Every Student Succeeds Act: Students With Disabilities

This is part of a series of blog posts by the KDP Public Policy Committee that examine the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 (ESSA), a law that outlines the federal government’s role in education. The purpose of the series is to educate KDP members about this important law and its impact on their work as educators.

The passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) gives more control over accountability to the states and districts. Let’s look at some highlights of ESSA related to special education and students with disabilities in the areas of standardized testing, universal design for learning (UDL), and accommodations for assessment, and how these impact states and districts.

Standardized Testing

ESSA allows students with the most significant cognitive disabilities to take alternate assessments aligned with alternate academic achievement standards. An alternate achievement standard sets an expectation of performance that differs in complexity from a grade-level achievement standard. ESSA places a cap of 1% of the total number of all students in the state that can be assessed using these standards (equal to about 10% of students with disabilities).

The key point to remember about this is that most students with an Individual Education Plan (IEP) take regular assessments aligned with the academic content standards and not the alternate academic achievement standards. States will now need to define criteria that IEPs use to determine which students will be in that 1%.

Universal Design for Learning

UDL is a framework for curriculum, instruction, and assessment that requires multiple means of engaging students, multiple means of providing students with information, and multiple means for students to interact with that information and demonstrate what they have learned. UDL removes barriers from our instruction and curriculum. ESSA specifies that all state assessments must be developed using principles of UDL. In keeping with this requirement, teachers can plan for different ways of engaging students in lessons and demonstrating mastery of the objectives to meet the needs of all students in the class.

When UDL is used to plan lessons, objectives, and assessments, teachers will not have to worry about providing those last-minute modifications and adaptations. ESSA provides grants for states and school districts to provide professional development for the incorporation of the principles of UDL in instruction and assessment. Here are some free UDL learning tools you might find useful as you incorporate the UDL framework into your lesson planning. Want to learn more about UDL? Check out these websites: www.cast.org or http://www.udlcenter.org.

Accommodations and Assistive Technology

Along with developing state assessments using the principles of UDL, states must provide accommodations for students who receive accommodations under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Students must have access to appropriate accommodations, such as the ability to use assistive technology for their statewide assessments and in the classroom. These accommodations should facilitate student access to high-quality assessments to measure a student’s achievement against challenging state academic content and achievement standards, or alternate academic achievement standards for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities.

ESSA provides grants for states and school districts to provide professional development on the use of accommodations in instruction and assessment. Related to the Americans with Disabilities Act, the U.S. Department of Justice provides a helpful resource on providing accessible accommodations for standardized assessments.

Highly Qualified No More?

With the changes brought about by ESSA, the question arises: Is it time to revise the Individuals with Disabilities Improvement Act (IDEIA, 2004)? Most policy observers doubt there will be much movement in this area, but the language in ESSA amends some portions of IDEIA. The last time IDEIA was revised, changes were implemented to align this law with No Child Left Behind (NCLB, 2001). Under NCLB and IDEIA, in addition to holding a bachelor’s degree and a license to teach special education, and passing the appropriate licensure examination, special education teachers were to be highly qualified in their content area (e.g., if a special education teacher taught algebra, then that teacher had to be highly qualified in algebra).

ESSA amended the IDEIA language and removed the “highly qualified” language. IDEIA now defines a special education teacher as one that holds a bachelor’s degree and a license to teach special education, passed the appropriate licensure examination, and has met the state requirements for full certification as a teacher. Special education teachers are no longer required to be “highly qualified” in a content area.

What Now?

While the new ESSA law may positively impact students with disabilities, there is still a need for general and special education teachers to be engaged in professional development as it relates to implementing UDL, providing appropriate accommodations, and understanding how to incorporate assistive technology. As always, parents, advocates, teachers, and those in the field of special education should make their voices heard by contacting their legislators at both the federal and state levels about special education issues.

image_smith-clintonClinton Smith is an Assistant Professor of Special Education in the College of Education, Health, and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Tennessee at Martin. He is a member of the KDP Executive Council and co-counselor for the UT Martin Alpha Epsilon Epsilon Chapter.

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