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Reports Find Shift in Schools' Classification of Handicapped

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Washington--Although the total number of students enrolled in special-education classes held relatively steady last year, the number identified as learning-disabled continued to rise and the number identified as mentally retarded continued to decline, according to two recent national reports.

Both reports attribute the shift in the composition of the special-education population partly to changes in the way schools classify students, notably a marked trend away from the use of the term "mentally retarded," which is considered stigmatizing.

A total of 4,341,399 handicapped children were served in the 1984-85 school year under P.L. 94-142, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975, and P.L. 89-313, the 1965 law that established state-operated and state-supported schools for the handicapped, according to the Education Department's seventh annual report to the Congress.

That figure represents a slight increase over the number of children served the previous year, the report says. But the relatively stable total figures, it adds, "can mask changes which are occurring within specific handicapping conditions."

Significant Shift

The most significant such change, the report shows, is the decline in the number of children classified as mentally retarded--down from 969,547 in 1976-77 to 650,534 in 1983-84--and the increase in those classified as learning disabled--1,811,489 in 1983-84, compared with 797,213 in 1976-77.

The report attributes the decrease in the mentally-retarded classification to "an increasing sensitivity to the negative features of the label itself and to the reaction on the part of the local school system to allegations of racial and ethnic bias as a result of the use of discriminatory or culturally biased testing procedures."

Federal Definition

The language of P.L. 94-142 includes a definition of the term learning-disabled but some states may modify that definition, according to Kenneth Baker, director of the federally funded Northeast Regional Resource Center and a member of the task force that helped compile the report.

"There hasn't been a whole lot of consistency in what exactly constitutes a learning-disabled child," Mr. Baker said.

Growth Confirmed

But that the classification is increasingly being used by school officials is also indicated in a recent University of Arizona study, which states that "the expanding number of learning-disabled students placed in special-education services continues to be a national problem."

The report, which surveys all 50 states and the District of Columbia, notes that in the past 15 years, the number of learning-disabled students has increased from 120,000 to 1,745,865.

It warns, however, that "there is a danger of making inaccurate conclusions by comparing the enrollment of learning-disabled students over the past 15 years."

In the late 1960's, the report4notes, learning disabilities "were just beginning to gain prominence," and many states did not have learning-disabilities programs.

"As certification requirements and university-training programs increased, so did the number of learning-disabled students who were identified, as well as the number of programs offered in public schools," says the report, prepared by a task force under the direction of James Chalfant of the university's department of special education.

'Backlash' Seen

The Arizona report also says the increasing number of learning-disabled students has produced a "backlash" in some education agencies, which are now adopting special-education criteria so stringent that they may exclude students who need the services.

The university study attributes the "over-inclusion" of students in learning-disabled classes--or, in some cases, their exclusion--to several factors, including:

The difficulty in identifying learning-disabled students.

The scarcity of valid criteria for determining eligiblity for learning-disabled classes.

The difficulty in determining when a learning disability constitutes a handicapping condition.

Doubts about the reliability and validity of the standardized tests used for assessing learning disabilities.

Parental pressure to have children labeled learning-disabled, rather than mentally retarded or emotionally disturbed.

The University of Arizona report suggests that each state establish a task force to examine local districts' criteria for identifying learning-disabled students and urges each state to come to some agreement on terminology to describe learning-disabled students.

Preschool, Transition

The Education Department's report to the Congress also cites a "continuing need to stimulate preschool services," pointing to studies that have demonstrated "beyond doubt the economic and educational benefits of programs for young handicapped children."

The report notes that there has been a steady, but small, increase in the number of handicapped children ages 3 to 5 served under federal laws for the handicapped. At present, 42 states mandate services to some portion of preschool handicapped children from birth to age 5.

In addition, services to secondary and postsecondary handicapped students have increased at a rapid rate over the past several years, the report notes.

More of these students are receiving services, and the types of programs available to them are being expanded. "Those services are increasingly directed toward the goal of expanded employment and independent-living opportunities for those students as they reach adulthood," the report notes.

According to the department's report, the number of handicapped students in the postsecondary age group from 18 to 21 years old being served by the public schools has increased by more than two-thirds in the last five years.

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