The determination that a child has a specific learning disability (SLD) and is in need of special education requires a carefully implemented multi-step process. The objective is to ensure that the child receives the instruction, support and services needed to succeed in school. There is, however, considerable variation in practice and policy in state and local education agencies as they interpret the federal requirements to determine if a child has an SLD as outlined in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA) of 2004. For example, there is a lack of consensus on the extent of cognitive assessment that should be included in a comprehensive evaluation. Furthermore, the rapid adoption of Response to Intervention (RTI) in schools across the country requires new policies that balance the timelines of IDEA’s Child Find mandates with the integration of RTI data into the process of determining if a child has an SLD.
The National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD) recognizes the critical need for guidance on the development and implementation of effective and efficient polices and practices for the identification of students with SLD. To that end, this position statement addresses key issues and concerns regarding determination of SLD that have been expressed nation-wide by educators and parents.
It is NCLD’s intention that schools:
- Engage first in preventative and targeted instruction and intervention
- As appropriate, conduct comprehensive evaluations designed to determine the best instructional programs and accommodations for students while also ensuring that Child Find is properly implemented
- Design comprehensive evaluations to focus on each student’s individual learning needs in the context of educational opportunities, performance, and responsiveness to high quality opportunities to learn over time
- Select every component of the evaluation based on its relevance for creating the student’s instructional program.
Components of the Evaluation
Consistent with the mandates included in IDEA 2004, NCLD believes that a comprehensive evaluation must include:
- A variety of assessment tools and strategies to gather relevant functional, developmental, and academic information about the child (Sec. 300.304(b)(1))
- An observation of the student in the learning environment, including the regular classroom setting (Sec. 300.305(a)(1))
- Determination that underperformance is not primarily the result of a visual, hearing, or motor disability; intellectual disability; emotional disturbance; cultural factors; environmental or economic disadvantage; or limited English proficiency (Sec. 300.309(a)(3)(i-vi))
- Determination that underperformance is not primarily the result of a lack of instruction, i.e., student performance data indicating that the student (a) was provided appropriate instruction in regular education settings delivered by qualified personnel (Sec. 300.309(b)(1)), and (b) received repeated assessments of achievement at reasonable intervals (Sec. 300.309(b)(2)), to ensure that underachievement is not due to lack of appropriate instruction
Also consistent with IDEA 2004, NCLD believes that:
- The determination of a specific learning disability must be made by the child’s parents and a team of qualified professionals (Sec. 300.308)
- Parents must be provided with the results of repeated assessments of achievement (Sec. 300.309(b)(2))
- For students participating in an RTI program, parents must be notified about their state’s policies about the collection of student performance data, strategies for increasing the child’s rate of learning, and their right to request an evaluation (Sec. 300.311(a)(7)(ii))
- The RTI process must not be used to delay or deny an evaluation (January 2011 letter) but should offer data, both academic and behavioral, to help problem solve and analyze issues regarding learning and help inform the development of effective instructional plans for students found to have SLD
Evidence of a pattern of strengths and weaknesses in performance, achievement or both should be included, and must be designed to help guide the development of the child’s instructional program.
An assessment of IQ may be included if determined necessary to rule out intellectual disability as the cause of underachievement.
A comprehensive evaluation must not include the use of a severe discrepancy between intellectual ability and achievement, as there is extensive evidence of conceptual and statistical flaws in this approach.
An assessment of selected cognitive processes may be part of a comprehensive evaluation. As noted by the US Department of Education, in many cases “assessments of cognitive processes simply add to the testing burden and do not contribute to interventions” (Comments and Discussion on Sec. 300.309) Among practitioners, there is a lack of consensus on the role of assessments of cognitive processes in either the identification of SLD or in informing effective instructional practice for individual students. A comprehensive evaluation should include only those measures determined by the team to be needed to address specific unanswered questions. The decision to probe specific areas of cognitive processing should be driven by efficiency and effectiveness, rather than a default list of areas to test.