Published Online: September 8, 2010
Published in Print: September 15, 2010, as Boom in Learning-Disabled Enrollments Ends
Updated: March 23, 2012

Learning-Disabled Enrollment Dips After Long Climb

After decades of what seemed to be an inexorable upward path, the number of students classified as learning-disabled declined from year to year over much of the past decade—a change in direction that is spurring debates among experts about the reasons why.

The percentage of 3- to 21-year-old students nationwide classified as having a “specific learning disability” dropped steadily from 6.1 percent in the 2000-01 school year to 5.2 percent in 2007-08, according to the most recent data available, which come from the U.S Department of Education’s 2009 Digest of Education Statistics. In numbers, that’s a drop from about 2.9 million to 2.6 million students.

A learning disability—a processing disorder that impairs learning but not a student’s overall cognitive ability—is the largest, by far, of the 13 disability classifications recognized by the main federal special education law. Forty percent of the approximately 6.6 million students covered under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, fall into that category.

The decrease in the category goes hand in hand with a decrease in special education enrollment overall, though that change is not as large. The percentage of all students covered under the IDEA fell from a high of 13.8 percent in the 2004-05 school year to 13.4 percent in 2007-08—from about 6.7 million students to about 6.6 million students. Enrollment in the categories of emotional disturbance and mental retardation also went down, but students in those groups make up a far smaller slice of the IDEA pie. At the same time, though, enrollment of students classified as having an autism spectrum disorder or “other health impairment” rose.

Although the change in direction may appear to be small, experts say it is noteworthy. But a probe into the possible reasons behind the drop in learning-disability classifications suggests that the causes are less clear and that much is still to be learned about how to classify and treat students with such disabilities.

A Positive Trend?

About 80 percent of children who are classified as learning-disabled get the label because they’re struggling to read. So, scholars say, the dropping numbers could be linked to improvements in reading instruction overall; the adoption of “response to intervention,” which is an instructional model intended to halt the emergence of reading problems; and a federally backed push toward early intervention with younger students before they’re labeled.

All those efforts could be serving to separate students with true disabilities from those who just haven’t been taught well in the early grades. But which program is making the most difference, and how long the effects should last, are difficult to tease out, the experts add.

Student Classification

After climbing for years, the number of students between the ages of 3 and 21 enrolled in special education programs began to turn in the opposite direction around the 2005-06 school year. Much of that decline can be traced to falling numbers of students classified with "specific learning disabilities," such as dyslexia.

At the same time, other scholars say, some of the dropping numbers could be unrelated to teaching methods. The decision to label a student as learning-disabled carries a sizable dollop of human judgment in a way that classifications like blindness or deafness do not. That means it’s possible schools could be nudging special education enrollment numbers down to avoid academic-accountability penalties or costly requirements driven by federal mandates, some observers say.

A portion of the decrease could also be tied in part to shifting classifications—moving students, for example, from learning-disabled to some other disability category.

But from the perspective of federal officials, the changes are due mostly to educational improvements. They say the national focus on RTI and improvement in schools’ core reading curricula are working together in a welcome way to decrease the numbers of students classified as learning-disabled.

“When you take all of this together, to me, that’s what makes all the difference in the world,” said Alexa E. Posny, the assistant secretary overseeing the Education Department’s office of special education and rehabilitative services. “I believe we overidentify children as learning-disabled. A number of students have just not been taught how to read.”

As an example, Ms. Posny offered her experiences in Kansas, where she served as the commissioner of education before moving to her current job in Washington. After the state adopted what it called a “multitiered system of supports,” which is the state’s version of response to intervention, special education enrollment dropped from 56,328 in 2005 to 55,834 in 2008, she noted.

‘Reading First’ and RTI

The response-to-intervention approach was promoted by the federal Reading First initiative, which came to life through the No Child Left Behind Act when it was signed into law in 2002. Aimed at improving instruction among struggling readers, the initiative required schools receiving the federal grants to incorporate scientifically based reading lessons into their curricula.

“Rather than rushing in to identify a specific learning disability as the primary means of providing support to a struggling student, an RTI approach first considers the overall quality of the instructional program,” said Mary Beth Klotz, a nationally certified school psychologist and the current chair of the National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities.

Then, increasingly intensive instruction, or “interventions,” are offered to students showing early reading difficulties. The process also involves frequent progress monitoring to track students’ response to those lessons.

In 2009, Joseph K. Torgesen, a psychology and education professor at Florida State University, in Tallahassee, wrote an article noting a decrease in such classifications among elementary schools in Florida that adopted Reading First: In the first year of implementation, 10.4 percent of 3rd graders were identified as learning-disabled. By the third year of implementation, the classification rate among 3rd graders fell to 6 percent. Drops in identification rates were seen in kindergarten, 1st, and 2nd grades.

“We’re actually doing a slightly better job in teaching kids to read in kindergarten, 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and so on,” Mr. Torgesen said. He suggests that general education teachers are more attuned to offering differentiated instruction to their students. In turn, those teachers are choosing not to refer students for special education evaluation.

But Mr. Torgesen, and some other experts, also said that it’s not yet clear if the trend marks a “cure” for those students or just a delay in their classification.

“We don’t have enough knowledge in how they hold their gains,” he said.

Douglas Fuchs, a professor of special education at Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, Tenn., cautions that any decrease in enrollment must be compared to academic-achievement data.

“Where are the data to indicate these numbers are going down because of the effectiveness of instruction?” Mr. Fuchs said. “It’s very important to be critical—not negative, but critical—of what these prevalence numbers really mean.”

Early Intervention

Some evidence of the role that early-intervention services might be playing in the enrollment trends came in a report earlier this year from the Education Department’s Institute of Education Sciences, the first part of what will be a multireport evaluation of special education. In it, the authors noted increases in the numbers of infants through 5-year-olds served in special education.

For example, in 1997, 564,270 children ages 3 to 5 were identified for services under the IDEA. By 2006, that number had risen to 706,242. That’s good news for supporters of early intervention, whose mantra is catching learning problems early, before they become entrenched.

The 2004 reauthorization of the IDEA allows districts the option of using 15 percent of their federal allocations for special education on early-intervention services. When a district is found to have significantly overidentified minority students for certain special education categories, the Education Department requires those early-intervention services to take place.

Margaret J. McLaughlin, a professor in the University of Maryland College Park’s department of special education, pointed to early intervention as an important factor in explaining falling learning-disability enrollment.

Related Blog

“There’s a number of forces that kind of converge and come together,” Ms. McLaughlin said. But while early services “may prevent the big bulge [in classification] at the 4th grade,” she said, “there still may be a big bump at middle school. We don’t really know anything about the kids who get ‘declassified.’ ”

Donald D. Deshler, a professor of special education at the University of Kansas, in Lawrence, said that programs for early learners are widely supported, and “who can argue against it? It’s like arguing against motherhood.”

But even the best early-intervention programs cannot catch all children, and some energy must be saved for older students, he believes.

“We are always going to have, in certain places, kids falling between the cracks,” Mr. Deshler said. “You’ve got to have some investment in what’s happening with older kids.”

Nonschool Factors?

However, a number of the reasons offered for the decline in learning-disability classifications have little to do with teaching and more to do with the structures of school and federal policy. But the effects of those factors are hard to prove, much less quantify.

A 2003 reportRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader from the federally funded Special Education Expenditure Project estimated that, nationwide, districts spent an average of 1.6 times more on a student with learning disabilities than they did on a general education student. Mr. Torgesen of Florida State University said that costly voter-approved mandates on matters like class-size reduction may be prompting cash-strapped Florida schools not to identify students. Administrators “do a lot of negotiation around the issue of classification,” Mr. Torgesen said, because they have to use money to keep class sizes low rather than pay for extra assistance for students.

Stephen E. Brock, a professor of special education and school psychology at California State University, Sacramento, wrote a paper in 2006 saying there is evidence that the growth in low-incidence categories such as autism spectrum disorder and “other health impairments”—a catch-all category that includes attention deficit hyperactivity disorder—correlates with a drop in the learning-disabilities category.

In addition, Candace Cortiella, the author of “The State of Learning Disabilities 2009,” a report she wrote on behalf of the New York City-based National Center for Learning Disabilities, believes that it is suspicious that the drop in special education numbers corresponds so closely to a shift in federal policy, under the No Child Left Behind law, that requires schools to highlight the performance of their special education students, among other population groups, for accountability purposes.

Schools and districts may choose not to count subgroups for accountability purposes if the subgroups are so small they are statistically unreliable. Ms. Cortiella suggested that the risk of penalties may prompt some schools to keep their enrollment in the special education subgroup low.

“There’s too much correlation between the implementation of No Child Left Behind and the drop in the numbers,” she said.

Ms. Posny of the Education Department said that school districts actually have an incentive to place students in special education because they receive some federal money to educate them.

“Yet, I believe that states are stepping up to the plate and saying, we may not need to identify these kids,” she said.

Labels are less important than results, Ms. Posny added. Special education does confer on students certain protections, such as the right to a free, appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment, and those are all protections Ms. Posny said she supports strongly.

But a specific classification isn’t needed for those protections, Ms. Posny said. “When it comes to what we need to know to provide that child’s needs,” she said, “the label doesn’t help us with that.”

Vol. 30, Issue 03, Pages 1,14-15

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Correction: 
An earlier version of this story incorrectly characterized special education enrollment figures for Kansas. The state’s decrease from 56,328 students in 2005 to 55,834 students in 2008 was for all students with disabilities.

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