Key Policy Letters Signed by the Education Secretary or Deputy Secretary
May 10, 2005
Archived Information

May 10, 2005

Dear Colleague:

I know you share the strong belief that no child should be left behind in our efforts to ensure that our nation's elementary and secondary schoolchildren receive an education that fully prepares them for college or the workforce. This is particularly true for students with disabilities who, in the past, have often been held to lower standards and assessed in ways that failed to accommodate their disabilities and demonstrate what they know. As a result, I support emphatically the requirements that are the cornerstone of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB): that all students, including students with disabilities, be held to challenging content and achievement standards; that their progress be measured annually by high-quality assessments aligned with those high standards; and that schools and school districts be held accountable for achieving results.

The vast majority of students can achieve—and we must expect them to achieve—to grade-level standards. Thus, we must hold schools and districts accountable for ensuring that they provide proper instruction for students to meet those standards. Research tells us that a very small percentage of students with disabilities, however, may not ever achieve grade-level proficiency, even with the very best instruction. That is why the Department issued regulations under Title I that permit States to hold students with the most significant cognitive disabilities to alternate achievement standards and to include their proficient scores (subject to a 1.0 percent cap) in determining adequate yearly progress (AYP) under Title I. These regulations are good practice and ensure that schools and districts receive credit for the work they are doing with these students. Without those regulations, a school and district would have little incentive to hold these students to any standards or devote adequate resources toward their instruction because their assessment scores would be considered not proficient. I most certainly want schools and districts to be held accountable for these students, as well as for all other students.

In addition to students with the most significant cognitive disabilities, research now indicates that there is another group of students with disabilities who can make significant progress but may not reach grade-level achievement standards within the same time frame as other students. This research shows that, even after receiving the best-designed instructional interventions from highly trained instructors, a group of students with academic disabilities, comprising approximately two percent of the school-age population, is not able to achieve at grade level. They are able to make significant progress toward grade-level standards when provided high-quality instructional interventions and measured with appropriate assessment instruments.

As a result, the Department intends to issue a notice of proposed rulemaking in the near future that would permit States: (a) to develop modified achievement standards for a limited group of students with disabilities, as defined in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, (b) to develop alternate assessments (based on those modified achievement standards) that are aligned with grade-level content standards, and (c) to include proficient scores from these assessments (subject to a 2.0 percent cap at the district and State level) in determining AYP. The goal of these regulations would be to ensure that States hold those students to challenging, though modified, achievement standards that enable them to approach, and even meet, grade-level standards; ensure these students access to the general curriculum; measure their progress with high-quality alternate assessments; provide guidance and training to Individualized Education Program teams to identify these students properly; and provide professional development to regular and special education teachers regarding successful interventions.

In the interim, for the 2004-05 AYP determinations only, as a matter of policy in holding States accountable under the law, I am permitting qualified States to exercise additional flexibility in making AYP determinations for the students with disabilities subgroup for the 2005-06 school year, based on assessments administered to those students during the 2004-05 school year. To qualify to exercise this flexibility this year, a State must be meeting specific core requirements of NCLB related to students with disabilities. The State must also provide information on actions it has taken to raise achievement for all students with disabilities, as well as address the activities it has taken or will take to ensure that students who need to take a modified assessment are able to make significant progress toward reaching grade-level standards. In separate documents, we are providing you additional guidance regarding the process for requesting approval to amend your State accountability plan to incorporate this flexibility.

As I have said before, I absolutely believe this is the right approach for students. We have much work ahead of us to improve the instruction and assessment system for students with disabilities, and I look forward to working with you toward this end.

  Margaret Spellings

Enclosures (available in the "More Resources" box at today's press release)

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Last Modified: 05/10/2005