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Answering Questions about Support for NCLB
by Sue Whitney, Research Editor, Wrightslaw

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Note: Congress has reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the statute formerly known as No Child Left Behind. The new statute, Every Student Succeeds Act, was signed into law by President Obama on December 10, 2015.


Dear Wrightslaw:

I have a question about your support for No Child Left Behind.
I find it hard to understand how you can support this legislation when some of the standards, such as the "4th grade reading level" are, it seems obvious to me, not possible for children with severe disabilities to achieve.

As a parent of children with disabilities who has been an advocate for many other families in a professional capacity for over 20 years, I have seen IEPs for some of these children with goals such as "to maintain respiration," or "to be able to grasp a toy."

With the 100% standard for accomplishment by 2014, including financial disincentives for noncompliance, what motivation will school districts have to keep serving these children, when the children's inability to reach these goals can cost the school district their funding? I fear that the subtle, and sometimes not-so-subtle pressure put on some families to take their children out of schools will only increase in this atmosphere.

As well, it also is pretty clear that NCLB was politically motivated by those with an agenda to further undermine the public school system. Unless you live in Lake Woebegone, no school district has children who are all "above average" When your schools can't achieve these impossibly high standards, the politicians will have all the ammunition they need to direct public funding away from the schools.

I have been a longtime user of your usually excellent advocacy advice, but I fail to see how uncritical acceptance of NCLB really furthers the cause of helping children with disabilities succeed in fulfilling their potential, or how it fits with other positions you have taken, such as on high Stakes Testing, since NCLB seems to be the ultimate High Stakes Test.

Sue Responds
I want to clarify a few things before I get to your fears for severely disabled children.

The "all" in NCLB means 95%. By 2014, 95% of children must be at the proficient level on state testing. Proficient does not mean above average. It just means that the child has mastered what his state has determined is grade level material. By federal definition, anything below proficient means the child has not mastered grade level work. (20 U. S. C. § 6311)

It will be a decade before we need to worry about whether the 95% factor is appropriate. Right now it would be a miracle for some schools to teach 40% of the kids.

Here are some facts about 12th graders from the 2002 Nation's Report Card:

Only 36 percent are proficient in reading
Only 18 percent are proficient in science
Only 17 percent are proficient in math
Only 11 percent are proficient in U. S. history
Source: U.S. Department of Education, The Nation's Report Card, 2002.

Up until now, schools continued to get federal money, whether they taught kids or not. Now we are requiring results in exchange for the money. As a taxpayer and a parent, that makes sense to me.

Now for your concerns about schools abandoning the children with the most severe disabilities.

No Child Left Behind is a general education law. Lowering the general education standards to will not help children with severe disabilities.

The U. S. Department of Education published a proposed regulation to allow schools to use alternative assessments for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities. (NCLB Regulations)

If IDEA is weakened in the next reauthorization though, your concerns for these children is well founded. Without IDEA to protect individual children there is absolutely nothing in any other education law to prevent schools from abandoning children who require expensive teaching and who will not reach grade level.

IDEA has been around long enough that many of us think of these protections as permanent. They are not. If we do not let our Congress people know how we feel about IDEA, we may not have these protections much longer.

Sue Whitney Heath
Research Editor

More articles by Sue:

A Parent's Guide to No Child Left Behind

No Child Left Behind: What Teachers, Principals & School Administrators Need to Know

10 Strategies to Fight Mandatory Retention & Other Damaging Policies

Exit Exams Can Be Optional - If You Plan Ahead

High Stakes! Can the School Use a Single Test to Retain My Child?

Meet Sue Whitney

Sue Whitney of Manchester, New Hampshire, works with families as a special education advocate and is the research editor for Wrightslaw.

Doing Your Homework, Suzanne Whitney gives savvy advice about reading, research based instruction, and creative strategies for using education standards to advocate for children and to improve public schools.

Her articles have been reprinted by,,, The Beacon: Journal of Special Education Law and Practice, the Schafer Autism Report, and have been used in CLE presentations to attorneys.

Sue is the co-author of Wrightslaw: No Child Left Behind (ISBN: 978-1-892320-12-4) that was published by Harbor House Law Press, Inc.

She also served on New Hampshire's Special Education State Advisory Committee on the Education of Students/Children with Disabilities (SAC).

Sue Whitney's bio.

Copyright © 2002-2022 by Suzanne Whitney.

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