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Number of Students Classified As Learning Disabled Continues to Drop

Two months ago, I wrote an article about the the declining numbers of students identified as having "specific learning disabilities," the largest of the 13 categories that are included in Individuals With Disabilities in Education Act.

When I wrote the story, the latest data available to me were population counts from the 2007-08 school year. Now, data from fall 2008 is available from a different source, and the numbers appear to show the same downward trend.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in fall 2007 approximately 2.573 million youth ages 3 to 21 were classified as having specific learning disabilities, out of 6.606 million children covered by the IDEA. A specific learning disability is defined as a psychological processing disorder that impairs learning but not a student's overall cognitive ability.

The IDEA Data Accountability Center, which collects more up-to-date data from the states, says that a year later, in fall 2008, 2.537 million 3- to 21-year-olds were classified as having an SLD, out of 6.593 million children covered by the IDEA.

The child counts reflect approximately 36,000 fewer students classified as having a learning disability, and a 13,000 drop in IDEA-eligible students overall. Another sharp drop was seen in the numbers of students classified as having a behavioral or emotional disturbance—from about 500,000 in fall 2007 to approximately 421,000 in fall 2008.

Some categories are rising dramatically, though. Autism is still considered a "low-incidence" disability, but about 296,000 3- to 21-year-olds were classified as having the disorder in fall 2007, compared to about 337,000 3- to 21-year-olds in fall 2008.

The experts I spoke to for my September article said they expected that this downward trend among students with learning disabilities would continue, because the same forces discussed in the article are still in play. Schools are attempting to identify these students earlier, and get them help sooner through processes such as response to intervention, which provide intensive lessons on areas of academic weakness.

However, the judgment of school administrators, who may be under pressure to reduce the size of their special education population, may also be a factor. The harder question to pin down is if students are getting the academic help they need, regardless of classification.

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