Prevalence of Learning Disabilities at Enrollment in Special Education Students with Behavioral Disorders

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT. The prevalence of learning disabilities (LD) was studied in a sample of 233 students aged 6 to 16 years who were newly identified with behavioral disorders (BD). Using a battery of the WISC-R and the WJPEB achievement tests (i.e., reading, mathematics, and written language), occurrence was determined for four LD definitions: state, ability-achievement, regression-based ability-achievement, and low achievement. The mean Full Scale IQ for the students was 99.0. Over all, 53.2% met at least one LD definition, ranging from 15.9% for low achievement to 42.9% for regression. Almost one-quarter showed overlapping between low achievement and discrepancy definitions. Age, gender, and race had few significant effects on the LD frequencies, and no single achievement area predominated. The need for thorough testing for LD in students with BD at both initial evaluation and subsequent reevaluations is discussed, as well as the subsequent delivery of sufficient LD services.

Kauffman, Cullinan, and Epstein (1987) have noted the paucity of studies on academic characteristics of students with the special education classification of behavioral disorder (BD) or similar special education labels such as serious emotional disturbance (SED). Information pertaining to their academic status is limited and unclear (Epstein, Kinder, & Bursuck, 1989; Forness, Bennett, & Tose, 1983a). Additional data regarding the academic characteristics of students with BID could help special educators provide programs of greater effectiveness and efficiency (Fessler, Rosenberg, & Rosenberg, 1991).

More specifically, a review of the literature reveals no studies that have purposefully evaluated the rates, types, or significance of learning disabilities (LD) among students with BD according to commonly accepted definitions of learning disability. Kauffman, Cullinan, and Epstein (1987) used teacher estimates of grade-level functioning (rather than standardized tests) to study a large group of students with SED. They found that their academic achievement was typically below expectancy in all achievement areas and correlated with IQ. Luebke, Epstein, and Cullinan (1989) found that both students with BD and those with LD were significantly behind students without disabilities in all four achievement areas measured.

More generally, past research into the academic characteristics of children with behavior disorders (i.e., children connected with mental health or juvenile facilities, and not exclusively in special education settings), although of greater breadth than the special education BD literature, has been characterized by numerous methodological issues and has yielded disagreement about the magnitude and nature of their academic deficits. Differences inherent in the various types of study populations and in academic instrumentation have made generalizations difficult. Consequently, results have been disparate. For example, Forness and colleagues (1983a) reported the incidence of serious reading problems among children with emotional difficulties in public schools or outpatient clinics to range from 50% to 80%, but paradoxically, the incidence was below 50% for children admitted to inpatient psychiatric hospitals. Also, in a review by Cullinan, Epstein, and Lloyd (1983), the prevalence of academic problems among children with behavior disorders ranged from 33% to 80%.

Two important factors must be considered by any investigation into the occurrence and/or suspicion of LID in students with BID. First, special education definitions or entry criteria for students with BD in nearly 40 states include a statement (in keeping with previous and current provisions of the federal guidelines) that the condition must result in some way in an inability to learn or it must somehow disrupt the learning process (Mack, 1980; Swartz & Mosley, 1987). Whether state regulations are designed to operationalize academic deficiency in terms of achievement test scores or clinical judgment, students with BD should exhibit significant academic difficulty in addition to their emotional or behavioral disorders (Coleman, 1986). …