According to a May 2011 report by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington-based education research group, students diagnosed with various chronic health impairments that sap their energy and hurt school attendance are one of the fastest-growing groups of special-education students. Their numbers have more than doubled since 2004, to 689,000 out of the nation's 6.48 million special-education students. Only the autism category has grown faster, the report found.
The sharp rise in such diagnoses has strained the special-education resources of school districts, which are legally prohibited from factoring in cost when deciding how to address a student's special needs.
From the Fordham report's executive summary:
This report examines trends in the number of special-education students and personnel at both the national and state levels from 2000-01 to 2009-10. It finds that the overall population of special-education students, after decades of increases, peaked in the 2004-05 school year and has declined since. But within this population, individual categories of students with disabilities differed markedly in their trajectories:
»» The population of students identified as having “specific learning disabilities,” the most prevalent of all disability types, declined considerably throughout the decade, falling from 2.86 million to 2.43 million students, or from 6.1 to 4.9 percent of all students nationwide.
»» Other shrinking disability categories included mental retardation, which dropped from 624,000 to 463,000 students, or from 1.3 to 0.9 percent of all pupils, and emotional disturbances, which fell from 480,000 to 407,000 students, or from 1.0 to 0.8 percent.
»» Autism and “other health impairment” (OHI) populations increased dramatically. The number of autistic students quadrupled from 93,000 to 378,000, while OHI numbers more than doubled from 303,000 to 689,000. Even so, autistic and OHI populations constituted only 0.8 and 1.4 percent, respectively, of all students in 2009-10.
In addition, state-level special-education trends varied dramatically:
»» Rhode Island, New York, and Massachusetts reported the highest rates of disability identification in 2009-10; Rhode Island was the only state with more than 18 percent of its student body receiving special-education services.
»» Texas, Idaho, and Colorado reported the lowest rates of disability identification in 2009-10. Adjusting for overall population size, Texas identified just half as many students with disabilities as Rhode Island: 9.1 percent of its total student body.