Editor’s note: The following is a guest post written by Ann Morrison, Ph.D. She is a visiting assistant professor of special education at Metro State College of Denver where she specializes in literacy instruction for struggling learners.
Education Week recently reported on declining rates in the enrollment of students identified as having a learning disability in the United States. In fact, the percentage of all students in the United States enrolled in prekindergarten through grade 12 who were identified as having a learning disability dropped from 6.1 percent in the 2000-2001 school year to 5.2 percent in the 2007-2008 school year. The total number of students who qualified for disability services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act increased from 13.3 to 13.4 percent in the same time period (Samuels, 2010).
Data on Colorado’s students are similar. Colorado students ages 6-21 enrolled in K-12 schools who were identified as having a learning disability fell from 3.03 percent in 2004 (IDEA Data, 2004) to 2.91 percent in 2008 (IDEA Data, 2008). While a drop of .12 percent may not seem significant, consider that the mechanism most responsible for these drops, Response to Intervention (RtI), was not adopted as the sole approach for identifying students as having a learning disability until August 14, 2009.
Response to Intervention has two functions. The primary function is to enhance the instruction provided to struggling students. Under RtI, the reading, writing, and math skills of students in kindergarten to 12th grade are screened. This screening, generally performed in the fall of each school year, tells schools who among their students are achieving at, above, or below grade level. Students who are working below grade level are provided with targeted interventions that supplement their regular classroom instruction and are intended to support the student in raising their achievement to grade level.
As the school year progresses, the skills of students who are receiving supplemental instruction are assessed to determine if they are responding to the intervention being provided. If the student is responding to the intervention the child’s instruction continues until it is no longer necessary. If the student is not responding to the intervention the school will increase the intensity, frequency, duration, or type of intervention, and then reassess to determine the effectiveness of the new instruction.
The result of this process is that students who are falling behind are receiving intervention that prevents them from falling farther behind and can result in students achieving grade level skills. Only students who are found to be non-responsive to repeated cycles of intervention are considered for eligibility for special education with a learning disability.
In Colorado RtI serves a second purpose. Colorado is one of just four states (National Center on Response to Intervention, 2010) to use RtI data, the assessment taken as part of the intervention cycles, as the sole criteria for eligibility for special education with a learning disability. The previous approach required students to show a marked discrepancy between their potential academic performance and their actual academic performance.
The principals, special education teachers, and district administrators I have spoken with indicate that the identification rates for students with learning disabilities have dropped significantly since the change in identification procedure. When I ask them about the numbers of students they identified in the last school year versus the number they identified in previous years, a common response is that the number of qualifying students has dropped by half. The superintendent of one Denver area district told me that they have “stopped identifying” students as having learning disabilities.
Two dynamics are at play in these numbers. One is that using Response to Intervention, schools are doing a better job of teaching children. Using evidence-based instructional practices, monitoring students’ progress, and providing necessary intervention have all contributed to student success. The second dynamic is that using RtI data for eligibility for disability requires that the schools have not only provide evidence-based interventions, but evaluate the effectiveness of the interventions, adjust the interventions as necessary, and have detailed documentation of all of it.
Given that this second dynamic has only been a factor since August of 2009, I anticipate that the moderate reductions in the number of students identified as having learning disabilities between 2004 and 2008 will turn into significant drops when the data for 2009 and 2010 are reported.
Popularity: 7% [?]