Special Education

Report Finds Progress, Problems for Students With Learning Disabilities

By Nirvi Shah — July 27, 2011 3 min read
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A new report from the National Center for Learning Disabilities says too few students with learning disabilities graduate from high school, and some racial and ethnic groups are still disproportionately represented in LD programs, but early intervention strategies appear to be reducing the overall number of students who are identified as having a learning disability.

While graduation rates for students with learning disabilities have increased in the last decade, rising from 52 percent in 2000 to 64 percent in 2009, once a new method for calculating the graduation rate under new federal regulations is applied, that perceived progress may evaporate, said Candace Cortiella, the report’s author and director of The Advocacy Institute. The percentage of students with a learning disability who received certificates of completion—showing they met minimum requirements but didn’t qualify for a diploma—has also risen, from 7 percent to 13 percent during the same period.

“Students with learning disabilities must have a chance to achieve a regular diploma,” said Laura Kaloi, the center’s public policy director. The organization has developed a series of recommendations on how to change public policies to better support these students.

The report also found that Hispanic and black students were disproportionately identified as having a learning disability. For example, 3.4 percent of black students are found to have a learning disability, as are 3.1 percent of Hispanic students, compared to 2.8 percent of white students. The high school dropout and race data come together in a stark manner, Ms. Cortiella said.

“We have states where more black students with LD drop out than graduate. That’s quite disturbing,” she said.

The report points out some other trends you may already be familiar with. For example, students identified as having learning disabilities make up 42 percent of all students with disabilities—and remain the largest group of students with disabilities—but the number of students found to have a learning disability has been declining for the last 10 years.

In particular, that decline is among younger students, ages 6 to 11. For this age group, from 2000 to 2009, the percentage of students classified with a learning disability dropped from 38 percent to 33 percent.

The causes are many. Ms. Cortiella credited an improvement in the way reading is taught, the use of strategies such as response-to-intervention (which schools tend to implement first at younger grade levels), more and better early education, and changes in the way children with disabilities are classified that better distinguish between students with learning disabilities and those with other disabilities, including ADHD.

So aside from reporting statistics and data, in “The State of Learning Disabilities,” the center also tried to explain what a learning disability is.

“We know for a fact that LD is often misunderstood and often confused with autism, ADHD, ... even with deafness and blindness,” said James Wendorf, executive director of the center.

What may be confusing is that while many students with learning disabilities have ADHD, they aren’t the same thing, Ms. Cortiella said.

Learning disabilities, the report says, are caused by differences in brain structure and function and affect the brain’s ability to store, process or communicate information. They are believed to be easily passed from one generation of a family to the next, and may also be caused by prenatal and birth problems, childhood experiences of traumatic injuries, severe nutritional deprivation, and exposure to poisons, including lead.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the On Special Education blog.