Will ESSA Reduce States’ Accountability in Special Education?

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As unpopular as No Child Left Behind was by the time it was ushered off the stage in 2015, advocates for students with disabilities could always point to one aspect of the law that they liked: by requiring that test scores of different student groups be reported separately, the law exposed the low academic performance of students in special education and required schools to do something about it.

The replacement for NCLB, the Every Student Succeeds Act, still requires that the academic performance of students with disabilities be reported, along with other student subgroups.

But the law trades federal mandates for state flexibility on what should happen to a school whose students with disabilities are consistently lagging their peers.

States and some lawmakers have cheered the end of what they call federal overreach. But some advocates worry that the accountability goals states have set for themselves won’t move the needle for a group of students who have long struggled with low achievement. At worst, they worry, states can create rules that allow the performance of students with disabilities to again be obscured by the relatively higher test scores of the general student population.

Lower Goals

“A lot of the really crucial decisionmaking got left to the states,” said Ricki Sabia, the senior policy advisor at the National Down Syndrome Congress. “Our concern was with how they would use this discretion.”

Sabia and Candace Cortiella, the founder of the Advocacy Institute, examined drafts of the accountability roadmaps developed by 37 states. All of the states have submitted ESSA plans to the U.S. Department of Education for evaluation; the department has given its stamp of approval to 14 states and the District of Columbia.

A reading of the draft plans illustrates some of Sabia’s and Cortiella’s concerns. In New Mexico’s accountability blueprint, for example, it set a goal for itself to increase the high school graduation rate of students with disabilities to 79 percent in 2022, up from 62 percent in 2016.

At the same time, however, the plan sets a goal to have 50 percent of students with disabilities scoring proficient on the state’sEnglish/language arts and math assessments by 2022. That’s an ambitious goal—less than 7 percent of New Mexican special education students meet that bar now.

But “it is difficult to understand how [students with disabilities] can be expected to graduate at a rate of 79 percent in 4 years while just 50 percent are expected to be proficient in reading and math,” Sabia and Cortiella wrote in a letter intended to support local advocates.

Plan Omissions

Another concern is that the goals for students with disabilities are too low. New York, for example, is aiming for 63 percent of its students with disabilities to graduate with a standard diploma by 2022, up from 55 percent in 2016. New York notes that its end goal for all students, including students with disabilities, is a 95 percent graduation rate. But it also proposes resetting its goals each year.

Educators didn’t like the 100-percent proficiency goal that was embedded in the old law, Sabia said. “But how do you say that some students aren’t going to be proficient? How do you say it’s OK if 5 percent or 10 percent aren’t? That’s what some of these new plans do.”

The education nonprofit Achieve, in its analysis of state plans, found that 26 states and the District of Columbia set the same long-term graduation goal for all subgroups. Twenty-four states set different end point goals for students with disabilities and other subgroups.

Others have pointed not to what’s in the state plans, but what they believe has been left out. Laura Kaloi is a government relations policy consultant with the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, a group that represents children in special education and their families. COPAA was looking for states to offer specific plans about how to prevent bullying and harassment, discipline that removes children from the classroom, and “aversive behavioral interventions that compromise student health and safety.”

In an examination of the state plans that were submitted this spring, she said, those topics were not addressed.

“We know many, many school districts need work in this area,” Kaloi said.

The plans are light on some details because states were not required by the law to provide them. In March, the Senate overturned some accountability guidelines that were passed during the Obama administration, saying they were too prescriptive and not keeping in the spirit of the law and its focus on state-based accountability. For example, the law requires states to identify a minimum number of students in a particular subgroup that a school would have to enroll in order for that group to be counted in school accountability, known as the N-size. Under the ESSA accountability rules that the Senate threw out, states could select any N-size but had to offer a justification if they chose a number over 30. The Education Department does not require states to provide a justification for its N-size selection.

Some states, such as Ohio, have chosen to provide such justification, however, suggesting that in some cases states are committing to a more rigorous standard.

Ohio is moving from an N-size of 30 down to 15 by the 2019-2020 school year, which means that more schools will potentially be subject to accountability measures. After the change, 86 percent of the state’s schools will have to report on the progress of the special education subgroup, compared to 58 percent that are required to do so now.

Melissa Turner, the senior manager for state policy for the National Center for Learning Disabilities, said her organization is also examining the state plans, with an eye to strong accountability for student subgroups, clearly defined policies that explain how states will help struggling groups of students, and greater use of accommodations and the appropriate use of “alternate assessments.”

ESSA places a 1 percent cap on the percentage of all students who can take alternate assessments. That equates to about 10 percent of students with disabilities. Such alternate assessments are intended for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities. Some groups, such as NCLD, have been concerned that schools have steered students to the alternate assessments in the past, instead of providing the teaching and support that would allow students to take the same tests as their peers in general education.

Positive Implications

Turner mentioned some plans that stand out as potentially positive for students with disabilities. Iowa, for example, has organized its ESSA accountability blueprint around “multitiered systems of support,” which are intended to provide research-backed instruction for all students in academics and in social-emotional development.

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