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2. Fewer students are being identified with specific learning disabilities (SLD)—and it’s unclear why.

The percentage of students in special education who were identified with SLD changed from 43% in the fall of 2008 to 39% in the fall of 2015, a 9.3% decrease. SLD includes students who have dyslexia^, dysgraphia^ and dyscalculia^ and is still by far the biggest of the 13 disability categories under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), accounting for more than 1 in 3 students receiving special education.

During the same period in which SLD identification has declined, however, the percentage of students in special education who were identified with other health impairments (OHI)—which covers ADHD—increased from 11% to 15%, a 36% change. OHI now accounts for about 1 in 7 students in special education.

Rates of SLD identification vary widely by state. Since 2008, ten states have experienced increases in SLD identification (CO, CT, GA, IA, KY, LA, NB, NM, NC, and WV) while nine states have experienced declines of more than 20% (DC, ID, KY, MA, MS, MT, RI, TX, and WI).

Understanding what is driving these changes at the state and national level requires further study. This is especially important because there is no evidence to suggest that there has been a corresponding decrease in the prevalence of dyslexia and other kinds of learning disabilities. There are several factors that experts have hypothesized as potential explanations for the decrease in SLD identification:

  • Students with SLD and another disability (such as autism) may be classified under that other disability category and still receive services for SLD.
  • New state laws and other efforts have increased focus on literacy education in recent years and may be helping struggling readers make progress in general education.
  • Increased use of response to intervention^ (RTI) and 504 plans may help some students with learning and attention issues succeed in the general education curriculum.
  • An increased federal investment into the Head Start program6 over the last decade and preschool development programs within the last few years may be offering early opportunities to identify and address challenges before special education services are needed.