Experts Fail to Explain Texas Special Needs Decline

The number of students in Texas classified as needing special education assistance has been dropping — and experts aren’t entirely sure why. Only 8.8% of students were diagnosed as special needs in 2011, which is more than a 3-point drop from 2000. Although this number means that the number of kids identified as special needs is 4% lower in Texas than the national average, the decline in numbers is even more drastic in large urban districts like Dallas and Houston; only 7.9% Houston students and 7.7% of Dallas students are considered “special needs.”

Texas has experienced a significant population boom over the last ten years, yet the number of special needs students in its schools declined over the same period by more than 100,000. Although some have attributed the decline to academic progress, there are many who express concern that the districts around the state are under-counting the number of students requiring special ed in order to save money or skirt accountability metrics. The growing number of immigrants could also be the cause, since they are less able to figure out the process to get their kids the help they need.

“Texas is definitely an aberration in both the low percentage of its students that it identifies for special education, and the fact that this percentage has declined significantly over the past decade or so,” said Janie Scull, a research analyst and production manager with the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

The Texas decline definitely goes against the nationwide trend, which has the percentage of special needs students in the school system holding relatively steady over the past decade. Overall, 13% of the nation’s kids meet the federal standard of learning-disabled.

Although no one factor can explain the decline, there are some who see it as good news.

“It’s very encouraging,” said Jack Fletcher, a University of Houston professor who heads the Texas Center for Learning Disabilities. “I don’t think people fully understand why, but it does seem to coincide with the state and federal initiatives for beginning reading instruction.”

Teachers are putting forth a greater effort to provide all young children with solid reading instruction and intense intervention, preventing the need for many to be referred to special education, Fletcher said.

But this point of view is greatly at odds with that of Louis Geigerman, who is a special-needs advocate in the Houston area. He said the school’s literacy efforts are inadequate, pointing out that the state has some of the highest school drop-out rates in the country. Advocates like him think that the states’ standards of who qualifies for additional academic help are too rigid and therefore exclude too many kids who would be classified as “special needs” in other states.

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