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Record Increase in Special-Education Students Reported

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Washington

The number of children receiving special-education services grew 4.2 percent from the 1992-93 school year to the 1993-94 year--the largest increase since the federal government started tracking such information in 1976, according to the Department of Education.

The record increase was fueled by significant growth in the number of very young children identified as needing special education.

A total of 5.37 million children with disabilities from birth through age 21 were served during 1993-94, the department said in its annual report on federally funded special-education programs.

Although children age 5 and younger make up only 10.9 percent of all children receiving special education, they represented 33.4 percent of the growth in the special-education population during the period studied. The number of school-age children, defined as those ages 6 through 21, in special education grew 3.5 percent.

But that still means that the number of school-age children in special education is growing at a faster rate than the total number of school-age children, the report concludes.

The growth among the nation's youngest children in special education is not surprising, said Lou Danielson, who oversaw the report as the director of the division for innovation and development in the Education Department's office of special-education programs. Many states are looking to early-intervention services in an effort to identify problems early in a child's life, he said. And some states have only in the past year fully implemented those programs.

So-called "Part H" of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires that states provide services to all eligible disabled infants and toddlers and their families. The deadline for full implementation under that provision of the law was Sept. 30, 1994.

'Full Inclusion' Trends

Where students are educated has taken on increased significance as the movement toward "full inclusion" of students with disabilities into the regular classroom gains a higher profile. (See related story, page 1.)

Over the past five years, the number of school-age disabled students being educated primarily in regular classrooms has increased by nearly 10 percent. A student's age appears to play a big role in placement, the new report suggests. Nearly half of all disabled students ages 6 to 11 spend most of their school day in regular classrooms. That figure drops to 30 percent for students ages 12 to 17, and 23 percent for students ages 18 to 21.

The report suggests that the reason may be that the environments and curricula in elementary school are less complex than in the higher grades.

It also notes that some large states have improved their data-collection to conform to federal requirements. Mr. Danielson suggested that the increasing atten- tion being paid to where disabled students are educated may also have spurred some states, such as New York and California, to scrutinize their data more closely.

"There are really two trends," Mr. Danielson said. "In some states there is an attempt to clarify their reporting, but there's also clearly a trend toward increased placement in more-inclusive classrooms. It's hard to sort out how much is each."

The report also notes states' progress in including more disabled students in their high-stakes assessment programs. The department also reported that it may include more disabled students in an upcoming five-year study of kindergartners. (See Education Week, May 17, 1995.)

Students with learning disabilities still account for more than half of all students ages 6 through 21 with disabilities. From 1976 to 1994, the proportion of learning-disabled students has more than doubled, from 23.8 percent to 51.1 percent of all disabled students.

Growth in ADD Seen

The fastest-growing categories of disability, meanwhile, are traumatic brain injury, "other health impairments," and autism--but those categories collectively represent less than 3 percent of all disabled children.

Based on interviews with officials in eight states, the Education Department speculates that much of the growth in the "other health impairments" category could be attributed to the growing recognition and diagnosis of students with attention-deficit disorder, which is thought to affect between 3 percent and 10 percent of the nation's school-age population. Students with ADD are not automatically eligible for special-education services.

Copies of the "17th Annual Report to Congress on the Implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act" are available free from the Office of Special Education Programs, Division for Innovation and Development, 330 C St. S.W., Room 3530, Washington, D.C. 20202.

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