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A recent notice placed in the Federal Register by the U.S. Education Department has reopened a debate over whether children with attention-deficit disorder should be entitled to special-education services.

As part of legislation reauthorizing the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act this year, the department was directed to publish a notice in the Register soliciting comments on developing a definition of the disorder for the purpose of qualifying a child for special education.

But the final list of questions, published Nov. 29, may have shifted the debate from defining the disorder to discussing whether it should even be listed as a federal special-education category.

The notice strayed from the line of questioning specified by the Congress by adding four additional questions. They ask, for example, whether children with the disorder currently are being excluded from special-education programs. And they seek to ascertain to what extent such children may already be served under existing special-education categories.

The changes disappointed parents of children with attention-deficit disorder and the federal lawmakers who helped frame the original questions. The questions were mandated as part of a compromise between parents who lobbied to cover specifically such children under federal special-education law and a wide range of education and civil-rights groups that opposed that change. (See Education Week, Sept. 26, 1990.)

"We were trying to develop a broad-based consensus and I hope these questions do not interfere with that," said Robert Silverstein, director of the Senate Subcomittee on Disability Policy.

Judy Schrag, director of the department's office of special-education programs, said the questions were added to give federal lawmakers the "widest range of advice possible."

"This is a direct response to language from the Congress that says, 'No perspective should be excluded,"' she added.

The department will summarize the responses and send them to House and Senate education committees in March, she said.

A new study by a Pennsylvania State University researcher adds to a growing body of research pointing to the effectiveness of mediation as a means of settling special-education disputes between parents and schools.

Jennifer Mastrofski, a faculty associate at the university's Center for Research in Conflict and Negotiation, examined the role of mediation in special-education disagreements over a 12-month period in one state, which she does not name. A total of 207 requests for mediation were filed in the state over that time period, most of them by parents. Of the 71 mediations that actually took place, she said, 61 resulted in agreements between the disputing parties.

"There are several reasons why the idea of mediation seems to be working," said Ms. Mastrofski, also an assistant professor of human development at the school.

"It's much quicker," she said. "From initiation to actual mediation, it takes an average of 30 days."

"And it's a lower cost to parents because they do not have to get legal representation," she added. Ms. Mastrofski said the process is particularly useful for parties who must continue to communicate with one another in the future about the child's educational needs.

Unlike hearing officers, who oversee traditional due-process hearings, mediators do not render a decision in the special-education disputes they hear. Their job is to guide the disputing parties in forging their own compromise agreements. Disputants who are still dissatisfied can request a due-process hearing.

According to one 1989 survey, Ms. Mastrofski said, 45 state education departments have put in place or are developing these kinds of mediation procedures.

Gifted children who live in poor, rural communities are the subject of an unusual study being conducted by an Indiana University researcher.

Howard Spricker, a professor of education at the school, said his goal is to develop alternative methods for identifying and teaching such children.

Part of the problem, he said, is that the schools often rely on standardized achievement tests for identifying gifted students when the talents of many of these students lie elsewhere.

Mr. Spricker said he has identified talented students in five rural Indiana communities through contests, such as 4-H events, by questioning parents about children's hobbies outside of school, or by asking students, "Who is really smart but gets poor grades?"

The students identified are then given enriched educational opportunities through distance-learning projects or special class assignments.

"The aim of the whole thing is that, by the end of three years, teachers and administrators and everybody else who deals with the gifted would agree that these kids are indeed gifted," Mr. Spricker said.

Mr. Spricker's project is part of a three-part effort funded by a three-year, $1-million grant from the U.S. Education Department.

He said colleagues at universities in two other states are using some of the same means to identify underserved, gifted children from minority backgrounds and inner-city schools.--dv

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