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Research Targets Reading Patterns Among Learning-Disabled Pupils

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Learning-disabled students can be distinguished from students who are simply low achievers in reading, according to a new and extensive review of research.

A group led by Vanderbilt University special education professor Douglas Fuchs, a well-known special education researcher, examined "whether learning disabilities can be distinguished from garden-variety underachievement," Mr. Fuchs said in presenting his research at the Council for Exceptional Children's annual conference here, held April 15-18.

Mr. Fuchs and three other researchers reviewed 168 studies from 16 journals on learning disabilities and reading published from 1975 to 1996. They concluded that there is a substantial difference in the reading abilities of students identified as learning-disabled and those considered low-achieving and nondisabled.

"What the data do very strongly say is that the kids identified as learning-disabled are the lowest of the low achievers," he said in an interview. "It seems like the practitioners are doing the right thing by identifying kids who are performing worse in reading."

Mr. Fuchs said the research undercuts the belief among politicians and some school officials that learning disabilities are just an excuse for poor performance, or in some cases, a means to obtain unnecessary accommodations, such as extra time to take tests.

According to Mr. Fuchs, the reading scores of 73 percent of the low-achieving but nondisabled students in the research reviewed were higher than those of students identified as learning-disabled.

Need for Research

Low-achieving students also dramatically outperformed learning-disabled students on timed tests in the reviewed research, Mr. Fuchs said. He believes that the differences in scores are related to learning-disabled students' deficiencies in automatic word recognition.

Normally developing readers progress quickly to automatically recognizing familiar words from having to sound them out, but that transition is difficult for learning-disabled students, he said.

Further, the differences between low-achieving and learning-disabled students increased as they entered higher grade levels, Mr. Fuchs found.

Some researchers remain skeptical, however.

In an interview, Frank R. Vellutino, a professor of psychology and the director of children's research at the State University of New York at Albany, called learning disabilities a "handy and comfortable diagnosis for a lot of people." Mr. Vellutino, who had not reviewed Mr. Fuchs' findings, conducted research published in 1996 that showed that most of the students identified as reading-deficient had quickly improved their skills when they received intensive instruction.

"If there are LD kids in this world, there are precious few of them," he said.

The new findings come as state and federal lawmakers are growing increasingly skeptical of the learning-disabled designation in the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. In the 1995-96 school year, more than 2.5 million students were categorized as having specific learning disabilities, 51.2 percent of the more than 5 million students served under the IDEA.

Mr. Fuchs emphasized that his research does not address whether learning-disabled students have unique physical characteristics, or whether they need qualitatively different types of instruction in school.

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