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Journal Issue: Children with Disabilities Volume 22 Number 1 Spring 2012

Disability and the Education System
Laudan Aron Pamela Loprest

Special Education Students

IDEA has thrown open the doors of public education to children with disabilities. Before its passage in 1975, only one in five children with identified disabilities attended public school, and many states explicitly excluded children with certain types of disabilities from school; these included children who were blind or deaf, and children labeled "emotionally disturbed" or "mentally retarded." More than 1 million children with disabilities had no access to the public school system and often lived in state institutions with limited or no educational or rehabilitation services. Many of the 3.5 million children with disabilities who did attend school were warehoused in segregated facilities with little or no effective instruction. By the 2004–05 school year, thirty years after IDEA was first enacted, more than 6.7 million children (13.8 percent of all students nationally) were receiving special education services through the law. Another 295,000 infants and toddlers and their families were served under Part C.7 Since peaking in the middle of the decade, the number of special education students has been gradually declining, and as of the 2009–10 school year, stood at 6.5 million, or 13.1 percent, of all students (figure 1).

Learning disabilities are the most common disability among special education students today. For many years, almost half of special education students were classified as having a specific learning disability as their primary disability. The share of special education students with learning disabilities fell from 46 percent in 2000–01 to 38 percent in 2009–10, but these students still remained the single largest disability group (figure 2).

Like many other childhood conditions that are on the rise (see the article in this volume by Halfon and others8), it is unclear how much of the growth in learning disabilities is a true increase in prevalence or a reflection of our new understanding and ability to identify the problem. When IDEA was passed, learning disabilities were neither well-known nor understood. Today, the causes of learning disabilities are still unclear, but an explosion of research and program and policy attention has focused on this class of disorders. Definitions—both diagnostic and programmatic—have evolved over time. IDEA regulations define a specific learning disability as a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or using spoken or written language that may manifest itself in an imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do mathematical calculations. Contributing conditions include perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia. Specific learning disabilities can also affect executive function skills, such as impulse control, flexibility, planning, and organizing, as well as social and emotional skills. The regulations make clear, however, that learning problems resulting primarily from visual, hearing, or motor disabilities; mental retardation; emotional disturbance; or environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage are not specific learning disabilities under the law. Specific learning disabilities are an important group of disorders for the special education population, both because so many students have them and because by definition they affect learning.

The next most common type of disability, affecting 22 percent of all special education students in 2009–10, is speech or language impairment. "Other health impairments," a catchall category for students whose health conditions reduce their abilities to perform in the educational setting, account for 11 percent of special education students.9 Mental retardation accounts for 7 percent of special education students, and autism, developmental delay, and emotional disturbance each account for 6 percent. Like specific learning disabilities, the shares of students classified as having mental retardation and emotional disturbance has declined since 2000, but other disabilities have increased. The share of students with autism rose from 2 percent to 6 percent of all special education students over the past decade, and the share of those with "other health impairments" more than doubled.

Some of these trends in the share of special education students with certain disabilities, such as autism, are mirroring changes documented in national population-based surveys of children's health and, like these sources, may be reflecting both true changes in prevalence as well as improvements in awareness, identification, and diagnosis. Some observers have speculated that students who would have been classified as having a learning disability in the past are now classified as having autism or "other health impairment." Most of the information on special education students comes from administrative data, however, and is therefore influenced by many factors in addition to students' disabling conditions. These factors include how students are referred, evaluated, and identified for special education services. Given the very real, and often perverse, financial incentive structures within the special education system, state and local policies and practices designed to influence if and how students are identified and served are another important factor. Large state-by-state variation in overall (and disability-specific) identification rates suggest that many considerations other than underlying prevalence of disability are at play.

Disability profiles also vary with students' age—speech or language impairments and developmental delays are common among preschoolers, while elementary school students are most commonly diagnosed with speech or language impairments and specific learning disabilities. Students aged twelve and older are most often diagnosed with learning disabilities, and they are less likely than their younger counterparts to be diagnosed with speech and language impairments and more likely to have mental retardation or an emotional disturbance.10

The limitations and service needs of children vary greatly depending on the types of disabilities involved. Combining special education students into small groups defined by disability types with similarities in service needs eases discussion of program outcomes, policies, and practices. In 2001 Wade Horn and Douglas Tynan proposed segmenting the special education student population into three distinct subgroups: children with significant developmental disabilities and sensory and physical impairments; children with milder forms of neurological conditions, such as learning disabilities and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder; and those with conduct or behavioral problems (the groups can and do overlap with one another).11 The first group includes children who were the primary target of the original IDEA legislation —a relatively small share of special education students today. Each of these groups requires a distinct set of services and disability-related accommodations, such as medical services, learning-related interventions, or behavioral supports. Alternate groupings have been used by several long-term special education studies—such as the Special Education Elementary Longitudinal Study and the National Longitudinal Transition Study—and recommended by the President's Commission on Excellence in Special Education. These organizational schemes differ somewhat from one another, but all are efforts to simplify differences in service needs among special education students.

While the disability profile of special education students is largely similar for students from different racial or ethnic groups (the most common category for all groups, for example, is specific learning disabilities), overall rates of identification do vary by race and ethnicity. In 2005, for example, the share of students aged six through twenty-one identified for services under IDEA ranged from 6.3 percent of Asian school-age children to 14.1 percent of white children and 16.7 percent of African American children. For American Indian and Hispanic school-age children, the shares were 15.8 and 11.8 percent, respectively. Serious concerns have been raised for many years about the overrepresentation of African American students in special education. For example, non-Hispanic African American students are almost three times as likely as other students to be identified as needing special education services for mental retardation and nearly two and a half times more likely to be identified as needing services for emotional disturbance.12

Disproportionate representation has also been documented along dimensions such as family income, native language, and gender (boys are more likely to be identified as needing special education than girls), but much of the policy and research focus has centered on the overrepresentation of African American students.13 The 2004 amendments to the law required states to establish policies to prevent inappropriate overidentification by race or ethnicity and to track (dis)proportionality on the basis of race and ethnicity over time. Many factors are thought to contribute to this problem, including poverty, institutional racism, biased standardized testing, and low numbers of teachers and other school professionals from diverse backgrounds. States typically respond to criticism regarding the overrepresentation of African American students by providing more teacher awareness training, examining the way students are identified and placed, and improving the way students at risk for reading problems are monitored and served. There has been little systematic analysis of the causes and consequences of overrepresentation or of the effectiveness of attempted solutions.

A related challenge has been the identification of learning disabilities among English language learner students. Many of these students have been incorrectly identified as having learning disabilities, while others with true learning disabilities have gone unidentified. The needs of students who are both learning English and learning disabled represent an important and evolving area of attention within the educational research and practice communities.

A critical and closely monitored aspect of special education has to do with where students are served. In addition to providing them with "a free and appropriate education," IDEA requires schools to serve students in "the least restrictive environment," meaning that to the greatest extent possible, special education students should be kept in "regular" classrooms alongside their nondisabled peers. While almost all (about 95 percent) special education students are enrolled in regular schools, many spend a portion of their school day outside this classroom.14 Gradually, an increasing number of these children have been spending most of their school day in general education classes. In 2008–09, for example, 58 percent of them spent 80 percent or more of their day in a regular classroom, up from 46 percent in 1995–96 (figure 3).

The educational environments of students also vary by their age and type of disability. Regular classrooms are the most common setting for special education students in all age groups, but older students are more likely than their younger counterparts to spend portions of their school day away from their regular classrooms, often going to separate classrooms for specialized instruction. Similarly, students with speech or language impairments, developmental delays, visual impairments, and specific learning disabilities are much more likely to spend large shares of their day in a regular classroom compared with students with mental retardation, multiple disabilities, or deaf-blindness.15