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.
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.
Learning-Disabled Enrollment Dips After Long Climb Up
by Christina A. Samuels