No Child Left Behind & Special Education

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  • 0:00 A New Education Agenda
  • 1:27 What is Special Education?
  • 2:49 Special Needs and Testing
  • 5:06 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: David Boyles

David has a Master's in English literature. He has taught college English for 5+ years.

The controversial No Child Left Behind Act, which drove national education policy from 2002 to 2015, had an impact on special education students, but experts disagree in their understanding of that impact.

A New Education Agenda

When President George W. Bush was elected in 2000, one of his signature policy proposals was his education reform program, named No Child Left Behind. The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) was passed with broad support in 2001 and signed into law in January 2002.

It was one of the most sweeping changes in national education policy in decades. It required states receiving federal money (which was pretty much all of them) to set high academic standards and evaluate them with standardized tests. Schools that failed to meet the standards, called Average Yearly Progress (AYP), would face sanctions and possible closure.

While popular when it first passed, NCLB came to be increasingly controversial as the years passed. Critics argued it put too much faith in high-stakes standardized tests and unfairly punished teachers and school administrators. Resistance to the program grew until it was formally repealed in 2015 and replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

One area of education where NCLB's impact continues to be controversial is special education. While some special education experts argue the high-stakes tests put undue burdens on special-needs students, others argue that it was beneficial because it held schools accountable for including and educating those students.

What Is Special Education?

Before we get too far, it would be helpful to explain exactly what special education is. Special education refers to the practice of teaching students with special needs, which typically include physical, mental, or learning disabilities, in a manner that accommodates their needs.

For a long time, special education carried a stigma, as special-needs students were separated and isolated from their peers in special classes or schools. Many of these classes did little actual educating and served more to warehouse the students, as it was thought they were incapable of receiving an actual education.

The 1990 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) attempted to fix this problem and required for students to be educated in the 'least-restrictive' environment possible. Schools were required to write an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) for any student who was identified as special needs and this plan was supposed to integrate the students into mainstream classes as much as possible, while also attending to their needs with appropriate accommodations.

Under IDEA, special education became extremely varied. Some students with severe needs are still enrolled in separate classes, while many attend mainstream classes with accommodations that range from individualized instruction to extra time on assignments.

Special Needs and Testing

No Child Left Behind is closely associated with the rise of standardized testing - or tests delivered by states that measure student progress in subjects like reading and math. Under NCLB, all students had to be tested, though it was up to the individual states to create the tests.

Some special education experts argued that standardized testing worked against the principles of individualized education that were the backbone of IDEA. Standardized tests typically did not permit the accommodations given to students for regular assignments under their IEP. And many parents and special educators argued that the tests increased stress for a population that already struggled in school.

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