Law Opens Opportunities for Disabled

By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 17, 2008

As Montgomery County ninth-grader Stephen Sabia reads "Romeo and Juliet" and studies the Holocaust and World War II for honors history and English, his mother credits an important ally in her years-long drive to secure the best education possible for her son with Down syndrome: the federal No Child Left Behind law.

The six-year-old law's requirement to raise student achievement across the board has forced schools to pay attention as never before to special-needs children who too often had been written off as incapable of handling the same lessons as peers in mainstream classrooms. Students with disabilities have made some strides in math and reading on state and national tests in recent years, although experts debate whether the law is responsible.

Ricki Sabia, Stephen's mother, said the law "really pushed the envelope for expectations for Stephen. There is no more question of whether he should be learning the same material as other kids. He's been exposed to literature and other academics at a level I don't think he would have without No Child Left Behind."

With such success stories, many parents of disabled students offer compelling testimony for the landmark education law amid signs that Congress could soon revive stalled efforts to renew it.

Under the law, public schools must advance every year toward the goal of proficiency for all students in reading and math by 2014. Schools must make gains on tests given in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school, and so must subsets of students, including ethnic minorities, those from poor families and those with disabilities. If any group falls short, schools face potential sanctions.

The mandate to raise the achievement of special-needs students -- a broad spectrum that includes children with learning disabilities, autism and the most severe cognitive impairments -- has opened more access to grade-level lessons for such students, many advocates say.

Some educators complain that the law is too rigid and that schools with dedicated teachers can be unfairly punished when even a handful of students with disabilities fall short on tests. Some parents worry that children with significant disabilities are ill-served if they are pushed into grade-level classes too far above their abilities, reflecting persistent debate over "mainstreaming" for special-needs students. There are also perennial questions about containing the high cost of special education.

Fairfax County School Superintendent Jack D. Dale said the law has led to more focus on students with disabilities, English-language learners and others previously "lost in the averages." With better training and technology to help special-needs students learn, he said, teams of teachers routinely work together to customize education.

As a result, Dale said, many special-needs students have made significant gains.

But Dale said that the goal of proficiency for all students is unrealistic and that the government should take more steps to recognize that some may not be capable of grade-level work even though they make progress.

"I'm not worried about us pushing kids as far as we can push them," he said. "I'm worried we'll become too obsessed about the tests instead of a child's needs."

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and an architect of the 2002 law, has said he plans to introduce a bill this spring to reauthorize it, with adjustments. Many disability-rights advocates are urging action before President Bush leaves office. They want Congress to revamp the law Bush pushed to enact, but keep it strong. They fear the next president, no matter the political party, will shove reauthorization to the back burner.

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