NCLB and the Inclusion
of Students with Disabilities in the Accountability and Assessment Systems
of Martha Thurlow, Ph.D., Director,
National Center on Educational Outcomes
this page in PDF
On March 3, 2004, Dr. Martha L. Thurlow, Director, National
Center on Educational Outcomes, testified before the Committee on Education
and the Workforce, House of Representatives, about No Child Left Behind
and the inclusion of students with disabilities in accountability and
She testified, "We know how to educate all children, including
those with disabilities, if we have the will to do so. The discussion
should not be about whether students with disabilities can learn to proficiency
and thus, it should not be about whether they should be included
in assessment and accountability measures it must be about whether
we have the will and commitment to make it happen."
Chairman, Mr. Miller, and Other Members of the Committee:
for inviting me to speak today. I am the Director of the National Center
on Educational Outcomes, a technical assistance center that provides assistance
to states on the inclusion of students with disabilities in state and
district assessments, and on important related topics such as standards-based
reform, accommodations, alternate assessments, graduation requirements,
universally designed assessments and accessible testing.
our technical assistance with policy research on states current
policies and practices in these and other areas. We also conduct other
research to move the field forward in its thinking, in areas such as how
to develop universally-designed assessments that are accessible for students
with disabilities without changing the content or level of challenge of
the test, and how to most appropriately assess students with disabilities
who are English language learners.
of our organization results in our close involvement with states as they
implement their No Child Left Behind plans. Yet, because of our many years
of working on these issues, I think that we can see the forest as well
as the trees. It is because of this view, and the evidence we see about
the effects of including students with disabilities that I so strongly
support the inclusion of students with disabilities in the assessment
and accountability provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act.
I want to
make four points today. These points confirm the importance of including
students with disabilities in assessment and accountability. They show
that it is not unreasonable to hold schools accountable for these students.
of Including Students with Disabilities
First, we are already beginning to see the benefits of the inclusion of
students with disabilities in assessments and accountability systems.
As a result of having actual assessment data for these students, we know
that more students with disabilities are participating in assessments
now than were tested a mere three to five years ago.
We see these data in every state. Participation rates have gone up dramatically.
Think of New Yorks Regents exams, some of the most rigorous exams
in the country. The state released data showing that more students with
disabilities took and passed those tests in recent years than had ever
taken them before and to take them, students had to first be enrolled
in Regents courses. This means that they had to have access to a curriculum
that they had not had access to before, and they are achieving success.
also has data showing the passing rates for students with disabilities
on its high stakes graduation exam. Many students did not pass when the
exams were first administered. People started to pay attention when that
happened, including the students. Attention was devoted to what was happening
in the classrooms for all students, including students with disabilities.
Training was provided to make sure that all educators including special
educators knew WHAT all children were to know and be able to do
the content standards and how to teach them.
Massachusettss data show where the passing rates for students with
disabilities have steadily climbed from one year to the next.
as a result of its emphasis on reform, has reported that the overall percentage
of students with disabilities who are proficient in reading has increased
from 26% in 2000 to 50% in 2003. The percentage who are proficient in
math has increased from 36% in 2000 to 58% in 2003.
show what can be. Staff at NCEO talk to state directors nearly every day,
and they tell us that they are seeing positive changes. Of course, they
also tell us about the challenges. The challenges are not necessarily
due to the assessment or the accountability system, however. The assessment
system and its results serve as a warning flag. They tell us when we need
to do something about our instruction, our resources and supports. Making
changes to the assessment or accountability system is not the answer.
a Disability Does Not Mean Students Cannot Meet Standards
My second point is that being in special education having a disability
does not mean that students cannot meet standards.
I know that it is terrible to speak in double negatives, but I so often
hear educators say something like: How can you expect special education
students to perform well on these tests? If they could do that, they wouldnt
be in special education. Those statements are outrageous to me.
Special education eligibility should result in an identified student receiving
the services and supports needed so that the student can be successful
so that the student can achieve proficiency. Special education
eligibility should NOT be an excuse to expect little from a child, and
to provide little for the child. The assessment and accountability provisions
of NCLB have helped us recognize this for what it is, a problem of low
Problem of Low Expectations
Low expectations is a pervasive problem one that our colleague
Kevin McGrew, who is one of the authors of the Woodcock-Johnson III tests
of cognitive ability and achievement, has examined by looking at the academic
achievement of students of varying IQs, often used for eligibility for
special education services.
He has found: It is not possible to predict which children will
be in the upper half of the achievement distribution based on any given
level of general intelligence. For most children with cognitive disabilities
(those with below average IQ scores), it is NOT possible to predict individual
levels of expected achievement with the degree of accuracy that would
be required to deny a child the right to high standards/expectations.
One of the
bedrock principles of No Child Left Behind is that all students can learn
to high standards. I believe that No Child Left Behind is shining a very
bright light on low expectations, and that is an important outcome.
Modifications, Supports, Instruction
The third point that I want to make today is about where adjustments are
in fact needed. First we should look at accommodations, supports, and
instruction. These are where the issues that are causing low student achievement
are most likely to lie, not in the assessment.
While there are some ways in which assessments can be improved, for example
by making the assessments more accessible through the use of universal
design principles, the real work that needs to be done is in providing
students with disabilities greater access to the curriculum, making sure
that they have the appropriate accommodations and other supports they
need. States that have done this have seen the improved results that are
the goal of No Child Left Behind, as shown in the data from New York,
Massachusetts, and Kansas.
know how to educate all children, including those with disabilities, if
we have the will to do so. The discussion should not be about
whether students with disabilities can learn to proficiency and
thus, it should not be about whether they should be included in assessment
and accountability measures it must be about whether we have the
will and commitment to make it happen.
are Natural - We Need to Stay the Course
Finally, my last point is to emphasize the importance of staying the course.
Complaints and controversy are a natural reaction to the increased pressure
of the racheting-up of accountability. This does not mean that it is bad,
or that there should be a change. It does mean that people are paying
It means that students with disabilities are not just the concern of special
educators anymore. They are the concern of all educators, and this is
good. Everyone needs to take responsibility for the learning of students
with disabilities. Recent research has shown that schools where there
is shared responsibility and collaboration among staff have students scoring
higher on their district assessments.
are now is a sea change from where we were 10 years ago. Some of this
started before No Child Left Behind. The Individuals with Disabilities
Education Act of 1997 required that students with disabilities participate
in state and district assessments and that their results be reported publicly
in the same way and with the same frequency as those of other students.
While this happened in some states, not until No Child Left Behind did
all states really pay attention to the requirements. The assessment and
accountability requirements of No Child Left Behind have given us data
on students with disabilities that we only had sporadically before. These
data can help educators know where to devote resources. No Child Left
Behind has given the impetus for special educators and general educators
to work together in a way that in many places never seemed to rise to
the level of importance to make it happen before.
Making students with disabilities one of the subgroups of No Child Left
Behind truly has been a very important and positive event in the education
history of children with disabilities.
Martha L. Thurlow, Ph.D.
Martha Thurlow is the Director of the National Center on Educational Outcomes.
In her position, she addresses the implications of contemporary U.S. policy
and practice for students with disabilities and English Language Learners,
national and state assessment policies and practices, standards-setting
efforts, and graduation requirements.
Dr. Thurlow has conducted research for the past 30 years in a variety
of areas, including assessment and decision making, learning disabilities,
early childhood education, dropout prevention, effective classroom instruction,
and integration of students with disabilities in general education settings.
has published extensively on all of these topics, authoring numerous books
and book chapters, and publishing more than 200 articles and reports.
In 2003, she completed her 8-year term as coeditor of Exceptional Children,
the research journal of the Council for Exceptional Children, and is currently
associate editor for numerous journals.
Martha Thurlow, Ph.D.
National Center on Educational Outcomes
University of Minnesota
350 Elliott Hall, 75 East River Road
Minneapolis, MN 55455
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