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Article of Interest - Learning Disabilities

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Bridges4Kids LogoFewer Students Classified as Learning Disabled in Wisconsin
The number of Wisconsin children diagnosed with learning disabilities has shrunk over the past four years, a trend that can be attributed to numerous factors, including efforts to change the way schools classify students. Still, the number of students classified as needing special-education services has gone up, mirroring a nationwide trend.
by Amy Hetzner, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, October 19, 2004
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The number of Wisconsin children identified with learning disabilities has declined over the past four years, helping to slow growth in costly special education programs.

The trend could be significant because learning disabilities remain the foremost reason children are in special education. Children with learning disabilities make up about 38% of the special education enrollment.

From 2000 to 2003, the number of people between the ages of 3 and 21 identified for special education because of learning disabilities declined more than 7%, from 52,688 to 48,843.

Even so, the total number of students in special education rose 2% over the same period, from 125,358 to 127,828. In fact, more special education students were added in the state from 1999 to 2000 alone than over the last four years, according to figures from the state Department of Public Instruction.

The decrease in students identified with learning disabilities is positive, observers say, as long as it doesn't mean students are foundering outside of special education.

"I don't care if they're labeled special education or not, that should not be the reason why a kid gets help in school," said Sue Endress, project director for Wisconsin FACETS, a non-profit statewide group that helps people with disabilities and their families.

"A kid should get help in school because he's struggling in school. . . . That should happen with any student whether they're special ed or not."

The learning disability decline coincides with a number of initiatives, making it difficult to determine the cause.

The state changed the criteria for what qualifies a student to be identified with a learning disability in 2001, but the drop already had begun the year before the new standard went into effect.

In addition, schools have been employing a variety of methods in recent years - from smaller class sizes to more intensive reading interventions in the early grades - to address the complaint that too many children are entering special education because of inadequate teaching.

Years of attention to the astronomical growth of the number of children identified with learning disabilities also could have made schools more cautious in applying the label.

At the New Berlin School District, where the percentage of students labeled with learning disabilities has decreased in recent years, the effort to bring down those numbers started in 1996, said Virginia Wolters, the district's director of pupil services. That was the year the district had the second highest proportion of LD students in the state, she said.

"The district has made a real effort to look at the difference between children who learn differently and children who truly have a disability called a learning disability," she said.

Classroom teachers have been trained to alter their lessons for students who need a little extra assistance, "reserving special education for the children who really qualify," Wolters said.

Elsewhere, however, administrators are more likely to blame the decline on the change in criteria.

As the number of students with learning disabilities dropped in Milwaukee Public Schools, those diagnosed with "other health impairments" picked up, noted Pat Yahle, MPS' director of special services. The "other health impairment" label serves as a special education catch-all for everyone from children who have been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder to those with elevated lead levels, she said.

As a result, MPS' overall special education numbers have barely budged in the last two years. "I know they're still being identified in special education," Yahle said.

Similar statements were made by teachers and administrators as part of a 2003 study by University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh researchers charged with examining the effects of the criteria changes.

School officials interviewed for the study also worried the revised criteria could be delaying much-needed services for students, and they believed new documentation requirements and application complications might prevent educators from referring students to special education.

But the UW-Oshkosh team concluded there was not enough evidence to back up those claims, given that referrals already had started to decrease before the new guidelines went into effect and that enrollment in the "other health impairment" category did not rise significantly.

Ken Cole, executive director of the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, said the decline in students labeled learning disabled shows critics were right when they said too many were being identified.

More needs to be done to further bring down the number of students who qualify for special education and get them the help they need in traditional classrooms, he said.

That includes spending the money allocated for special education - more than $1 billion a year in Wisconsin - more effectively, he said.


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