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Arkansas State University

ESSA’s Effects on Special Education

Candidates for a Master of Special Education in Special Education degree will develop a thorough understanding of the educational acts passed by Congress and how they apply to special education through assessment, implementation, special educator certification requirements and funding avenues.

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and its predecessors have included provisions particular to special education, as well as developments and financial incentives for early learning programs with a special focus on early literacy. These aspects of the ESSA have a distinct impact on strategies for adapting and improving learning for many students with literacy-specific disabilities such as dyslexia, with the spotlight on addressing these issues at an early age. This becomes an important part of developing the Individualized Education Program (IEP) for each student with disabilities, as required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The IEP plans education and instruction tailored to students’ specific learning needs so they do not fall behind and perpetuate the achievement gap in special education.

A Brief History of ESSA

The ESSA was first known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA). Its purpose was to appropriately fund primary and secondary education, as well as develop high standards and assessments of achievement to help fight the “war on poverty” by focusing efforts on increasing educational effectiveness, especially for low-income populations. The ESEA has been reauthorized and amended every five years since. The most notable changes occurred during its rebranding as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) in 2002 and as the ESSA in 2015.

An Overview of NCLB and ESSA

In order to receive federal funding through NCLB, states had to adopt accepted methods of annual standardized assessment (such as Common Core State Standards, CCSS), accountability as measured by the federally defined Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) broken down by subgroups (such as students of different racial groups, low-income students, students with disabilities, and English language learners), appropriate high school graduation rates, and school improvement intervention — if that school is not making adequate progress toward set goals.

There was a great deal of criticism of NCLB, mostly because the act set uniform, nationwide achievement standards that did not necessarily reflect the unique populations of every state and locality. The specific design and implementation of educational standards has long been the responsibility of each state, owing to a state’s deeper knowledge of its constituents. Although the intent of the NCLB act was to ensure that no student subgroup was “left behind,” at times, it effected an increase in the educational gap between certain subgroups due to state-by-state variations in conditions and need.

Further, the classic debate over “teaching to the test” meant that educators felt teachers had to spend too much time preparing students with test-taking skills in standardized assessments, which led them to neglect other important school subjects. In order to address these concerns, the Obama administration began to allow some flexibility in how states devise their own plans to ensure equitable measured achievement standards.

This return to a more state-led educational system increased with the passage of the ESSA. The ESSA still mandates standardized assessment and defined accountability measures disaggregated among student subgroups, but it allows states to adopt accepted forms of assessment or develop their own (under stringent federal requirements and high achievement standards). Although ESSA accommodates standardized assessment models like CCSS, it does not require any specific model, nor does it offer differing incentives according to assessment method.

ESSA Mandates and Implications Specific to Special Education

The ESSA has many ramifications for special education teachers and administrators. The ESSA’s focus on funding to support early literacy and learning provides teachers of students with dyslexia and other difficulties with reading and writing access to more resources to develop successful IEPs. In addition, whichever standardized testing model each state adopts or develops must assess the levels of achievement for the vast majority of the student population, with no more than 1 percent of that population participating in an alternate special education assessment. This promotes the Free Appropriate Public Education component of IDEA that requires schools to educate students with disabilities in general population classrooms, to whatever extent possible. Because of the disaggregation of achievement test score reporting according to subgroups, states are responsible for progress within these subgroups, which pushes states to close the gap in special education.

Understanding the Every Student Succeeds Act is essential for graduate students in an online MSE in Special Education program. For educators who want to improve modern special education, this act will guide IEP design and implementation, as well as the assessment and disaggregated reporting of achievement for students with disabilities.

For administrators of and advocates for the development of special education, including the expansion of early literacy and the access to appropriate adaptive technologies, understanding funding sources can be key to creating and maintaining successful special education programs. Educators can use the many facets of the ESSA to effect its purpose: to ensure every student in our educational system has the opportunity to develop the critical thinking and problem-solving skills that can ensure a successful future after school.

Learn about the Arkansas State University online MSE in Special Education — Instructional Specialist program.


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