A Comparison of the Data From the National Survey of Children’s Health and the Office of Special Education Programs’ Reports to Congress

Author: Paige C. Pullen, PhD

[Journal of Learning Disabilities, Volume 50, Issue 6, 11 August 2016]

The definition of learning disabilities (LD) and its identification procedures have changed dramatically throughout the years, calling to attention its implications for children with these disabilities. In this article by Paige Pullen, the discrepancies between rates of LD reported by school systems and rates reported by parents are discussed. In the annual report given by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP), the number of students served in special education for disabilities is recorded. The trends for these rates can be seen over the past 3 decades and include interesting information about the history of LD. From 1976 to 2001, there was a dramatic increase in the prevalence of LD reported by OSEP, but it is unclear whether these changes were due to over-reporting that increase these rates or social changes that induced more LD. In contrast, from 2001 to 2011, there was a steady decrease in prevalence of LD, due to either effective interventions that actually reduced rates or from external pressures from the government to report fewer cases. The question that arises from this is: How does the prevalence of LD reported by OSEP compare with the prevalence reported by parents?

This article compared 2 sources of data, one from the OSEP annual report and the other from the National Survey of Children’s Health (NSCH). This survey is targeted at parents to gather information about their children’s health status and behaviors. Both of these are directed at children of schooling age from 6 to 17 years old. From comparing the LD prevalence between these two data sources, Pullen found that the rates reported by the OSEP through school systems was much lower than the rates reported by parents of their own children through the NSCH. In addition, from 2003 to 2011, the prevalence of LD according to OSEP has decreased while the prevalence of LD according to NSCH has increased. This paradox leads to questions about special education services within the school system, and why the prevalence of LD between these two entities is so different.

Above all, the goal of the law requiring special education services to those with LD in schools is to provide individualized instruction to students who need. This research poses the question if the OSEP is driven politically rather than for the best interest of children. Pullen comments on the possibility that the reason why OSEP LD rates are decreasing is not because LD is less prevalent, but rather the actual services are decreasing. She suggests that only those with the most severe LD are gaining services in school. Whatever the reason, it is evident through this research that many children with LD are not gaining the attention they need within the school system. Parents and educators can benefit from this knowledge to as they ensure that each student gets the needed services.

Read the full article published in the Journal of Disabilities.