number of concerns stated with adequate yearly progress (AYP), as it is currently implemented. First, many schools in socioeconomically challenged areas are struggling to meet their AYP, and faculty at those schools protest that the specific challenges in teaching students from socioeconomically challenged families are not recognized in setting AYP goals. Further, because many distinct groups have been "broken out" for individual aggregation of scores, many highly successful schools have likewise not met AYP toward their goals. For example, in a high socioeconomic area in which schools include few children from impoverished homes or few non-English--speaking children, it is still possible for such schools to fail to meet AYP if their students with disabilities—as one subgroup of the school population—do not do well on the tests. The faculty in such a highly successful school might well feel aggrieved if their school was identified in the local press as having "not met AYP" because of only one subcategory of students—those with disabilities.
Clearly, meeting AYP will be a concern for many educators, since every educator wants to be a part of a successful school. Successful schools will not want to be stigmatized when students with disabilities do not meet their subgroup goals. Such scenarios can result in friction in the working relationship between special and general educators. Clearly, these issues are complex and generate strong feelings on all sides. You, as a new teacher in learning disabilities, should seek to understand the general perception of other educators in your area, as well as the national debate on meeting AYP. It is a certainty that this issue will continue to generate strong feelings and discussion over the next few years.
Highly Qualified Teachers
Another result of the NCLB legislation is that students are now assured of having teachers that are "highly qualified" to teach in their subject area (King-Sears, 2005). Being highly qualified typically means having a degree in the subject area you teach, and NCLB limits the definition of that term exclusively to content-area subjects (King-Sears, 2005). While this would seem to be simple enough for educators who teach specific subject areas in departmentalized schools (e.g., a secondary history teacher should have both a teaching certificate and extensive educational course work specific to history), this becomes more problematic when applied to special educators. Traditionally, special educators have provided expertise in instructional pedagogy rather than in particular content areas, and thus, the definition of "highly qualified" holds serious implications for many special educators (King-Sears, 2005). In point of fact, many special educators, in both resource and/or inclusive class placements, find themselves teaching virtually every subject in the school curriculum. According to the new standard of "highly qualified," teachers who have been teaching content area for decades are no longer considered highly qualified. In some cases, teachers have been told to go back to school to take content courses in reading, math, history, or science to get highly qualified! Of course, it is unrealistic to expect this group of special educators to complete a full undergraduate major in each subject area. Perhaps nothing has so impacted the education of special education teachers as this "highly qualified" provision within the No Child Left Behind legislation, and various states are developing -different ways for teachers in special education to earn additional course credits or participate in various workshops to become "highly qualified" in subjects they teach.
As a practitioner in the field, you should discuss this issue of "highly qualified" with your undergraduate or graduate adviser and find out how districts in your state are implementing this provision. Likewise, you should ask questions about the "highly qualified" requirements when applying for jobs in various school districts. There is some flexibility on the part of some educational administrators in some districts but not in others, and this may well influence where you choose to teach.
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