Disability advocates applaud No Child Left Behind rewrite

Diverse group of students studying in a classroom
Every Student Succeeds Act Signed into Law

President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act into law December 11, maintaining, though weakening, much of the No Child Left Behind’s accountability structure long supported by disability advocates, while taking a variety of new steps to improve educational equity.

“The previous version of the law, the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, was enacted in 2002. NCLB represented a significant step forward for our nation’s children in many respects, particularly as it shined a light on where students were making progress and where they needed additional support, regardless of race, income, zip code, disability, home language, or background,” President Obama said remarks prior to signing the bill. “The law was scheduled for revision in 2007, and, over time, NCLB’s prescriptive requirements became increasingly unworkable for schools and educators.

“Recognizing this fact, in 2010, the Obama administration joined a call from educators and families to create a better law that focused on the clear goal of fully preparing all students for success in college and careers.”

The ESSA maintains the NCLB’s basic testing structure, though it is less punitive in regard to the consequences for underperforming tests. The federal government’s authority to intervene on behalf of failing schools is weakened, while states are given more discretion as to how to use the scores.

For many disability advocates, the largest priority during the law’s negotiations was maintaining the test’s reporting requirements, specifically in regard to statistics based on disability on and other minority categories. In that sense, the 1,059-page bipartisan compromise, which Congress has been working on since the NCLB expired in 2007, is a success.

Further, the ESSA maintains the NCLB’s option of allowing states to provide alternative assessments for students with severe disabilities. Under the NCLB, states could only count 1 percent of student scores toward the alternative assessment test, but could allow unlimited students to take the test.

The ESSA will allow only one percent of students to take the alternative assessment tests, further disincentivizing states from lowering their standards for students with disabilities.

“While The Arc had advocated for a stronger federal role in the accountability system, we ultimately lent the bill our support as we believe it is stronger than NCLB and the waivers that are in effect today,” the ARC said in a news release, referring the Obama Administration’s waivers from most of the NLCB’s most punitive requirements. “ESSA includes our main priority that students with disabilities continue to be included in state accountability systems and have access to the general education curriculum and challenging academic content standards.”

The bill also includes provisions requiring states to take steps toward a variety of other priorities for students with disabilities, including reducing bullying, the use of restraint and seclusion techniques, and suspensions and expulsions. These requirements will likely be further developed in subsequent regulations.

“We’re definitely cautiously optimistic,” Denise Marshall, executive director of the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates told Disability Scoop. “It continues the message that all kids count and all kids can learn and states now have an obligation to make that happen.”