No Child Left Behind Made Sure Students with Learning Disabilities Count, Now Let’s Make Sure They Graduate

Monday April 12th – 5:15pm

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), reauthorized as No Child Left Behind under President George W. Bush’s administration, is up for renewal.

President Barack Obama has called for Congress to vote on this education bill before the fall 2010 elections. Here, the National Center on Learning Disabilities outlines how this overarching federal education law affecting kindergarteners through high schoolers can be improved to ensure greater academic success
and higher graduation rates for students with ADD/ADHD and LD.

Federal policies and laws such as No Child Left Behind (NCLB), currently known as
Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), truly matter for children with special needs. We know that decisions made on Capitol Hill impact the school experiences of every
student with an Individualized Education Program
(IEP) on a daily basis.

So, how are our kids — students with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADD/ADHD) and
learning disabilities (LD) — doing in school as a result of NCLB, and how can an improved ESEA benefit them? Every family has its own answer to that question, because each family’s journey through LD and/or ADD/ADHD is unique. But we do know a lot about students have fared under NCLB.

Let’s start with some good news:

  • Graduation with a standard diploma (one that, unlike a certificate of completion, indicates a student has met the requirements for each grade level, in addition to completing of four years of school) is up: The rate increased from 51percent to 61 percent from 1997 to 2007.
  • Dropout rates are down: From 1997 to 2007, the rate dropped from 41 percent to 24 percent.
  • Matriculation to college and other postsecondary schools is up.
  • Reading and math achievement is up: Most state assessments of proficiency, along with a study conducted by the
    National Center on Educational Outcomes, show that students with disabilities have gained ground over the past decade.

The reasons for this progress are many. One critical reason is that NCLB required schools — for the first time — to include students with disabilities in their accountability system. Our kids counted! For the most part, they were included in the assessments used to monitor all students’ performance on
the general education curriculum. As a result, more of our kids are now staying on track in general education — often with appropriate supports and accommodations — and are achieving academically at higher levels.

Now for some not-so-good news concerning students with LD:

  • The achievement gap between students with disabilities and those without is persistently wide.
  • Students with reading disabilities read, on average, a full three years below their classmates.
  • One out of every four students with LD drops out, and four out of every 10 graduate with only a “completion” certificate.
  • As a result, the unemployment rate for adults with LD is often twice as high as for the general population.

Too many of our schools are failing to teach and support our kids so they can demonstrate how much they know and can do. The shared challenge — and opportunity — for advocates for children with special needs is to use the current public policy climate to advance concrete recommendations to strengthen and protect
what we know works for our kids.

President Obama has called for ESEA to be reauthorized in 2010 before Congress recesses in late summer for the fall elections. The National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD), a parent-led advocacy and education organization that represents the interests of the 2.4 million students who have been formally identified with
a learning disability, is leading a campaign to ensure that our kids count in the revised law, and we are enlisting fellow advocates — such as readers like you — to be sure they do. Below are the principles NCLD has adopted for this campaign, built on the bedrock of high expectations — for our kids, for our schools, and for ourselves as parents.

Students with Learning Disabilities Need Early Intervention and Effective Teaching

We know that identifying struggling learners as early as pre-school has a direct impact on future opportunities — enhanced academic attainment, college progression, improved health, higher wages. Because most students with LD struggle with reading, including a strong literacy component as part of ESEA and supporting professional development for teachers is critical (e.g., the Literacy Education for All, Results for the Nation (LEARN) Act, as recently
introduced in the House and Senate, supports evidence-based reading methods). To further prevent academic failure, increase academic achievement, and reduce the number of students mistakenly identified as needing special education (something that is widely acknowledged but not well researched), ESEA should
incorporate research- and evidenced-based instruction and intervention systems such as
Response to Intervention and Positive Behavior Support.

Graduation Rates Must Go Up

The tragically high dropout rate of students with disabilities must become part of the larger conversation about our national dropout crisis. College and career -ready students are those who complete school. Therefore, graduation with a standard diploma must be the goal for all students — not just those who are easiest to teach.

To improve the graduation rate for students with LD, we must first adopt and adhere to a universal means of calculating the rate (a new 2009-2010 regulation requires all states to calculate and report graduation consistently) and break this rate apart by all student groups so we can better track the progress of students with LD. Then we must set — and meet — annual graduation rate goals, both overall and by grouping, such as students with LD. Just as academic
achievement for students with disabilities must not be inflated by expecting less of them, or holding them to different performance standards, the graduation rate must not be improved by counting diploma options other than the regular or advanced diplomas.

Special Education Students Must be Fully and Equitably Included

We must not compromise the progress students with disabilities, almost half of whom have LD, have made as a result of changes enacted under NCLB. We must keep the content standards, progress measures, and participation requirements that apply to all students in place.

Any proposal calling for more “flexibility” in accountability for schools with students with disabilities must not lead to more of our kids being pushed to the sidelines, into alternate assessments and curricula that ultimately prevent them from graduating with a regular diploma.

Eligibility for special education must not be viewed as a reason to deny students with disabilities access to the same benefits of school accountability systems enjoyed by other students.
Rather, special education must be viewed as a set of individualized supplemental services provided to eligible students giving them an equal opportunity to meet the same educational standards that apply to all students. To do so, the reauthorized ESEA must no longer allow the numbers games that some states and school districts play, manipulating student data in ways that effectively delete students with disabilities from their accountability system.

NCLD invites all who care about children with special needs to join our campaign, support our principles, and reach out to elected officials. To learn more and take action, please
visit our website (
Let’s ensure that our kids count as Congress goes forward to reauthorize ESEA.


As public policy director for the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD), Laura W. Kaloi has spearheaded successful legislative initiatives focused
on every major education and disability law including the Elementary Secondary Education Act/No Child Left Behind, the Individuals with Disabilities Education
Act (IDEA), the Higher Education Act and the Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act. Ms. Kaloi received her Bachelor of Arts degree, dean’s list, from
the University of Utah and her Masters of Public Administration with honors from Brigham Young University.

As executive director of the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD), James H. Wendorf advocates for parents of students with learning disabilities, professionals, and individuals with learning disabilities; for research-based programs that foster effective learning; and for policies that protect and
strengthen educational rights and opportunities. Mr. Wendorf earned a B.A. degree from Yale College, and graduate degrees in English Language and Literature from the University of Cambridge and Cornell University.

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