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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

Geographic Variation in Disability Classification

Children who are placed in special education are usually divided into groups by disability during their initial evaluation, a process called "classification." As mentioned above, although the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act has 13 official subcategories for special education participants, states are required to use them only for determining eligibility for services and for reporting. Some states choose to use the federal categories in providing services, while others, such as Massachusetts, do not categorize children at all after the eligibility process is complete. This seemingly small allowance in classification criteria permits great diversity in the labels and definitions used across the country and makes comparisons difficult. It also may account for some of the state-by-state variation in the proportion of children served in special education shown in Figure 2 and in the proportions classified in specific categories.

In Figure 3, the states are divided into five groups (quintiles) according to the proportion of children in each state receiving special education services. Approximately 6.8% of children are in special education in the 10 states in quintile one and almost 10% in quintile five. It appears that the relatively small proportion of children with physical disabilities (included in the "other disability" category) and the proportion of children classified as mentally retarded remain fairly constant as the proportion of children in special education varies. The proportion of children with specific learning disabilities, however, gradually increases from 3.5% in the first quintile to 5.3% in the fifth, and the proportion of children in the speech impairment category also increases. On the other hand, the proportions of children with multiple disabilities and serious emotional disturbances, while greater in quintile five than in quintile one, do not consistently increase across quintiles.

Even among states that have similar proportions of their child population in special education, the classification of children varies. For example, California and Georgia had similar proportions of children in special education in 1993–94 (6.3% to 6.4%), and yet more than 3.8% of California students are classified as having a specific learning disability, a rate twice that reported for Georgia (1.6%). And while 1.1% of Georgia's students are classified as seriously emotionally disturbed, only 0.2% of students in California are classified in that category.9

Because the percentage of children classified in different categories varies so much across states and also across school districts,16 it appears that where a child lives affects what label he or she receives and whether he or she will receive any services at all. Concern about classification reflects the strong and lasting stigma that labels may produce,20 as well as the importance of identification and classification in obtaining access to appropriate special education services. Concern about variation in identification and classification of students across states and school districts leads to questions about how useful the OSEP data are in monitoring the national special education system. Population-based epidemiologic studies of the school-aged population that do not rely on school placement data would be helpful in providing benchmarks with which the OSEP data could be compared to assess the extent to which students were being appropriately identified and served.