As Congress looks to reauthorize the nation’s primary education law, advocates are blasting proposed changes they say would lead to lower expectations for students with disabilities.

At a U.S. Senate hearing this week, lawmakers began the process of updating the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, now known as No Child Left Behind. Among the biggest changes under consideration are a shift in testing requirements.

Current regulations allow students with the severe cognitive disabilities to take alternate assessments as opposed to the general, grade-level tests required of most students. Only 1 percent of all students — or roughly 10 percent of those with disabilities — can be counted as proficient by schools for taking these less-complex exams.

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However, a draft proposal from U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., would lift the cap on the number of kids who could take alternate assessments.

In a letter this week to Alexander — who chairs the Senate’s education committee — advocates called the plan “unacceptable.”

“(The proposal) could allow schools to take millions of students with disabilities out of the general assessment which would also often mean off track for a regular high school diploma — something that could happen as early as 3rd grade,” reads the letter signed by 25 disability advocacy groups as part of the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities. “Unfortunately, the provisions in your draft would lower expectations for these students and ultimately limit their ability to become fully economically self-sufficient.”

The idea of opening up alternate assessments on a broader scale is particularly troubling because most students with disabilities are capable of grade-level work, said Lindsay Jones from the National Center for Learning Disabilities who helped draft the letter to Alexander.

With school curriculums largely tied to the bar set by standardized tests, Jones said that kids with disabilities would likely be provided less access and subject to lower expectations if schools are able to give alternate assessments in greater numbers.

“I think everyone agrees we need an alternate assessment for kids with the most significant cognitive disabilities. For certain students it’s appropriate, but for the vast majority — 90 percent of students with disabilities — it’s not,” Jones said.

Meanwhile, disability advocates also said they’re dismayed that Alexander’s plan is silent on modified assessments — which were intended for children with disabilities considered too advanced for the alternate tests but unprepared for typical exams. The tests have largely been abandoned by states after advocates say they were widely abused.

Lawmakers said they are eager to move forward quickly with a revamp of No Child Left Behind and another Senate hearing on the matter is scheduled next week. Alexander has indicated, however, that he is reluctant to put too many demands in place at the federal level.

“While the federal government has a very special role in ensuring that our students do not experience discrimination based on who they are or what their disability might be, Congress is not a national school board,” Alexander said at the hearing.

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