Overdiagnosis: Possible Explanations

The basis for this posting is drawn from the report, "Rethinking Learning Disabilties" by Reid Lyon, Jack Fletcher, Sally Shaywitz, Bennet Shaywitz, Joseph Torgesen, Frank Wood, Ann Schulte, and Richard Olson.

In the past 10 years, the number of students ages 6-21 identified as LD (learning disabled) under the IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) has increased 38%. The bulk of this increase occurs in the recent trend toward identifying students as LD after the 5th grade. What underlies this disproportionate increase? The concept of LD is valid and it fair to say that a significant number of American children and adult learning is impeded as a result of learning disabilities, but do all the children currently receiving special services truly need these? And are those that genuinely are suffering from LD receiving inferior services as a result?

What are some possible causes for this profound increase? The authors begin by tossing out a few possibilities. Among these are:

• Improvements in diagnostic and identification practices
• Some students are identified as LD because they are receiving inadequate teaching services.
• The educational world has grown less tolerant of individual differences in learning within a single, general education classroom.
• Education schools fail to properly train teachers to deal with individual learning differences.

While these are all interesting and possibly valid possibilities, the authors choose to take a different route in accounting for such a disproportionate increase. They attack the following:

• The ineffectiveness of remediation during early childhood education.
• Measurement practices are biased toward identification of children before age nine (i.e. based on the identification practices, younger students are less likely to be identified).
• The socio-political factors operating within public schools (i.e. more special education students equals more money).

Based experience from the middle school in which I teach, I find the third explanation to be by far the most compelling. According to Gerald Seff, LD has become a “catch-all” for low achieving students. Whenever academic standards and requirements stiffen and/or test scores fall, the number of students identified as LD inevitably increases. More specifically, since the advent of EAHCA (Education Act of all Handicapped Children Act of 1975) the number of special education students has increased exponentially since it has been able to “absorb a diversity of educational, behavioral, and socio-emotional problems irrespective of their causes, their responses to good teaching, or their prognosis.”

Special education programs are important and valuable resources for those students with learning disabilities. These resources, however, tend to be scarce and expensive. Additionally, students that are labeled learning disabled tend to carry that label for the remainder of their academic careers. Teachers, administrators and psychologists must become more critical and responsible in their testing recommendations and testing itself of students they believe might have a learning disability.

Emily Banks

G. Senf, “LD Research in Sociological and Scientific Perspecitve,” in Psychological and Educational Perspectives on Learning Disabilities, eds. J. Torgesen and B. Wong (Orlando FL: Academic Press, 1986).