Testimony of Rachel Quenemoen
National Center on Educational Outcomes

“How NCLB Affects Students with Disabilities”

Committee on Education and Labor

Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education Hearing

March 29, 2007
10:30 a.m, Room 2175 Rayburn House Office Building

Thank you Chairman Kildee, Ranking Member Castle, and all the Members of the Subcommittee for inviting me to testify this morning.

I work on several Federally funded projects housed at the University of Minnesota. However, in my testimony this morning, I am representing myself, and not the multiple projects on which I work.


Although you wouldn’t know it from the newspaper lately, the news is good on the increasing achievement of students with disabilities. Data from schools, states, and the National Assessment of Educational Progress show improved test scores, and closing of the gap.  Not all schools are being successful - so researchers and policymakers are studying what makes a difference in successful schools. The key difference is that successful schools ensure that all students are taught the challenging standards-based curriculum through effective instructional strategies, and all students are expected to learn it! That seems straightforward, but clearly not all schools have figured that out.

To understand the importance of high expectations, it’s important to have a clear idea of who students with disabilities are -

Most students with disabilities - 75% - have learning disabilities, speech/language impairments, or emotional/behavioral disabilities. Add another 4-5% with physical, visual, hearing, and other health impairments and you have the 80% of students with disabilities who do not have intellectual impairments, who with high quality curriculum and instruction can achieve proficiency on the grade-level content by going around the effects of their disabilities. In addition, research suggests that many of the small percent of students with disabilities who DO have intellectual impairments, less than 2% of the total population of all students or 20% of students with disabilities, can also achieve proficiency when they receive high quality instruction in the grade-level content.

In schools where all of these children are EXPECTED to learn, and given the services, supports, and specialized instruction to do so, we are seeing data that shows students with disabilities CAN learn to very high levels.


Why don’t all educators accept these high expectations? Some of it results from a misunderstanding of what standards-based testing is meant to measure. The tests that most of us experienced growing up were built on the measurement models of the 20th century- norm referenced tests, designed to sort us into bell-shaped curves on some kind of ability distribution.

Garrison Keillor makes use of these misconceptions in his signoff from Lake Wobegon, not far from my home, “where all the children are above average.” If students of idyllic Lake Wobegon are taking a norm-referenced test, where half of the students are above and half below average, that is very probably true, for several complex reasons.

If they are taking a high quality criterion referenced test based on challenging content and achievement standards, then there is not an “average” to describe, only relative distance from the standard. If there is a widely accepted (but erroneous) assumption that there will ALWAYS be students who do poorly on tests, then it is pretty tempting to predict which students will end up on the bottom. In contrast, on a good standards-based test, all students who are taught well should perform well.

My written testimony describes what is being done to use the best research in teaching, learning, and assessment to help states design assessment systems that can promote student learning.

It also describes the regular assessments, accommodations, and varied alternate assessment options available to ensure all students are tested well, and I welcome your questions about how these options can increase expectations and outcomes for students with disabilities, and what we still have to learn.

The results of these assessments are used, of course, in accountability systems. There has been much attention in the press about how states have designed these systems. The technical difficulties of accountability systems are real, and states have an obligation to avoid both false positives and false negatives in identifying schools. In other words, although gaming of the system does exist, thoughtful, committed people are struggling with ensuring fairness all the way around, and sometimes it hard to discern good intentions from bad.

Growth models are seen as a logical solution by many. Pilots of the models are underway, which is good, and serious attention now has been given to ensuring that all student groups are included, which is better. The states working on this thus far are in pilot phases, and are required to carefully analyze the effects of these models. They also are required to build these models based on an absolute standard of proficiency for all students, which is extremely important.

However, many special educators and the general public have seen the term “growth” as more generic - that any progress is acceptable, and would relieve the pressure of “proficiency” as an absolute standard. There have been proposals that student IEPs could replace the “regular” accountability system, effectively excluding students from the benefits of standards-based reforms. Others suggest that special education students should be held to separate standards that focus growth only on basic skills, or should be exempted from accountability completely. This would be disastrous, and cause us to lose the tremendous progress we have made the past 6 years.

It is important to step back to celebrate where we have come from and to clarify where we CANNOT go. Because of NCLB, we now have a powerful lever for reducing and eliminating the achievement gap of students with disabilities.

ANY adjustments to accountability systems should be made for all students, not just one subgroup, with consideration and careful monitoring of intended and unintended consequences for students overall and for student subgroups.