Study Documents Jump in Special-Education Enrollments

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Washington--An Education Department study to be released later this year documents a small but sudden jump in the number of students enrolled in special-education programs nationwide.

The 1.2 percent increase in enrollments for the 1986-87 school year is the largest annual increase in the special-education population since 1982, according to the report.

It follows three years in which the number of such students had appeared to level off, after rising steadily for nearly a decade.

The new figures are contained in the "10th Annual Report to Congress on the Implementation of the Education of the Handicapped Act." Published each year by the department's office of special education and rehabilitative services, the study provides a statistical portrait of the status of special-education programs.

Among its other findings--some of which were compiled for the first time this year--the study noted that:

Most special-education students are being served in school settings with their nonhandicapped classmates.

The report indicates that more than 26 percent of the students received special-education services in their regular classes; 41 percent were served in nearby resource rooms; and 24 percent were taught entirely in separate classrooms within their schools.

Although most handicapped students graduate from high school with a diploma or a certificate of completion, the dropout rate among special-education students increased by 5 percent, to 26 percent, last year. An average of 312 handicapped students drop out of school each day.

Federal compliance reviews of programs in 29 states indicate that states are still having problems with some of the most basic provisions of the 12-year-old federal law.

Some of the areas that have proved most troublesome include: monitoring local special-education programs; ensuring that children are placed in the "least restrictive" educational environment possible; managing complaints; and generally supervising special-education programs.

While the number of special-education teachers employed nationwide increased by 6 percent during 1985-86, an additional 27,474 teachers were still needed to fill vacancies and replace uncertified instructors.

Rise in Learning-Disabled

Education Department statisticians said they were at a loss to explain the increase in the total number of special-education students.

"The atypically large increase," the report says, "could not be attributed to just a few states."

Among the various special-education categories, the greatest increase occurred in the number of children classified as learning-disabled--the most common of all handicapping conditions.

The number of students in that category increased by 2.9 percent last year, to 53,758, according to the report. Such children represent 43.7 percent of the total special-education population.

"Learning-disabled is a soft category, subject to variable interpretations," Judith Singer, one expert who has studied the increase, said last week.

"There is some evidence to suggest that special education has been used to provide supplemental services to kids in need when other federal monies are drying up, such as Chapter 1 or bilingual-education funding," added Ms. Singer, an assistant professor at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education.

In addition, she said, the learning-disabled "label" is less stigmatizing than those of other categories.

"In some ways, it's much easier to classify an inner-city black kid as learning-disabled when there are white kids in the suburbs who are also learning-disabled," she said.

Shifting Categories?

In recent years, the increase in that category has been accompanied by significant decreases in the number of students classified as mentally retarded.

That trend continued last year, according to the report, which notes that 3.2 percent fewer children were labeled mentally retarded in 1986-87 than in the previous year.

While many experts have reasoned that children are being shifted from the mentally retarded to the learning-disabled classification, the report suggests that such shifts were not widespread last year.

For example, the report points out that only two states reported both a substantial increase in the number of learning-disabled students and a substantial decrease in the number of mentally retarded pupils.

"While some children may have been reclassified, the increase in the number of learning-disabled children and the decrease in mentally retarded occurred for the most part in different places," the report says.

As another possible reason for the rise in learning-disabled students, the report cites research linkingsuch increases to reform measures that have strengthened academic requirements in recent years.

"Higher standards in the name of educational reform seem to be exaggerating the tendency to refer difficult children to special education," the report states, referring to a 1987 study.

The study, conducted by North Carolina's Research Triangle Institute, also found that "teachers engaged in fewer supportive activities because they needed to achieve higher overall goals by year's end."

Copies of the federal report will be available early this summer from the department's office of special-education programs.

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