Assessment and Students with Disabilities: Issues and Challenges with Educational Reform

Article excerpt

Abstract

The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act seeks to correct achievement gaps that are most prevalent among students in specific subgroups including those with disabilities, linguistic and cultural diversity, and representing economic disadvantage. The reauthorization of federal special education legislation through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEIA) has moved to align the accountability for learners with disabilities with the guiding principles of NCLB. This paper examines the challenges of adequately assessing these learners in a manner that preserves the individualized nature of educational supports and services while focusing on the desired learning and results that are expected by education policy through accountability mandates. In this lens of increased scrutiny for results accountability, the issues of eligibility for services, summary of performance, and transition services are analyzed and aligned with these policy expectations with particular consideration given to rural impact. The emerging focus on early intervening services and assessing learners identified as at risk for school failure promotes practices that are aligned with academic and behavioral success for all learners. A summary of recommendations is provided on assessment related factors for rural school teachers and administrators.

The momentum for educational reform changes practice in schools. Two recent federal mandates, No Child Left Behind (NCLB, 2001) and The Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEIA, 2004) have strongly influenced both general education and special education and have drastically changed the way educators and the general public look at outcomes for children with special needs. While intended for two separate populations, NCLB and IDEIA have similar and often overlapping principles, which are driving assessment procedures for students in public schools. In fact, IDEIA references concepts in NCLB in a variety of different ways. This paper will describe some of the overlapping themes between NCLB and IDEIA and specifically address the issue of assessment under these two legislative guidelines and then review the implications for practice in rural schools.

NCLB and IDEIA Alignment

The No Child Left Behind Act was signed into law in January of 2002. This federal mandate was a major revision to the Elementary and secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965. This law significantly challenged the status quo of public schools and established the US Department of Education as a responsible party for increasing student achievement in public schools. Turnbull (2005) identified 6 primary principles of NCLB: accountability, highly qualified teachers, scientifically based instruction, local flexibility, safe schools, and parent participation and choice.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act was reauthorized in 2004 with the intent of improving the existing legislation with a primary purpose of aligning the provisions of IDEIA with NCLB. While the individual provisions of IDEIA are different than NCLB, the overall goal of the two is similar. The partnership of NCLB and IDEIA provide the opportunity for successful academic achievement for students with disabilities by implementing the systemic changes mandated by NCLB through the individual lens of the IEP (Individualized Education Plan) as regulated by IDEIA.

Access to the General Curriculum in the Regular Classroom

The passage of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (PL 94-142) in 1975 opened the door for students with disabilities to attend the same neighborhood school as their nondisabled peers. While this was a significant milestone in special education history since it opened the door to the school for all learners, it did little to guarantee any level of quality education. The focus of special education was on the physical placement of the child, not the curriculum or content to be learned. …