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Increase Found in Handicapped Pupils Enrolled in Special- Education Classes

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Washington--The overall number of handicapped students in special-education programs increased last year for the sixth consecutive year, with much of the growth attributable to expanded services at the preschool, secondary, and college levels, according to the Education Department's latest report to the Congress on special education.

During the 1982-83 school year, nearly 4.3 million children nationwide received special education and related services, representing a 1.5-percent increase over the previous school year, according to the 1984 progress report on the states' implementation of P.L. 94-142, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act.

The report noted that the number of preschool-age children in programs for the handicapped grew by 6.4 percent and the number of handicapped students in postsecondary schools increased by 9 percent.

Although precise figures for secondary students were unavailable, a survey of eight states conducted by the National Association of State Directors of Special Education found that the number of high-school students in special education "increased more rapidly than the number of students served in younger age groups," according to the report.

The report noted that from 1979-80 to 1982-83, for example, the number of special-education students between the ages of 12 and 17 increased by about 45 percent, while the total handicapped population of school age declined by 2.2 percent. Similarly, the overall handicapped school-age population in Illinois grew during that same period by 2.4 percent, while the number of handicapped high-schoolers receiving special-education services rose by 9.8 percent.

The increase at the secondary level, the report suggested, was produced by state efforts to expand the range of program options available to handicapped students who previously were underserved and to help prepare students "for life after high school."

Steady Improvement

"The goals of the Act are being achieved," Madeleine C. Will, the department's assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services, asserted in the report's introduction. "The data contained in this report show steady improvement in the provision of education services to handicapped children."

"At the same time," according to Ms. Will, "there are areas where further improvement is needed," such as the integration of handicapped children in "the least restrictive environment," the expansion of services to handicapped preschoolers, and the improvement of transitional services preparing handicapped adolescents for employment.

Ms. Will reiterated the department's decision not to pursue any further revisions to the regulations governing P.L. 94-142. Instead, she said, the department will provide technical assistance to state and local officials who are having "problems arising from the current rules.'' (See Education Week, Nov. 9, 1983.)

According to Ms. Will, that decision was based on an 18-month review of the regulations, which led department officials to the conclusion that there is "general satisfaction" with the existing regulations.

Procedures Re-Examined

Despite the progress of the last few years, several areas remain troublesome for state and local officials, who, according to the report, have begun to re-examine how children are referred, identified, and placed in special-education programs.

The report noted that educators continue to be concerned over the growing number of children identified as learning-disabled; that concern has prompted some states to adopt procedures to guard against misclassification of students, the report notes.

A study conducted by the Colorado Department of Education estimated that more than 50 percent of children classified as learning-disabled in the state did not meet the state's legal definition or the definitions commonly accepted by most professional diagnosticians, according to the report. Among the reasons for such discrepancies, the report noted, are that the criteria for identifying learning-disabled students include a wide range of problems and that the schools in general lack alternatives for children who have learning problems.

According to the report, more than 1.7 million students have been classified as learning-disabled, representing more than 40 percent of all children who receive special-education services.

But since the states have undertaken special efforts to classify children properly, the annual growth rate of the learning-disabled category has slowed considerably, from 15 percent in 1980-81 to about 7 percent in 1982-83, the report added.

This year's report drew praise from Senator Lowell P. Weicker Jr., Republican of Connecticut and chairman of the Subcommittee on the Handicapped.

The Senator last year criticized the Education Department's 1983 annual report, contending that it "lacked detail for understanding compliance with the law." (See Edu-cation Week, Aug. 17, 1983.)

The report also disclosed that:

Thirty-eight states now mandate services for at least some handicapped preschool children between birth and age 5. Seventeen require services for all handicapped children ages 3 through 5.

There is still a "critical" need for the states to expand special-education services for children from birth to age 2, according to the report. Only five states now require services for this age group.

Many school districts are expanding their vocational-assessment services, and some are offering vocational and pre-vocational programs for handicapped students much earlier in their schooling.

Some districts have created special programs to help handicapped students between the ages of 18 and 21 in making the transition from school to work.

The total number of special-education teachers increased from 232,627 in 1980-81 to 235,386 in 1981-82, according to the report. However, the number of teachers declined within certain categories, such as teachers of learning-disabled students. The states estimate that 280,000 special-education teachers will be needed during the 1984-85 school year.

During the 1981-82 school year, nearly 68 percent of all handicapped children received most of their education in regular classes; another 25 percent attended self-contained classes within a regular school. Fewer than 7 percent of all handicapped children were educated in special schools.

Forty percent of states monitored last year for compliance with the federal law were found to have problems with the provision requiring that students be placed in the "least restrictive environment." The report noted that the problem frequently resulted from placing all students with a specific handicapping condition in one program, rather than in regular classes.

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