Key Policy Letters Signed by the Education Secretary or Deputy Secretary
Archived Information

June 27, 2003

Dear Chief State School Officers:

As you know, the Department has been working with each State since January to review and approve State accountability plans under Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, as amended by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB). I am exceedingly grateful for the cooperation you and your staff have demonstrated throughout this process. It is truly historic that, for the first time, each State has an accountability plan to hold all public schools accountable for the achievement of all students.

During our review of State accountability plans, one of the most challenging issues with which we have had to grapple is the appropriate inclusion of students with disabilities. President George W. Bush and I strongly believe in the principle that no child should be left behind, including students with disabilities. As a result, I continue to support vigorously the Title I requirements that all students, including students with disabilities, be held to the same challenging content and achievement standards. Similarly, State assessment systems must provide for the participation of all students, including students with disabilities. For students with disabilities, these systems must provide appropriate accommodations and include one or more alternate assessments for any student who cannot participate in the State assessment, even with accommodations. In regulations issued in December 2002, we made clear that these alternate assessments must yield results for the grade in which the student is enrolled.

At the same time, we recognize that, even with the best instruction, there is a small percentage of students - those with the most significant cognitive disabilities - who face unique challenges meeting grade-level expectations. To ensure that these students are credited for growth and achievement, we published, in March 2003, a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) that would permit States to establish alternate achievement standards to measure the achievement of students with the most significant cognitive disabilities. We have received more than 95 comments on this NPRM and hope to issue a final regulation later this summer.

I realize that, in addition to students with the most significant cognitive disabilities, for certain other students with cognitive disabilities, the goal of reaching proficiency against grade-level content standards for reading and math also presents significant challenges. To determine whether these students made progress during the 2002-2003 school year, some States, based on Individualized Education Program (IEP) team determinations, assessed these students at their instructional level ("instructional level assessments" or ILAs), rather than at standards appropriate for the grade in which they are enrolled. These States now must reconcile their use of ILAs with the Title I statute and regulations that require the use of assessments that measure the achievement of all students against grade-level content and achievement standards.

It is important that States work to develop universally designed assessments that better measure whether students with disabilities are meeting each State's challenging standards. At the same time, I am mindful that such state-of-the-art assessments are still emerging; regulations and submission of accountability plans presented timing issues; and, as a result, some States administered ILAs during the 2002-2003 school year. For these reasons, I am authorizing the following transition policies that States may implement for making AYP determinations for the 2003-2004 school year, based on data from assessments administered during the 2002-03 school year:

1. To calculate AYP for schools and districts a State may use alternate achievement standards for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities who take an alternate assessment. Those alternate achievement standards must be aligned with State academic content standards and reflect professional judgment of the highest learning standards possible for those students. Moreover, in order to calculate AYP, the percentage of students held to alternate achievement standards at the district and the State levels may not exceed 1.0 percent of all students in the grades assessed. For assessment data from the 2002-03 school year, States may determine which students have the most significant cognitive disabilities. This is the same transition policy that was communicated to States through the State accountability system approval process.
2. In addition, if a State permitted the use of ILAs during the 2002-2003 school year to measure the progress of other students with disabilities based on their IEPs, the State may hold schools and districts accountable for the achievement of these students against instructional-level standards rather than grade-level standards. This policy only applies to assessments that were administered during the 2002-2003 school year, which will be used to make AYP determinations for the 2003-2004 school year. The 1.0 percent limit discussed above does not apply to these test scores.

In response to the comments we received on the NPRM, we are working on a comprehensive policy that better defines the group of students with disabilities for whom alternate achievement standards may be appropriate. Until that policy is final, I believe the flexibility I am offering strikes the proper balance between ensuring that all students are included in States' accountability systems and recognizing the unique assessment issues that students with disabilities raise. Once the regulation is finalized we intend to work with States so that they will be able to meet the new requirements and ensure that all students are appropriately assessed and held to high standards. Together, we can work to ensure that no child, including one with a disability, is left behind.



Rod Paige

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Last Modified: 08/23/2003