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Many State Programs For the Handicapped Are Found Deficient

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Many state programs for the handicapped continue to be out of compliance with some of the most basic provisions of federal handicapped-education laws, according to findings in a not-yet-published Education Department report.

The study, titled the "Ninth Annual Report to Congress on the Implementation of the Education of the Handicapped Act,'' provides a statistical portrait of the status of the nation's special-education programs.

The portrait it paints, experts said last week, is both encouraging and disturbing.

Among other findings—some of which are drawn from data that were gathered for the first time last year—the report found that:

  • For the first time in more than a decade, the number of handicapped children being served declined as a percentage of the total school-age population. The proportion decreased from 11.19 percent in the 1984-85 school year to 10.97 percent last year.
  • Improved services are needed for 12 percent of the nation's handicapped children—an estimated 450,000 students.
  • More than 21 percent of special-education students—most of them labeled "emotionally mentally retarded'' or "learning disabled"—dropped out of school in 1984 and 1985.
  • Most handicapped youngsters are being taught at least part time in regular classrooms.

"States have made significant advancements in improving the availability and quality of education for all handicapped children,'' according to the report.

But, it states, troublesome areas remain and "reflect a second generation of problems which represent those most complex and resistant to change.''

Problem Areas

Some of the problems in that "second generation'' are illustrated most vividly in a chapter of the report that describes the results of federal reviews of both state plans and practices for special-education programs.

Under the federal handicapped-education law, each state must submit a plan every three years that outlines the steps being taken to comply with the law.

Of the 18 states monitored by federal education officials since 1985, all were found to be out of compliance with at least one requirement of federal law, according to the report.

The most common violation, federal investigators found, was that states had failed to develop a procedure for identifying problems in their school districts' special-education programs.

In examining the way states were fulfilling their responsibilities to place each child in the least-restrictive classroom environment possible, the federal investigators also uncovered problems in every state they reviewed.

Some states, for example, had never developed policies or procedures for ensuring that removing a child from his or her regular classroom was justified, as required under federal law. The investigators also found in examining student records that no information was included in many of them about whether administrators had considered such questions in placing the children.

"To the contrary, it is possible to conclude that some placements are made on the basis of the handicapping condition or for administrative convenience,'' the report states.

The solution to many of the problems, it says, is "further refinement and development'' of the practices that states already have in place.

The severity and the extent of the problems outlined in the report were difficult to gauge last week.

Several Congressional staff members said they could not comment on the report because they had not yet read it.

"I don't think you can necessarily infer from the data whether it's good or bad,'' cautioned Louis Danielson, who compiled some of the report's statistics for the Education Department's office of special-education programs. "There is always a considerable likelihood of one thing being missed in a state.''

Some of the violations, he added, were minor and resulted from complexities in the law itself, rather than from a lack of commitment on the part of the states. Others, experts said, might result from a single violation in a single district.

Spokesmen for the National Association of State Directors of Special Education were unavailable for comment late last week.

Statistical Snapshots

Earlier this month, when a draft of the report was forwarded to members of the Congress, association officials were critical of some of the findings, federal officials said. They pointed out that some of the conclusions reached in the report had been based on draft copies of state education plans—some of which contained problems that had later been remedied.

The final report, now completed, shows that states served a total of 4.5 million handicapped children last year—an increase of 7,000 students over the previous year.

Most of those students were learning-disabled, a category whose rapid growth in recent years has led some experts to conclude that many such children are inappropriately placed. But, over the past two years, the number of learning-disabled children identified in the schools grew only 1.8 percent, according to the report.

"We wouldn't be surprised if that number completely stabilized in the next year or two,'' Mr. Danielson said.

The greatest decrease among the handicapped categories occurred in the number of children classified as mentally retarded. That number declined 4.4 percent, according to the report.

"That probably reflects the continuing influence of placement bias since the Larry P. decision,'' Daniel Reschly, a psychology professor at Iowa State University, said, referring to a 1979 federal circuit-court opinion.

In its ruling in the case, Larry P. et al. v. Wilson Riles, State Board of Education, the court found that black children had been inappropriately placed in classes for the mentally retarded.

Other statistics in the report reflected data collected for the first time last year as a result of 1983 amendments to the Education of the Handicapped Act.

States were required, for example, to report on the reasons handicapped children left school.

They reported that 39 percent of all special-education students graduated with diplomas.

Most of the remaining reasons for leaving school were as follows: 15 percent graduated with certificates of completion; 21 percent dropped out; 4 percent reached the maximum age at which they could receive services; and 18 percent left for unknown reasons.

In the category identifying students' need for improved services—another newly reported statistic—students between the ages of 18 and 21 were seen to be most in need, according to the report.

And, while the number of special educators rose 2 percent last year, increasing from 268,629 to 274,519, the report states that 22,852 more teachers are needed to fill vacancies and to replace uncertified staff members.

Copies of the report will be available, free of charge, late next month, Mr. Danielson said. They can be obtained by writing the Office of Special Education Programs, Division for Innovation and Development, 3523 Switzer, 400 Maryland Ave., S.W., Washington, D.C. 20202.

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