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The New ESEA and its Impact on Students with Disabilities

Tuesday, January 5, 2016   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Denise Marshall

On December 11, 2015, President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) into law. The ESSA replaces No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and reauthorizes the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (20 U.S.C. 6301 et seq.). This article for COPAA members intends to summarize core aspects of the new law and explain critical Title I provisions that will directly impact students with disabilities. You can also read the full text of the law or review a comparative chart of Title I.


There are substantial changes in the ESSA which create new flexibility in accountability and eliminate federally-mandated interventions and turn around strategies. Gone are the highly qualified teacher requirements, replaced by a requirement that teachers are certified by states. The ESSA does maintain the basic architecture of standards-based reform and annual assessment requirements for states; however, the Secretary may not regulate or intervene with state standards. The law does require states to set challenging academic standards that must:


       Apply to all public schools and all public school children.

       Align with higher education institution entrance requirements without the need for remediation.

       Align with the relevant state career and technical education standards.

       Adopt language proficiency standards for English learners.

       Allow for alternate academic achievement standards for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities, aligned to challenging state standards.


State Assessments: Statewide annual assessments continue as requirements in the subjects of reading and math; in grades 3-8 and once in high school. A new caveat is that districts may now use a nationally-recognized high school assessment in lieu of a state assessment (e.g. the SAT or ACT). States must also test students in science once in grades 3-5, once in grades 6-8 and once in high school. With regard to students with disabilities, states must continue to provide an alternate assessment based on alternate academic achievement standards for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities; however, the law requires states to adhere to a 1% student participation cap for each required subject. This new policy exceeds current regulation which only caps the counting of proficient scores. Under the new law, districts have flexibility if they need to exceed the 1% cap and states also have the option to apply for a federal waiver of the cap. The law also prohibits the development of additional alternate or modified assessments. New to the alternate assessment provisions impacting students with the most significant cognitive disabilities are that states must:

       Ensure parents are informed and understand how the decision to take an alternate assessment may affect the child completing requirements for a regular diploma.

       Promote involvement of students and their making progress in the general curriculum

       Assure that such decision does not preclude a student from attempting to complete a regular high school diploma.


States may also allow computer adaptive testing and allow districts to develop innovative assessments under the Innovative Assessment Pilot which applies to no more than seven grantees; approved by the Secretary. States must also continue to test and report disaggregated assessment data on no less than 95 percent of all students as well as 95 percent of students in each student subgroup: poor, minority, disability, English Learners (EL).


State Accountability System: Under waivers, states were required to identify the bottom 15% of schools for intervention and support. Now, states can design their own accountability system and make annual accountability determinations with no federally-specified interventions or turnaround strategies required. States must now use the following indicators to calculate school performance within the accountability system:


1.       Annual assessment (substantial weight required)

2.       A measure of student growth or other academic indicator for elementary schools

3.       Graduation rate for high schools

4.       Progress of ELLs in achieving proficiency

5.       At least one ‘additional’ measure of school quality and student success – must be statewide, comparable and reliable.


The first 4 indicators must have a much greater weight than the ‘additional’ indicator(s) in the accountability system calculation; however, the Secretary may not prescribe the weight(s) for any of the indicators. States may continue to set their own ‘N’ size for subgroup disaggregation and accountability purposes with the caveat that such N sizes are ‘statistically reliable’. The Secretary may not prescribe an N size; however there may be some room for the Secretary to reject a state’s N size if it is not statistically reliable. Student privacy continues to be protected in small schools and districts.


States must develop a single accountability system based on standards, establish reading and math proficiency goals as well as interim measures of progress. The indicators are used to identify, differentiate and report on all public schools. At least every three years, States must identify schools for comprehensive support and improvement. The schools they must identify are:

           The 5% lowest performing in the State

           High schools that graduate less than two-thirds of students

           Schools where a subgroup is consistently underperforming the same as a the lowest 5%  of schools.


The state determines the number of years for intervention and the exit criteria. The district determines the school’s improvement plan. The state must review school progress after 4 years. In addition to the identification of the schools for comprehensive support and improvement, the district must also oversee intervention in any school when one or more subgroup is underperforming. In this case and for these schools, the district determines when intervention begins and ends except if school is then identified as a consistently underperforming school in the state. All of this is new and could be implemented in as many ways as there are states.


State Plans - Seclusion and Restraint: States must also include new information in their plan indicating how they will support districts to improve school conditions for student learning, including through reducing—‘‘(i) incidences of bullying and harassment;‘‘(ii) the overuse of discipline practices that remove students from the classroom; and‘‘(iii) the use of aversive behavioral interventions that compromise student health and safety. 20 U.S.C. § 6311(g)(1)(C)


The conference report clarifies that the term aversives means seclusion and restraint:


It is the Conferees’ intent that each State describes how it will support local educational agencies and schools by providing resources and guidance, professional development, and technical assistance to reduce techniques, strategies, interventions, and policies that compromise the health and safety of students, such as seclusion and restraint. Conference Report 114-354 to Accompany S. 1177, p. 451


State Diploma Options and Students with Disabilities: The new law defines both a regular high school diploma and an alternate diploma. While the definition for a regular high school diploma is not new – it comes directly from the 2008 regulation created to help states calculate and report high school graduation in a comparable manner – the definition of an alternate diploma is. The definition was created to give states the option to create a diploma for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities and count them as graduates if the diploma is: standards-based; aligned with the State requirements for the regular high school diploma; obtained within the time period for which the State ensures the availability of a free appropriate public education under section 612(a)(1) of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act(20 U.S.C. 1412(a)(1); and shall not include any student awarded a recognized equivalent of a diploma, such as a general equivalency diploma, certificate of completion,

certificate of attendance, or similar lesser credential.


State Planning - Family Engagement: The law includes improvements to Title I that would require districts to conduct family engagement activities with community stakeholders, including parents and others. The law does not include a voucher program or any public or private school portability of funds.


Get Involved

ESSA Report Cards: Every state is required to publish state, district and school report cards highlighting how students are faring in meeting state-set academic standards (in reading, math, science and high school graduation with a regular diploma). Students with disabilities are reported as a subgroup in [most] schools[1], in the district and in the state. This meant to provide a snapshot of the academic achievement of students in grades 3-8 and in high school. This information can help inform efforts to assure schools have resources, training and technical assistance available under ESSA to support academic achievement. You can find your state’s report card on the state department of education website.


To learn more about accountability systems and how to ensure all students matter, visit Students Can’t Wait, developed with COPAA’s input and expertise.

[1] Note: States set an ‘N’ size for student subgroup reporting on students with disabilities, low-income, minority and English Learners. When a school does not have enough students to meet the N size, the subgroup may not be included for one or more schools in a district. Student scores are included in the aggregate number reported at the school building level.

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