States Aiming Too Low for Students With Disabilities, Says New Report on ESSA

By Alexis Clark, MA, MS on Oct 03, 2018

In 2015, when the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) replaced No Child Left Behind (NCLB), advocates hoped it would help states focus on improving academic achievement for kids with learning and thinking differences. But a new report shows that states aren’t stepping up.

The report was created by the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD), Understood’s managing founding partner. It’s the first-ever look at students with disabilities under ESSA, the nation’s K–12 general education law. Many students with disabilities have learning and thinking differences, like and .

Under ESSA, each state was required to create a plan to hold its schools accountable for how students perform academically. Over the past two years, all 50 states created ESSA plans. The new report rates each state plan in 15 key areas. The red, yellow and green ratings show at a glance which states are supporting the achievement of students with disabilities in meaningful ways.

The biggest problem, according to the NCLD report, is that many states are setting expectations too low for students with disabilities as a group. Only 18 states set long-term goals for students with disabilities that are the same as for all other students. The rest set the goals that are lower. Many states have also set up their plans in a way that makes it hard to tell if groups of students, like those with disabilities, are performing well.

ESSA also requires states to describe how they will work to improve student achievement. But only 1 in 5 state plans include interventions aimed at supporting students with disabilities. Most don’t describe how they will help these kids achieve. And many don’t mention approaches that ESSA supports, like Universal Design for Learning (UDL).

“What we found is very concerning,” says Lindsay Jones, chief policy and advocate officer for NCLD. “But there’s still time for states to change course if school districts are ready to take action.”

Jones says NCLD and other advocacy organizations will be pushing policymakers to make changes. But, she says, NCLD can’t be in all 50 states. That’s why it’s crucial for parents to “ask for a seat at the table.”

“Parents can get involved right now to help make sure these state plans support the achievement of all students,” she says. Jones encourages parents to download the ESSA advocacy toolkit and teacher professional development toolkit. Parents can use these toolkits to advocate with their states and local schools.


Get quick information on ESSA in this one-page ESSA fact sheet. And learn more about the differences between ESSA and NCLB.

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    About the author

    About the author

    Alexis Clark, MA, MS is a freelance editor for Understood and an adjunct professor at Columbia Journalism School.