The Atlantic

Opt-Out Closes the Door on Kids With Disabilities

Great read in  The Atlantic about the alignment of disability advocates and civil rights leaders on the necessity of maintaining federal oversight, annual testing and accountability in a newly-reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), formerly known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Author Carly Berwick interviewed Ricki Sabia, who has a son, Steve, with Down Syndrome. When Steve was five years old he couldn’t read and teachers and administrators at his local school doubted his ability to ever read at all. Sabia explains:
It wasn’t until he started taking state assessments and far exceeding expectations that they started to take my observations about his abilities seriously and stopped trying to get him into special-ed classes.

The Opt-Out Threat

NCLB required each district to test 95 percent of each subgroup of students, including those with disabilities. The current draft of ESEA, called Every Child Achieves Act (ECAA), maintains annual state testing but an  amendment sponsored by Senator Johnny Isakson (R-GA) bars states from intervening in districts with low participation rates. We’re “opening the door for local control,” exulted Isakson; his amendment passed the Senate unanimously. This amendment renders 95 percent participation rates flaccid. While it may indeed “open the door for local control" (that desideratum among another oft-noted alliance of unionists and Republicans) it also opens the door to the old-school habit of counseling students out of testing to protect aggregated test scores and parents of special needs children, like Sabia (and me), know how quickly districts might go through that door. From the Atlantic article:
Now, disabilities advocates worry that the new proposals’ opt-out amendments—along with the ability of states to determine the consequences for schools that fail to comply with testing expectations—could allow schools to slide back into the ’70s, when students with disabilities were often warehoused in special rooms and only one-fifth received a public education.
No one wants too much testing. No one wants to overstress teachers, parents and students. But there’s a proper balance here—and the current draft of ECAA lacks that balance. You could ask Steve. He’s in community college now.  
Laura Waters writes about New Jersey education politics and policy for WHYY’s Newsworks and NJ Spotlight. She is a mother of four and has been a school board member in Lawrence Township, New Jersey, for 10 years.An earlier version of this post appeared on her blog, NJ Left Behind as Does the New NCLB's Opt-Out Provisions Protect Kids with Disabilities? This Mom says ‘No.’
Laura Waters
Laura Waters is the founder and managing editor of New Jersey Education Report, formerly a senior writer/editor with brightbeam. Laura writes about New Jersey and New York education policy and politics. As the daughter of New York City educators and parent of a son with special needs, she writes frequently about the need to listen to families and ensure access to good public school options for ...

Join the Movement