News-in-Brief – September 2012

Continuing Resolution Information Released

The last order of business before Congress adjourns until after the election is the passage of a six-month Continuing Resolution (CR), a bill to keep the government operating until final Fiscal Year 2013 (FY 2013) spending levels are set. The House, which is first to take up a bill, states the CR will maintain current FY 2012 funding levels plus an across-the-board increase of 0.612 percent. No new programs will be initiated, and no programs will be eliminated through the CR.

While the CR is generally a “clean” bill, meaning no controversial policy riders are attached, there is one provision specific to education about which LDA has expressed considerable concern. The CR would extend through the 2013-14 school year a codification of the regulation that defines highly qualified teachers for people in alternative route programs: basically allowing individuals who have just embarked on a training program to be immediately considered “highly qualified.”

Also related to the highly qualified issue, the bill would require the Secretary of Education to report by Dec. 31, 2013, using data required under the current law, the extent to which students in the following categories are taught by teachers who are deemed highly qualified under No Child Left Behind: (1) students with disabilities; (2) English learners; (3) students in rural areas; and, (4) students from low-income families.

This bill is expected to pass easily, and the Senate will follow with quick passage as well. When the new Congress is seated in 2013, decisions will have to be made about extension of the CR or final passage of the 12 regular appropriations bills.


LDA Holds Briefing on Toxic Chemicals and Severe Learning Disabilities (SLD)

In early September LDA held a briefing on Capitol Hill for Senate staffers on toxic chemicals linked to learning disabilities and autism. Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), author of the proposed Safe Chemicals Act, sponsored the briefing for LDA and promoted the event to other Senate offices. LDA’s Healthy Children Project Director Maureen Swanson and Joyce Martin, LDA’s Washington environmental health policy consultant, organized the briefing. Andy Igrejas, Director of the Safer Chemicals Healthy Families coalition, served as moderator.

The speakers included LDA of New Hampshire board member Melissa Wolfe and her husband Seth, parents of a young child with autism; Dr. Philip Landrigan, a renowned pediatrician and epidemiologist at Mount Sinai School of Medicine (NY); and Dr. Dani Fallin, head of Genetic Epidemiology at Johns Hopkins University and one of the principal investigators of a national study seeking to identify environmental and genetic contributors to autism. All the speakers made a strong and compelling case for testing chemicals for health effects prior to using chemicals in products and for a focus especially on protecting fetal and infant brain development. The scientists also explained why more and more experts are concluding that environmental factors interact with genetic factors to cause harm, and rarely is environment or genetics the single factor.

Melissa and Seth Wolfe gave a moving presentation about their son Edgar who has autism. Melissa described avoiding certain known dangers during her pregnancy. She noted that it is fairly simple to avoid toxins such as second-hand smoke, but much more difficult to avoid harmful chemicals such as those in couches and car seats. Seth Wolfe explained some of the financial costs of autism and spoke about his hopes for his son. He shared his frustration in learning that toxic chemicals may play a role in autism and that Congress has failed to protect families and children from these chemicals.

Dr. Landrigan described the growing body of evidence showing that toxic chemicals contribute to problems with brain development, and noted that scientists increasingly point to early fetal development as a critical period of great vulnerability to harm from toxic exposures. Dr. Landrigan co-authored an editorial that named a “top ten” list of chemicals and categories of chemicals highly suspected of causing neurological damage. Read the PDF (Citation information: Landrigan, P. J. (2012). A research strategy to discover the environmental causes of autism and neurodevelopmental disabilities. Environmental Health Perspectives, 120(7), a258–a260. doi: 10.1289).

The briefing concluded with Dr. Fallin’s presentation. She discussed the importance of her study, which has includes more than 200 pregnant women and eventually their babies. Dr. Fallin is a geneticist by training who now believes, based on her own and others’ work, that toxic chemicals are playing a role in learning and developmental disabilities.

LDA continues to lead in these efforts, and we will keep you updated as the Safe Chemicals Act moves forward.


LDA Co-Sponsors National Forum on Disability Issues

LDA is proud to be a co-sponsor with over 75 other disability-related organizations of the National Forum on Disability Issues, scheduled for September 28 in Columbus, Ohio. The Forum, which is the only presidential campaign event focused specifically on disability issues, will provide an opportunity for the candidates to present their positions on issues affecting the lives of individuals with disabilities.National Forum on Disability Issues The Ohio Senate candidates also have been invited to participate. The first such forum was held during the 2008 presidential campaign.

While the campaigns have acknowledged the event, they have not yet committed to participate. In order to get the presidential and senatorial candidates to the forum, the sponsoring organizations are requesting members of their groups to issue invitations to the presidential candidates and Ohioans to request the senatorial candidates also participate.

You can send a message to the presidential candidates about the importance of their speaking out on disability issues by sending an invitation at http://www.nfdi.org/invite_candidates/. There you will find sample letters and ways to contact the candidates through Facebook, Twitter, and the campaigns’ websites.

LDA continues to speak out for individuals with specific learning disabilities and takes the lead in urging our legislators–local, state, and federal–to support policies that enhance their lives.


Sequestration Impact Report Due

In its post-election lame duck session, Congress may examine alternatives to the sequestration process, which requires an eight percent (8%) across-the-board cuts in most all federal programs in 2013. There is almost universal agreement that the law is flawed. Some members believe the cuts to defense spending will be serious, while others, including LDA, are working hard to stave off cuts to non-defense discretionary programs such as education, health, human services, and the environment. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) will be sending a report to Congress in mid-September of the actual dollar impact of sequestration on every federal program, which for Congress and the public may also shine a light on the real human impact.

In May the House passed the Sequester Replacement Reconciliation Act (Sponsor: Paul Ryan, R-WI) on a party-line vote. The bill would replace cuts to defense with cuts in entitlements, for example, $7.7 billion in food stamps in the first year. The bill also calls for the end of grants to fund health insurance exchanges and puts limits on Medicaid payments. Democrats continue to say that without increases in revenue, $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction cannot be accomplished without the possible negative impact seen in this bill.

LDA is an active participant in the NDD (Non-Defense Discretionary) Summit (See News in Brief, June 2012). Representatives of all non-defense federal programs have been meeting regularly, including at a large rally with members of Congress, to highlight the real human lives that will be impacted by sequestration. The group is meeting this week with OMB Executive Associate Director Robert Gordon and White House Director of Public Engagement Jon Carson to hear directly from the Administration about its position on sequestration and plans to deal with this situation.

The Committee for Education Funding (CEF), a Washington coalition of over 100 education groups, is engaged in a grassroots campaign to let people at home know about sequestration. See an easy-to-understand presentation on sequestration, plus advocacy tools, available on the CEF website. The Coalition for Health Funding’s Non Defense Discretionary (NDD) Summit also has a variety of useful advocacy tools and materials available for public use on their website.

 


LDA Assists in Developing Policy on Computer Adaptive Testing

As part of its participation in the Consortium of Citizens with Disabilities (CCD) Education Task Force, LDA joined a small work group to learn about and develop a policy statement on computer adaptive testing (CAT). After several instructive sessions with experts at the American Institutes on Research and others, the group wrote a statement that has been shared with the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, the U.S. Department of Education, and the staff of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee and the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

The CCD Education Task Force has developed and subsequently updated recommendations for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA, currently known as No Child Left Behind). One of the key principles in those recommendations states that “assessments must be designed and implemented to ensure all students can accurately demonstrate their academic knowledge and skills.”

States have begun to redesign state assessment systems that include computer-based testing, simply providing the test on a computer rather than a pencil and paper assessment. The next step beyond computer-based is computer adaptive testing. In CAT, tests are automatically adjusted to meet the appropriate difficulty level of the test-taker. According to the CCD statement:

Students who are struggling with the test items receive easier questions while those who are excelling receive more difficult items. Importantly, statistical models underlying a well-designed computer adaptive test ensure that all students receive scores that are comparable to their same age peers judged against the state reading or math standards. In traditional testing, all students answer the same questions. Students at either end of the academic scale–struggling learners or advanced learners–find the bulk of the questions either too easy or too difficult. Very easy or very difficult items provide little information about what a student knows or can do. As a result, the proficiency of students may not be accurately assessed.

The CCD paper offers the following critical characteristics of a well-designed, standards-based computer adaptive test:

  • Every student is tested on the full range of grade-level content with no discernible differences in the content assessed.
  • Every student is tested on items measuring the same mix of cognitively complex skills, with no discernible difference–regardless of student proficiency.
  • Every student is tested on items reflecting the full range of other aspects of the grade level curriculum as may be appropriate for the grade and subject; and
  • Every student is tested on items that provide the best measurement possible within these constraints.

CAT presents an excellent opportunity for more accurate assessment of students with learning disabilities. LDA will continue to work in concert with other CCD members to inform policymakers and test developers about the efficacy of CAT in improving instruction and learning.


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