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Rise in Learning-Disabled Pupils Fuels Concern in States, Districts

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The number of learning-disabled students has grown so rapidly in recent years that school officials--under mounting political pressure--are being forced to reassess the way in which such children are identified and classified.

Since the enactment in 1975 of the federal law guaranteeing handicapped children the right to an education, the number of learning-disabled students receiving special services in the nation's schools has risen by 948,658 children to 1.7 million, a 119-percent increase over a seven-year period. During that same time, overall enrollment in public schools dropped by about 11.5 percent, according to federal statistics.

Learning-disabled students represented 40 percent of the more than 4 million students served in special-education programs throughout the country during the 1982-83 school year, according to data collected by the U.S. Education Department. That same year, learning-disabled students represented about 4.3 percent of the school-age population.

In some states, the growth in the number of special-education students has far exceeded the national averages. For example:

In New York, the number of learning-disabled students increased by 68 percent between the 1981-82 and 1982-83 school years. About 47,200 of the 118,527 additional learning-disabled students identified nationwide during that period were from New York.

In Mississippi, schools identified 16,788 learning-disabled students during the 1982-83 school year, a 16.3-percent increase over the previous year's total.

In South Dakota, the overall rate of increase in one year was nearly 17 percent. In 1982-83, school districts served about 3,563 learning-disabled students, about 500 more than the year before.

In Pennsylvania, more than 63,400 learning-disabled students were receiving special-education services in 1982-83, a 9-percent increase from the previous year's total of about 57,000. In Philadelphia, however, the number of fulltime learning-disabled students has doubled from about 3,000 in 1979-80 to more than 6,600 this year. (See related story on page 1.)

Although the rate of expansion of the learning-disabled category has slowed considerably in the last several years--to about 7 percent annually--school officials, parents, and policymakers are becoming increasingly concerned over the turn the special-education classification process has taken. Critics of the present system argue that misclassification is costly for school systems and can be harmful to students who become labeled as mentally retarded, emotionally disturbed, or learning-disabled.

According to a federally financed study, it costs schools twice as much to educate a handicapped student as a nonhandicapped student. The study also estimates that schools spent more than $10 billion in added costs for special-education services during the 1980-81 school year.

No Single Reason

Experts agree that there is no single explanation for the growth in the number of students being classified as learning-disabled. In some cases, they say, it is a confusion over definitions; in others, it may be perceived as the best or only way to get special help for students who are having difficulty in regular classes.

It may even result in part, say some critics, from a subtle form of race discrimination, since minority students are much more likely to be classified as learning-disabled than white students.

"One of the things going on nationwide is that a number of states are in the process of developing more objective eligibility criteria" so that decisions are consistent from district to district," said Linda Lewis, policy analyst for the National Association of State Directors of Special Education.

Ms. Lewis noted that not all states have reported dramatic increases in the number of learning-disabled students, and that among those states that have reported increases, there is no single reason. "Misclassification of handicapped students is only one reason why the growth has been great," she added.

In an informal survey conducted by the association, Ms. Lewis said, a number of states reported relatively flexible eligibility requirements that could be interpreted by each school district. "It's hard to say a child is being misclassified if there aren't stringent eligibility criteria," she said.

At one time, according to Ms. Lewis, unless a student was diagnosed as "neurologically impaired" he or she could not get special-education services. But now that the definition of learning disability has been broadened to included a number of different learning problems, school officials have more placement options for students who are not performing well in school.

Ms. Lewis said that a number of state officials also have attributed the growth of learning-disabled students to the "inability of general-education programs to serve kids with problems in regular education.'' There is a common perception, she explained, that "general education keeps giving up more of its responsibility" by providing fewer support services, fewer educational alternatives, and scaled down remedial and tutorial programs.

When a student is having difficul-ty in class, officials in "general education have looked at the mandate and said 'this is a special-education problem,"' Ms. Lewis added. The result is that the needs of students having difficulty are not being met in the regular classroom, she said.

"The learning-disabled category is taking it on the chin because ... there is some question whether it's becoming a catchall for children with mild learning problems or other problems in order to get them special services," according to the state official.

A study sponsored by the Colorado Department of Education found that more than half of the students classified as learning-disabled did not meet either the state's legal definitions for learning disabilities or those most commonly accepted by professionals in the field.

Labeling Stigma

The basic problem, said James Gallagher, director of the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Center at the University of North Carolina, is that resources and assistance come with "the label." But not all handicapped children object to that, he said. "The label is supposed to open the door to resources, small classes, special personnel, and remedial help. So from that standpoint, the label should be helpful to the youngster."

But some of the labels also carry with them a stigma that follows the students throughout their education careers, according to Mr. Gallager, who in 1973 served on a national committee that examined the classification issue in special education. "If you're labeled deaf, no one argues with it," he said, "because it means you're going to get special instruction and programs." But once a child has been identified as emotionally disturbed, "it's hard to get rid of [that label] and it may have future consequences," he noted. "So the trick is, how do you provide the help they need without the stigma of labeling?"

"It's a continuing issue in the field," Mr. Gallagher said. "In some cases, it's getting better and in some it's getting worse. The main source of irritation is learning disabilities," he added, but the category for mental retardation "is certainly an issue" as well.

Representation Studied

In its annual survey of placements in special-education programs, the Education Department's office for civil rights has consistently found a disproportionate number of minority students in programs for the "educable mentally retarded."

Paul Smith, director of research for the Washington-based Children's Defense Fund, said the ocr survey data show that black students are three times as likely as white students to be placed in classes for the educable mentally retarded. The proportions of black students in such programs can range from 0.5 percent to nearly 40 percent of the total black student enrollment in a given school, he said.

The survey's results have been used in lawsuits filed against a number of state and local education systems since the early 1970's to support charges of racial discrimination in the placement of black students with learning problems in special education. At the center of the controversy has been the propriety of the schools' use of intelligence tests to determine the placements for black students in programs for the handicapped.

Litigation on Bias

Earlier this year, a federal appeals-court panel upheld a lower-court ruling that prohibits California school districts from using iq tests to evaluate students for placement in special-education classes on the grounds that the tests are culturally biased. (See Education Week, Feb. 8, 1984.)

According to Mr. Gallagher, there have been other court cases that "have gone the other way" and permitted the use of iq tests for placing minority students. "It may well be that when you ask for the banning of psychological tests you're blaming the weatherman for foul weather," Mr. Gallagher added.

"Most states now have gone into multiple-instrument assessments," which, according to Mr. Gallagher, include the use of teacher ratings and students' past histories as well as standardized tests. After this information is collected, he said, there is a "conference to reach a consensus on the status of the youngster."

Although this type of approach would appear "to protect the youngsters," Mr. Gallagher said, the committees "can make mistakes, too."

Mr. Gallagher supports the use of multiple instruments and procedures, saying that "decision by consensus" seems to be a "reasonable" approach. "But teacher ratings aren't the most reliable," he added. ''What if the staff has collective biases. Then you still may end up with a problem."

Changing Eligibility Criteria

Despite the concern about the over-representation of minorities in classes for the educable mentally retarded, the Education Department noted in its latest annual report to the Congress on special-education programs that the overall enrollment in programs for the mentally retarded has declined by nearly 20 percent since the 1976-77 school year. During the 1982-83 school year, about 780,800 students were identified as mentally retarded and enrolled in special-education programs.

Some experts speculate that the increase in the number of learning-disabled students is related to the decline in the number classified as mentally retarded, but they acknowedge that this relationship is not documented.

At least part of the reason for the decline, according to Ms. Lewis of the state directors' group, was a change in eligibility criteria for mental retardation, which in effect removed mildly impaired children from that category.

The Rise of L-D

During the 1970's, professionals increasingly recognized "learning-disabled" as a legitimate category, she explained, and the definition of mental retardation was revised. In the state directors' survey, that change in definition was cited by some states as a contributing factor in the growth of the learning-disabled population, Ms. Lewis said.

"There is intense pressure not to drop children [from the special-education program] once they begin receiving services," Ms. Lewis noted. Moreover, she said, having a learn-ing disability is simply "more palatable" than being mentally retarded.

Fred Weintraub, executive director of the Council for Exceptional Children, said that analyzing the special-education programs from "a particular disabililty vantage point will not lead to anything constructive."

The important issue, Mr. Weintraub maintained, is determining students' eligibility for services, regardless of how they are labeled.

New Louisiana Policy

Among the most notable state efforts to address the problem of evaluating and classifying students in special education is the Louisiana Department of Education's pupil-appraisal system, which is being implemented throughout the state.

Leonard E. Hayes, deputy to the state assistant superintendent for special education, said that under the previous student evaluation system, "there was no intervention mechanism to determine whether a student's needs could be met without special education." He said teachers or parents would simply refer a student for evaluation.

"As a result, we did have a disproportionate number of students in special education because their needs were being met nowhere in between regular and special education," Mr. Hayes said.

Prompted in part by a class action over its system of evaluating handicapped students and the desire to produce a "more effective delivery system," state officials decided to channel additional resources and support services into the regular-education program with the idea of serving as many children with learning problems as possible in that setting.

Now, Mr. Hayes said, there is an evaluation procedure that begins at the school- building level involving the student's parents, teachers, principal, and guidance counselor to determine the student's needs and the school's ability to provide for them.

"If it is determined at the end of the process," Mr. Hayes explained, "that a student needs referral for an [intervention] appraisal team, then that is done."

"In my opinion," Mr. Hayes said, "we will reduce costs because we will be providing services up front in the regular education setting.''

States Seeking Guidance

Although some states have begun to address the problem, others have turned to the U.S. Education Department for guidance. But, that assistance has been slow in coming.

Joan Standlee, deputy assistance secretary for special education and rehabilitative services, noted that the department has assembled a number of task forces in the past to consider the problem and that it is currently being examined by an internal committee.

"We have been taking a look at the problem but we haven't come to any conclusions at this time," she said.

"A number of states have indicated they would like to have assistance with this," Ms. Standlee said. "We just beginning to talk about [the federal] role. We're most interested in being assured that those children are served and that the schools are able to meet those needs with the proper education."

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