Federal Education Policy and the States, 1945-2009
The Ford Years: Diagnosis - State Variability
Everything hinged on reliable diagnoses. Yet, as many educators acknowledged, reliability was rare in the diagnosis of disability. In 1977, the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) examined 400 analyses of the "prevalence" of different categories of disability in the general population and found that "no single set of prevalence figures can be accepted as fact." Scholars attributed the unreliability of diagnoses to disparities in the way states defined categories of disability, differences in the way professionals screened groups of children, discrepancies in the ways states located potentially handicapped children, and, perhaps most important of all, dissimilarities in state financial reimbursement plans. The same student could be diagnosed as disabled in one state but not in another. For example, the category of "learning disabled" accounted for 19 percent of disabled students in New York but 63 percent in Hawaii. It was unlikely that students in Hawaii were three times as likely to be learning disabled as in New York; instead, it turned out that New York simply diagnosed more students as "mentally retarded" or "emotionally disturbed."
New York placed approximately 18 percent of disabled pupils in each of these categories and did so because these categories involved more intensive treatments that garnered more state and federal aid. Making this situation even more complicated was the fact that certain categories of disability were not covered by federal aid. For example, the law covered students diagnosed as "emotionally disturbed" but not those diagnosed as "socially maladjusted," though the two categories have very similar effects on classroom learning. According to the federal government, "emotional disturbance" was a disability but "social maladjustment" was not. It could therefore seem prudent to identify a student as "emotionally disturbed" rather than "socially maladjusted" in order to receive federal grants. (Indeed, in the early 1970s, one district in Pennsylvania classified 36 percent of its students as handicapped in some way and eligible for aid.) At the same time, however, such a strategy could entail costs: students diagnosed as disabled in order to garner aid could not be suspended or expelled for behaviors attributable to their disability, because such disciplinary action could be construed as "discriminatory."