Waiting Too Late to Test?

By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 31, 2007

Third-grader Tylor Goshorn sometimes writes letters or numbers backward. She has trouble with simple directions and lags a year behind her class in reading. Her parents suspect that she might have a learning disability and that she would be better served by smaller classes and more intensive instruction from special education.

But the Loudoun County school system has balked at testing Tylor for a possible disability. Instead, the schools have arranged for a reading specialist for the 9-year-old, a special computer program for math, even a seat in the front of her classroom. These alternative steps reflect a growing national movement to contain one of the costliest programs in public education. After three years of such efforts, the Goshorns aren't satisfied.

"We feel like we are chasing our tails here," said Jereme Goshorn, her mother. "It's obvious there's something wrong."

Since a 1975 federal law gave students with learning disabilities a right to special education, the number of learning-disabled students who receive such services has risen to 6 percent of the public school population. The figure was less than 2 percent in 1977.

Many educators say learning disabilities have been over-diagnosed and are seeking ways to address learning difficulties in mainstream classrooms, rather than addressing them through special education for as much as twice the cost. Loudoun officials estimate their cost per pupil in special education is $22,000 a year, compared with $12,000 for most students. One cost-saving method drawing attention is known as "response to intervention."

For many school systems, RTI-influenced strategies have led to a significant drop in the number of special education students. In Charles County, special education enrollment has fallen to 8 percent from 12 percent in 1999. In Frederick County over the same period, the rate dropped to 11 percent from 17 percent. Loudoun's rate fell to 10 percent from 12 percent in 2001. The national average is about 14 percent.

The new approach has led to a backlash among parents who say their children aren't getting the help they need. A parent-led advisory committee told the Loudoun School Board in the fall that the school system appeared to be under-identifying students who should qualify for special education.

The shifts in Loudoun and elsewhere have been propelled by a 2004 rewrite of the federal special education law. The revisions allowed school systems to use the RTI model as a path toward identifying learning-disabled students. Schools also were allowed to redirect up to 15 percent of their special education money to help struggling students in regular classrooms.

To identify learning-disabled students, schools traditionally have compared IQ scores with achievement test results. Sometimes it can take years for significant disparities to surface. The RTI model targets students with problems early on, offering them instruction beyond the general curriculum, such as tutoring or additional math or reading programs. Teachers carefully monitor progress. If students don't improve after a series of increasingly intensive measures, they are considered for special education.

This month, the U.S. Education Department organized a national summit in Arlington County for educators to learn about the RTI strategy. The government plans to spend $14 million over five years to help states launch the new approach.

Many Washington area systems are headed in that direction. In Prince George's County, where 10 percent of students are in special education, schools offer struggling students multiple levels of instruction and support before considering special education. The Montgomery County system, with a 12 percent special education rate, has launched a similar initiative in more than a quarter of its schools. Alexandria, with a 17 percent rate, is piloting an alternative approach in one school. In the District, where the rate is 18 percent, officials plan to roll out a new program in 16 elementary schools by next fall. In Fairfax and Prince William counties, where 15 and 11 percent of students, respectively, are in special education, officials say plans for a new approach are afoot.

The national movement reflects the emphasis on quality teaching and on raising student achievement in the federal No Child Left Behind law, said William W. Knudsen, deputy assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services. Too many students, he said, are funneled to special education because they have not been taught appropriately or have not been well prepared for school.

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