Advocates say they are worried that changes to the No Child Left Behind (search) law that will relax standards for children with disabilities will wind up dooming those children to "low expectations."

The changes, announced earlier this month, were hailed by state and federal school officials, who said they will give school systems the flexibility they need to meet the strict testing standards of the federal law.

Educators insist that they will be on guard against the possibility that the new rules isolate special-needs students, but parents and advocates have their doubts.

"We have a lot of concerns about taking that large number of kids and pulling them out and not holding schools accountable in the same way," said Leslie Margolis, managing attorney for the schoolhouse discipline project at the Maryland Disability Law Center (search).

Under No Child Left Behind, schools across the country are assessed based on the test scores of their students, and whether those scores are going up or down from year to year. Schools have been allowed to designate 1 percent of their students as disabled, allowing them to take a less-strenuous test.

The changes announced this month will let schools designate an additional 2 percent of students for the alternate test, by expanding the definition of disabled to include kids who have "persistent academic disabilities."

"We hate that term (persistent academic disabilities), its meaning, and the implication that [those students] will never make grade level," said Ricki Sabia, the associate director of the National Down Syndrome Society Policy Center (search).

Sabia, who has a 13-year-old son with Down syndrome in public school, said that putting labels on some students and not weighting their scores the same as others will create "low-expectations and a lack of incentive" for all students with disabilities.

She said she is also worried that schools might use the new rules to put anyone who cannot earn proficient test scores in the "persistent academic disabilities" category, so the school can ensure it is making adequate yearly progress.

Schools and school districts "do not want to be labeled in need of improvement so they are putting a label on kids instead," Sabia said. "That is inappropriate."

Margolis and Sabia suggest that beefing up education for all children with disabilities must come before they are segregated from the pack of test takers.

But U.S. Department of Education (search) officials advocates have no reason to be concerned, especially since all students will still be tested yearly.

"We are putting a group of students who have some challenges front and center with a real serious commitment" to improving their education, said Kerri Briggs, a policy adviser for the department.

Briggs said little chance exists that a student who could meet proficiency standards would be shunted into the "persistent academic disabilities" category. Students who have a chance of achieving grade-level proficiency on a test "would not be taking a modified assessment," she said.

The federal government is also allocating a total of $14 million in fiscal 2005 to "help states develop criteria for identifying" which students really should be taking the alternate assessments. The new rules are scheduled to take effect in the next school year.

"We plan on using the best and brightest minds we can," Briggs said

Ron Peiffer, an assistant superintendent of schools in Maryland, conceded that relaxing standards for children with persistent academic disabilities will create a "tension" for school officials who want to assess students fairly, but still ensure quality.

"You want this to seem fair, but you also want it to be realistic," he said of the testing requirements.

But Peiffer also said states are likely to make sure that standards do not drop along with the easier requirements.

"You want as many students as possible meeting the standards -- including special education kids," he said. "We just want to make sure that we don't short-change them."

Capital News Service contributed to this report.