search Quick Email Signup EPI US Canada

About Us

Our Mission

What is EPI?

What We Do?

Clients and Funders

EPI Brochures

Quick Email Signup

Students with Disabilities Improving Under NCLB and IDEA but More Work to be Done, Says New Report by EPI



National Council on Disability Releases EPI/AYPF Report on the Impact of NCLB and IDEA on Students with Disabilities


NEW ORLEANS , LA - January 28, 2008 - A new report was released this morning by the National Council on Disability (NCD) documenting trends in academic achievement of students with disabilities and also the successes and barriers achieved by states,school districts, and other stakeholders as a result of the implementation of No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) and the Individual with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

The National Council on Disability is an independent federal agency making recommendations to the President and Congress to enhance the quality of life for all Americans with disabilities and their families. It is composed of 15 members appointed by the President and confirmed by the U.S. Senate. The study was conducted by the Educational Policy Institute and the American Youth Policy Forum under contract to NCD. Dr. Watson Scott Swail of EPI and Ms. Betsy Brand of AYPF were the principal investigators for the project.

The report is based on the collection and analysis of NAEP and IDEA data regarding student academic achievement; interviews of state administrators and representatives about trends and issues related to NCLB and IDEA; and conversations with advocates, federal officials, and other stakeholders. To provide specificity at the state level, EPI and AYPF identified and conduted 10 state-based case studies representing over half the students in the United States. The report concludes with recommendations based on the research findings. In addition, an appendix is available providing background data and statistics from the 10 case studies.

NCD Board member Lisa Mattheiss described the importance of this report: "The release of this report comes at an opportune time in many respects. The reauthorization of the NCLB is imminent, and the practice of how best to manage the implementation of NCLB is being refined, with states and communities learning from each other as they go. We believe this report can help inform all of these efforts."

EPI President and project PI Dr. Watson Scott Swail suggests that this report provides a signpost for future study and observation. "Clearly, improvements in student achievement and state/district practice take a long time to occur. Through this study, we see that movement is in the right direction, but we will need to be steadfast in the collection of data to further investigate the true long-term impact of NCLB and IDEA on students with disabilities."

In brief, the report finds that students with disabilities are doing better in terms of placement in various academic categories. By and large, fewer students are scoring in the “below basic proficiency” levels on NAEP reading and mathematics tests at the 4th- and 8th-grades, and more students are scoring in the “proficient” levels. However, positive change at the 4th grade and dissipates by the 8th grade.

Through the past several years, there has been an increase in the number of students with disabilities who have dropped out of school, as well as a decrease in the number of students who are using special education services. Graduation and certificate rates, conversely, rose since the establishment of NCLB.

In summary, students with disabilities appear to be doing better academically and also appear to be graduating with diplomas and certificates higher than in prior years. Data suggest that there is certainly concern about the dropout levels of students in states, and regardless of whether that concern is definitional or real, we ultimately need to better understand the manifestations of new rules and regulations on these students.

EPI interviewed state staff members from sectors of education that were directly affected by NCLB and IDEA: assessment, data collection, curriculum and instruction, and professional development. From the interviews it was evident that state characteristics, such as the demographic make-up, geographical distribution of the school age population, culture, and size and number of school districts, all had an impact on each education department’s ability to respond to NLCB and IDEA mandates. Responsiveness was also affected by the sophistication of each state’s existing assessments and data collection systems, and how much work needed to be done to comply with NCLB and IDEA reporting requirements. Respondents clearly noted that implementing NCLB and IDEA at the state level has been no easy task. However, despite the difficulties states have faced in complying with the two laws, it was clear from our interviews with staff members that some positive changes are taking place.

The American Youth Policy Forum interviewed stakehodlers with disability policy, education, and advocacy leaders, and students with disabilities and their parents. The interviews suggest that there has been a palpable and positive change in the overall attitude of educators toward educating students with disabilities. Educators expect students with disabilities to meet higher standards, and students with disabilities have increased access to highly qualified teachers and higher level curricula. Most individuals interviewed for this report believe that the culture of high expectations for students with disabilities, and for that matter for all students, is taking root, and they credit these attitudinal changes to NCLB, but also to IDEA as reauthorized in 1997 and 2004. Educators are increasingly aware of the need to provide lower-performing students with extra supports to allow them to learn to high standards.

Recommendations from the report include:

  1. Maintain high expectations for students with disabilities and continue to disaggregate outcome data by subgroups. No one suggested that we return to pre-NCLB days, when students with disabilities were not included in academic accountability systems. Interviewees acknowledged that not every student with a disability can achieve to high standards, but they recommended holding firm to high expectations, continuing to disaggregated data, and keeping the pressure on the system to deliver higher-level instruction.

  2. Develop the capacity of teachers to provide differentiated instruction and a more rigorous curriculum. In order for students to benefit from a higher-level curriculum, teachers must have the content knowledge and pedagogical skills to work with a diverse group of learners, particularly students with disabilities. All teachers must have strong academic content if they are the lead teacher, or be paired with a content expert if they bring strong pedagogical skills, as many special educators do.

  3. Create incentives to attract, recruit, and retain special education   teachers. As special education teachers retire and leave the profession, more attention needs to be paid to how to develop the profession and maintain adequate numbers of teachers with the skills and knowledge to work with students with disabilities. NCLB should be amended to include provisions such as early intervention services, response to intervention, individualized education plans for lower-performing students, and transition planning for needy students. These are key elements in IDEA, yet they affect all students, not just those with disabilities.
  4. Align NCLB and IDEA data systems and definitions. NCLB and IDEA require data collection and reporting on various student outcomes and program characteristics, but the laws use different definitions and reporting formats, which should be brought into closer alignment so that states, districts, and schools are not duplicating data collection efforts. NCLB should also be amended to require that post-school outcomes be reported, as that is a critical indicator of success for all students.

  5. Ensure that students with disabilities are measured on more than just academic skills attainment. The definition of what is assessed for students with disabilities should be broadened to include occupational, employability, and life skills.

  6. Increase funding for special education. Helping students with disabilities access a higher-level curriculum requires more support services, potentially more learning time, better-trained teachers, collaborative teaching, and new instructional approaches. The current requirement to spend 15 percent of IDEA on early intervention services on non–special education students diverts funding from an already needy population.

To download, click on the following items:

Print copies may be obtained from NCD by faxing requests to Stacey Brown at 202-272-2022 or by e-mail (

Questions related to the report may be directed to Watson Scott Swail of EPI or Martin Gould of NCD.

- 30 -

The Educational Policy Institute is a non-profit research center focused in issues of educational opportunity, especially for our most needy populations. Based in Virginia Beach with offices in Toronto and Melbourne, EPI conducts program evaluation, policy analysis, and conducts professional development opportunities for educational professionals throughout the education continuum. Visit the EPI website at