News-in-Brief – September 2013

Government Shutdown Looms Again

LDA has reported for several months on Congress’s inability to enact appropriations (spending) bills to fund the government for Fiscal Year 2014 (FY 2014), which begins on October 1, 2013. Once Congress returned from its August recess, only nine legislative days were scheduled for action to avert a government shutdown in the wake of Congress’s inaction. As this article was in process, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) was considering canceling the House’s planned recess the week of September 23 in order to finalize action to keep the government operating.

For the past several years Congress has reached an impasse over annual appropriations. Without much ado, they have passed Continuing Resolutions (CR), bills that keep the government open while Congress attempts to pass the 12 appropriations bills. Fiscal Year 2013 saw a year-long CR; however, this year even the passage of a CR is proving difficult.

While most members of Congress would prefer not to have a shutdown, a group of Republican legislators insist that they will not pass a CR that continues funding for the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”). In addition, there is a sharp divide over the bottom line amount that the government should spend, from those on the left who believe the post-sequestration (across-the-board) cuts are draconian to those on the right who would prefer even deeper cuts.

The situation remains very unsettled. Most recently 43 House Republicans led by Rep. Graves (R-GA) introduced their own CR. It would be significantly more harmful than the CR proposed by House Speaker Boehner (R-OH) and Appropriations Chairman Rogers (R-KY). First, it would cap spending at $967 billion, an amount lower than the current spending levels. Second, it would enact versions of the Defense, Military Construction/Veterans Affairs, and Homeland Security appropriations bills already passed by the House. The bill then takes the FY 2013 CR levels for everything else and directs the Office of Management and Budget to issue an across-the-board cut below FY 2013 to conform to the $967 billion cap after subtracting the amounts for the three House defense and security bills. Finally, the bill prevents any funds from being spent to implement Obamacare and delays the individual mandate for the purchase of health insurance by one year.

Joel Packer, Executive Director of the Committee for Education Funding, estimates this would result in a new across-the board cut of around 15 percent to the remaining non-defense discretionary (NDD) programs, including education, health, social services, transportation, environment and all other federal agencies. These deep cuts would be in place for all of Fiscal Year 2014.
While the Graves bill clearly will not pass and would be disastrous for NDD programs if it did, it is a clear indication that the House leadership cannot pass the Boehner-Rogers Continuing Resolution. In addition, Senate Democrats refuse to consider any CR that defunds Obamacare, and the President has indicated the same.

Besides the annual appropriations debate, Congress is facing another crisis on the debt ceiling. Some time between October 13 and November 13, the debt limit will be reached, and Congress must decide whether to raise the debt ceiling or go into default. As with the spending battle, there is a deep divide between factions within the two parties over how to proceed.

Congress faces some serious decisions in the next few weeks, and LDA will be there monitoring the situation and keeping you informed.


Department Recommends End to Modified Standards

In late August the U.S. Department of Education issued a “notice of proposed rulemaking” to solicit public comments on its proposal to discontinue the use of modified academic achievement standards and alternate assessments (AA-MAS) based on those standards. The deadline for public comments is October 7 (see end of article for specific information). Modified standards, also known as the “Two Percent Rule,” were adopted by only 16 states since the Department began allowing their use in April 2007, and 14 of those states have already ended or are in the process of phasing out their use. The two states still actively using modified standards are North Dakota and California.

In April 2007 the Department of Education amended the regulations to Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA, currently known as No Child Left Behind) to allow states to define modified academic achievement standards for certain students with disabilities. Federal guidelines were quite vague regarding which students would qualify for modified standards. The guidelines stated the modified standards would be appropriate for students “whose disability has precluded them from achieving grade-level proficiency and whose progress is such that they will not reach grade-level proficiency in the same time frame as other students.” The same regulations allowed states to develop alternate assessments based on the modified standards.

The rationale for permitting the use of such standards and assessments was an acknowledgement that neither the general assessment nor alternate assessments for students with significant cognitive disabilities might be appropriate for this group of students. Further, the Department has indicated its belief that better instruction and supports, the more widespread use of universal design for learning, new technologies, and better research on accommodations now preclude the use of these mechanisms.

Since this policy was instituted, there has been considerable controversy within the disability community about the use of these standards and assessments. Some stakeholders have stated these standards and assessments provide an opportunity for a select group of students to show mastery and give a better picture of where they are academically and how to instruct them to progress further. Other stakeholders believe these standards water down the curriculum, do not adequately challenge students, and prevent these students from becoming career- and college-ready. The latter group of stakeholders also supports the use of universal design for learning to make the general curriculum more accessible to the broadest array of students.

While the Department must solicit public comment whenever it wishes to amend any federal regulations, it appears fairly certain that the modified standards regulations will be eliminated. States who applied for and have since received ESEA flexibility waivers were informed as early as September 2011 that alternate assessments based on modified achievement standards were not part of the definition of “high-quality assessments” that will be required beginning in the 2014-15 school year.

The proposed regulations would eliminate the use of modified standards and assessments based on those standards, but would allow for a transition period for states still using the standards. States that administered assessments based on modified standards in the 2012-13 school year could continue to use those assessments and could include the results in their calculation of adequate yearly progress up to the allowable limitation through the 2013-14 school year.

To submit comments: The deadline for public comment on the proposed regulations is October 7, 2013. The notice of proposed rulemaking with all information, including background on the current policies and the proposed changes in policy, can be found at https://www.federalregister.gov/articles/2013/08/23/2013-20665/title-i-improving-the-academic-achievement-of-the-disadvantaged. Information about how to submit comments is found in the beginning of the notice under the paragraph entitled “Addresses.”


Smarter Balanced Accessibility Manual Approved

The Governing States of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) have approved the final version of the Usability, Accessibility, and Accommodations Guidelines as SBAC is preparing large-scale field testing of its assessments in early 2014. SBAC is one of two federally funded consortia developing assessments that will be available to States to accompany the Common Core State Standards. The development and adoption of the accommodations policies engendered considerable debate and concern in the disability community, and a number of those concerns remain even as these policies have been finalized.

LDA has been part of ongoing discussions throughout the year as SBAC has worked to develop its accommodations policies. In partnership with the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD), LDA has worked to ensure the broadest application of various accommodations that would optimize the chances of students with learning disabilities to demonstrate their mastery of reading/English language arts and mathematics.

Of particular and ongoing concern for LDA and NCLD is the use of text-to-speech for students with learning disabilities and students with visual impairments. According to SBAC, “This accommodation is appropriate for a very small number of students (estimated to be approximately 1-2% of students with disabilities participating in a general assessment).” SBAC’s expert advisors and experts provided by LDA and NCLD disagreed over the definition of reading, the number of students affected, and whether the use of a “read-aloud” accommodation would provide the information sought regarding students’ abilities to read and understand material. SBAC has ultimately decided that text-to-speech will not be allowed for students in grades 3-5, as “SBAC content experts agree that this accommodation…would compromise the construct being measured.” The accommodation will be available for students in grades 6-8 and grade 11 whose IEP or 504 plan documents the need.

The framework for the accommodations guidelines provides for universal tools available to all students, designated supports that are available when an adult or team indicates, and accommodations documented in an IEP or 504 plan. Universal tools can be used by students receiving designated supports and those getting accommodations, and designated supports are available to students with documented need. Accommodations, however, are available only to students with documentation through the IEP or 504 plan.

LDA and its partners will continue to engage SBAC and the other consortium – PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) – and will monitor the field tests to determine how students with learning disabilities fare under the accommodations guidelines adopted by each consortium. The ultimate goal is to ensure students have the best opportunity to demonstrate what they have learned and to inform how instruction can be improved to ensure further academic progress. LDA hopes this includes a serious reexamination of the accessibility and accommodations policies once field test data are available.

To review the policies of each consortium, click on the links below:

PARCC: http://www.parcconline.org/parcc-accessibility-features-and-accommodations-manual.

SBAC: http://www.smarterbalanced.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/SmarterBalanced_Guidelines_091113.pdf.


International Literacy Day Celebrated

The International Reading Association hosted its annual celebration of International Literacy Day, with featured speaker Alma Powell, wife of General Colin Powell and chair of the America’s Promise Alliance. Ms. Powell is an audiologist by training and has recently authored two children’s books. Under her leadership the Alliance is currently leading a coalition of over 400 national groups in a ten-year campaign – Grad Nation – focused on ending the dropout crisis.

In her remarks, Powell stated that reading proficiency is fundamental to the health of a nation, its workforce, national security, and economy. She noted that the entire country pays a price when children fail in school and that the chief cause of that failure is tied to literacy. Ms. Powell added that a high school diploma should be seen as the starting point, rather than just being “enough.”

Focusing on the dropout issue, Powell cited that children in low income families often enter school without the vocabulary and literacy skills of their wealthier peers. In addition, the chances of dropping out for children whose families receive public assistance are four in ten. Her organization hopes to cut the dropout rate in half by 2015, and literacy is a key to reaching that goal.

Other speakers represented the National Association for Manufacturing Excellence (NAME), Rotary International, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber of Commerce representative said the dots need to be connected between the skills and competencies students obtain and the competencies employers are seeking. The business leaders all acknowledged the key role their members play in addressing the literacy gap. For example, NAME has adopted local schools to work with students and assist teachers. The Rotary has distributed dictionaries to students, and teachers have developed lessons around their use. In addition, the Rotary gives annual award to mentoring groups and businesses that foster youth development.

The audience raised some questions that highlight concerns of some LDA members: What about those jobs that don’t require college but rather more technical skills and training? Is college always the best option for students? The panel responded that school staff needs to help parents become educated about the range of career options and the routes to achieving those goals.


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