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Journal Issue: Special Education for Students with Disabilities Volume 6 Number 1 Spring 1996

CHILD INDICATORS: Children in Special Education
Eugene M. Lewit Linda Schuurmann Baker

Changes in the Number of Children Served

During the 1993–94 academic year, more than 5.3 million children from birth through 21 years of age received special education, according to data compiled by OSEP. Since 1976–77, the first year for which data on children served in special education under federal statutes was reported by OSEP, the number of children served annually has increased by 1.6 million, almost 45%.9 Figure 1 presents data on the number of children served in selected disability categories from 1976 to 1993 and illustrates the persistent annual increase in the number of children served in special education programs. The substantial growth in the number of children served cannot be explained by growth in the population of children overall. In 1993–94, approximately 7.7% of all children in school received special education services compared with 4.5% in 1976–77, an increase of about 70%.10

The increase in the number of children served is almost completely attributable to the growth in the number of children classified as having specific learning disabilities (SLDs), as shown in Figure 1. The number of children served in the other 12 categories actually declined between 1976–77 and 1993–94, while the number of children receiving services for SLD went from just under 800,000 in 1976–77 to 2.4 million in 1993–94, an increase of 1.6 million, or 200%. Students with specific learning disabilities now account for more than half of all disabled children served and more than 5% of all students ages 6 through 17 enrolled in school.11

On its surface, the substantial increase in the number of children served in special education in the years following the enactment of several pieces of key federal legislation suggests that the legislation is working as designed to increase access to special services for disabled students. However, the substantial shifts in the identification of children with different disabilities and particularly the substantial growth in the number of children diagnosed with specific learning disabilities and the decline in the number of children in other categories have led many to view the data with skepticism.

To use data such as those reported annually by OSEP to assess whether children with disabilities are being served by the educational system, it is necessary to have estimates of the true prevalence of various disabilities in the population. It is difficult to determine the prevalence of specific learning disabilities, however, because there is a lack of consensus on clear, observable, measurable, and reliable criteria for identification of children with learning disabilities. In this environment of ambiguity about the meaning of the SLD classification, G. Reid Lyon in this journal issue, and others elsewhere, have identified several factors that may have led to the substantial increase in the number of children in the SLD category.12 Some of these factors may represent systemic and sociopolitical responses to a generally heightened focus on children with disabilities. These factors include ambiguity in the definition of learning disabilities, which can be manipulated to change prevalence numbers in response to financial incentives, advocacy, or political activities; inadequately prepared teachers who may over-refer children for special services they feel unable to provide; and attempts to apply more acceptable labels in the identification process.13

Lyon presents evidence to suggest that recent research on learning disabilities has provided new information for those identifying children with learning disabilities, which may account for part of the increase in the number of children in learning disabilities programs, particularly for reading disabilities (one of the seven academically defined categories of specific learning disabilities). The new, more rigorously performed studies also may have led to a heightened awareness of reading SLD by professionals and parents resulting in increased efforts to identify and refer children with reading disabilities, thus increasing their numbers.

Recent research suggests that reading disabilities may affect as much as 17% of school-aged children.14 If this prevalence estimate is correct, it may be that many are still not being served despite the substantial growth in the number of children in programs for the learning disabled.15 In addition, this research indicates that children with reading disabilities may simply be those who have the most problems reading and that they have only slightly more problems than other children who are not identified as reading disabled. In other words, children with reading disabilities do not aggregate together to form a distinct group separate from the rest of children. Because the decision about where to draw the line demarcating reading disability is a subjective one, identification and provision of services to children with reading disabilities is very much a function of the specific criteria developed to identify children with the disability. Variation in these criteria over time and cross-sectionally can lead to considerable variability in the number of children served.