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,
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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
"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
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
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
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,
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