The Effect of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 on Special Education and Learning

In 2001, the US Congress passed the No Child Left Behind act with overwhelming bipartisan support. The law was unprecedented in its overhaul of the education system in the United States. Advocates for the law lauded it for holding schools accountable and empowering parents, while critics claimed the law was a rigid solution to a fluid problem.

Debates and discussion about No Child Left Behind (NCLB) continue on a number of levels: testing fairness, racial implications, economic implications, and funding responsibilities to name just a few. One of concern on several levels, though, is the effect the law has on the education of learning disabled and special education students in schools. Supporters say that NCLB raises the bar for such students and forces schools to address their education, but those in opposition claim the law either forces schools to lower overall standards, or actually undermines the education of these students.

In brief, NCLB has a few provisions that directly affect learning disabled and special education students on some level. The first is that every state must test all students annually in certain mandated subject areas. Secondly, states must demonstrate that “adequate yearly progress” (No Child Left Behind Act) toward a set of standards that are set by the individual state. Finally, teachers must demonstrate that they are “highly qualified” (No Child Left Behind Act) in their subject area. Each provision of the law offers a unique debate over how special education or disabled students are affected.

Since all students must be tested annually, learning disabled and special education children are included. However, this seemingly simple idea in the act is the cause of much of the debate. According to Marty Solomon, “the NCLB law makes no exception – – disabled children, which now make up 13% of all school kids, must pass the same tests as regular students.” (April 5, 2004; He goes on to assert that because the standards to which the test scores are held are set by the state and because states may not have a separate standard for disabled children, they will be forced to lower the overall standards (Solomon, 2004). Since these lowered standards may still not be attainable by disabled students, the attempt to raise education standards will actually result in the lowering of standards (Solomon, 2004).

Supporters of NCLB point to a need to raise the bar for even disabled children. They say the law highlights the education system’s shortcomings in terms of educating disabled children. In fact, one argument in support of the current system of testing argues that by exempting students or their scores from the assessment, those students will revert in status back to where they were before laws like the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) were passed (Smith/NAPAS). The assertion is that if we don’t acknowledge the learning disabled students, or hold them to a high standard, we are being unfair to them.

With arguments for and against testing disabled students as well as for or against how to score them, what is the answer? In a recent Indianapolis Star article (Holladay, October 18, 2005) one frustrated special education teacher suggests testing for progression, not just achievement. “[Chris McShane] favors testing. She thinks schools need more of it, not less. ‘But for special ed students’, she says, ‘testing should focus on progress made from one year to the next.” (McShane, 2005). While NCLB does allow for 1% of students scores to be excluded, a school with a high percentage number of learning disabled children will be counting higher number and thus more likely some with more severe disabilities such as mental retardation or Down’s Syndrome. The school, then, would be penalized. The only reasonable solution, then, would be to test special education students based on learning level and progression rather than at their grade level.

Along with the testing and assessment for schools to take on accountability for student proficiency, the mandate that teachers show that they are highly qualified in their subject field is of growing concern among those in special education. Starting in 2006, according to NCLB, all teachers, no matter how much classroom experience they may have, must prove that they are highly qualified to teach basic subjects.

Such a provision, on the surface, seems reasonable. In fact, supporters will tell you how it will improve the quality of teachers in the schools. They point to teachers as a reason that education in the United States is failing, and they applaud the idea of teachers proving they are highly qualified.

What, though, about teachers who have acquired some of their knowledge in a particular subject on the job? More specifically, teachers in areas where schools are short handed anyway, like special education, may not meet the education standards set by the act. However, these same teachers may still be qualified. For instance, one teacher in Kansas City points out the root of the problem with the act.

“One of those people worried about recruitment and retention is Diana Haynes, a special education teacher at Antioch Middle School in North Kansas City School districtâÂ?¦She considers it an affront that she may not be considered highly qualified in her field, despite her schooling and 13 years in the classroom. “Some teachers are highly qualified because they have been in the classroom for years,” she said.” (Sherry, March 22, 2005, Kansas City Star).

With the new laws, teachers like Diana Haynes could find themselves out of work when they are valuable to their schools, effective, and rare. Perhaps it would make sense to establish standards going forward and offer an assessment system that would allow a teacher with experience to demonstrate that as a qualification. Without such a system, we could lose teachers as well as valuable resources.

Lastly, a growing complaint about the law that hits hard on special education is funding. NCLB is not a completely unfunded mandate, but offers only partial funding because it does not take into account needs before the fact. The problem is the same as with the idea of inclusion altogether: not enough money to make it work. With a national shortage of special education teachers, children with disabilities are not getting the individual attention required to meet NCLB standards. However, funding does not come until after the school has failed. An example of the problem appears in a recent issue of Teacher Education Quarterly in which a teacher talks about a student whose needs cannot be met due to a lack of support:

“He was tested and labeled a student in need of special education services; he was getting the majority of his education in a mainstream classroom with occasional assistance from a teacher’s aid. Unfortunately, she was often called out of the class to be either in meetings for other special education students or in other classrooms as a substitute.” (Botzakis, 2004).

One aid to assist the student and she was called out of the room because there was not enough special education support in the classroom. Where is the funding to support more help? According to NCLB, additional funding comes only with failure. Seems like that is a point where it’s too late.

No Child Left Behind is rooted in good ideas: that schools should be accountable for their students, that good teachers make for good education, and that children of higher risk groups should be pulled up out of the bottom of education. It is, however, a rigid solution to a fluid problem. For each district, each school, and each student the problems in education vary. Specifically, special education and students with learning disabilities are suffering from the lack of flexibility. As is outlined by IDEA, exceptions and varied accommodations need to be made for such students. If these exceptions and aids are available in the classroom, but not on the tests, then aren’t the schools and the children being not only failed, but also cheated? Unfortunately, it seems that way. They say that a certain undesireable road is paved with good intentions, and looking at the effect of NCLB on children with special needs only causes that proverb to ring truer.

Works Cited

Solomon, Marty (2004, April 5). Education News: The Problems with No Child Left
Behind. Retrieved 10/17/05, from

Botzakis, Stergios (2004). No Child Left Behind? To Whom Are We Accountable?
Teacher Education Quarterly, Fall 2004.

Holladay, Ruth (2005). Special Ed Students Fall Through Net In ISTEP. Indianapolis
Star. October 18. P E1.

Sherry, Mike (2005). Teachers might be left out under No Child Left Behind: Law could
drive some out of special education. The Kansas City Star. March 22nd. Also available: Staff. (2002). Fact Sheet: No Child Left behind. Retrieved 10/17/05, from

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