This blog entry explores the history and current state of how we identify and qualify children with learning disabilities for publicly-funded educational assistance to meet their unique needs.
Identifying Children with Learning Disabilities
In the 1970s, when the concept of learning disability (LD) was first introduced, professionals, school districts and parents wanted to know what defined a learning disability in order to have some means of defining who could get public assistance. Since 1975, identification of children with learning disabilities was based on the notion of “a severe discrepancy between ability and achievement”.
An increasing body of research evidence suggested better ways to identify and teach these students. Spurred by this evidence, in 2004 the federal government included new identification criteria for specific learning disabilities and required state departments of education (who accept federal funding) to adopt criteria to ensure uniformity in identification practices across school districts within states. (citation)
What’s the big IDEA?
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a United States federal law that governs how states and public agencies provide early intervention, special education, and related services to children with disabilities. Formerly called the Education for all Handicapped Children Act of 1975, IDEA requires public schools to make available to all eligible children with disabilities a free appropriate public education that prepares them for further education, employment and independent living. The IDEA is “spending clause” legislation, meaning that it only applies to those States and their local educational agencies that accept federal funding under the IDEA.
Read more information about IDEA on the National Resource Center for People with ADHD.
Identify eligibility: The Old Way
Until 2004, schools used the Discrepancy Model for qualifying students for service, based on a test score that reflected the difference between an intelligence score and an achievement score in particular subjects. This “criteria” for qualifying students is known as Discrepancy Criteria, and each State established (or still establishes today) its own formula for determining when a ‘discrepancy’ can be considered ‘severe’.
When I first heard about the Discrepancy Criteria in graduate school. I looked around for the research that allowed the creation of this concept. There was none. I was flabbergasted. When I asked psychologists who did the testing about it, I was met with a firestorm of contempt and indignation. Today, 35 years later, I asked a friend of mine who is the head of special education for a major local school district about it, he told me:
“There is no scientific research supporting the concept of discrepancy criteria as the measure for qualifying for services or for defining learning disabilities.”
Can qualification criteria change state to state?
The Discrepancy Criteria number changes from state to state because accountants decide arbitrarily on the number that should be used. This makes the practice even more bogus and outrageous. It also means that you might qualify for services and be defined as having a learning disability in Montana but not in New Jersey with exactly the same test scores.
Identify eligibility: The New Way
Today, dramatic changes are taking place in qualifying children for publicly-funded services. As a direct result of congressional action, discrepancy criteria are no longer necessary and a more flexible method has been devised: Response to Intervention (RTI).
RTI is a new approach to the identification of a learning disability which is intended to alleviate the problems associated with the discrepancy model. With RTI, there is no need to formally evaluate cognitive abilities or academic achievement. All that is required is documentation that the student has been unable to respond to appropriate interventions which have been provided within the classroom. (citation)
This new method is an “alternative” method only and school districts are not required to use this new approach. In fact, some school districts make a deliberate effort to not inform parents of the new option as children are going through assessment.
In Washington State, some but not all school districts have adopted the RTI approach to identifying and qualifying children for public-assistance.
Why are schools still using the OLD guidelines?
According to my friend in special education, schools are sticking with the Discrepancy Criteria for the purpose of “having a gate keeper” or to control the number of children who receive public service, and subsequently controlling costs in a limited budget. Consequently, a lot of school districts are sticking to their old procedures and children continue to lose needed services.
Many districts have limited funds for special education services. With RTI, to qualify for services, all you must do is demonstrate a need for help. There is no need to use discrepancy criteria to qualify for services. Therefore, if schools convert to RTI there will be no gatekeeper (or at least not the old gate keeper which allowed them to control spending).
Washington state legislature has put a cap on education funding; the only way more funds can be allocated is if lawsuits force the issue.
What led Congress to make these changes?
In 2003, Dr. Sally Shaywitz of Yale University completed MRI studies of Yale students with reading problems. She compared them with MRIs of students with no reading problems. The results differed substantially. With the good readers, the area of the brain responsible for connecting sounds with visual symbols was very active, while it was underactive with the students who had problems reading.
When the weak readers were taught phonetics and letter-sound exercises, the underactive brain areas became active. Proof that behavior can influence brain activity!
Shaywitz had the bully pulpit, she knew it, and Congress listened. Her research knocked Discrepancy Criteria out of the ball game. It proved that intelligence has nothing to do with reading disabilities or dyslexia and therefore should not be used as part of the definition of a learning disability or part of the process for qualifying for public services.
You can read more about Dr. Shaywitz’ research in this July 28, 2003 Time magazine article.
What took them so long?
These same results as Dr. Shaywitz’ were proposed some 60 or 70 years ago by two Russian scientists, Alexander Luria and Lev Vygotsky. In fact, most of today’s big names in neurology and learning disabilities took all of their thinking and concepts from Luria and Vygotsky without mentioning their names to any degree. Some of us, including myself, knew it was only a question of time until scientific technology would catch up to disprove some old and untenable ideas like the one from the AMA saying that 300 mg of cholesterol in your blood was safe.
How long until states comply with RTI?
The outcome of IDEA 2004 and RTI is fantastic for children with dyslexia who need special education service in school in order to maximize their learning potential. They can no longer be denied services. Yet, without uniformity in identification practices across school districts within the US, some children are not getting the assistance that is rightfully theirs.
Since many school districts are in denial about the changes and afraid of the cost overruns that adoption of RTI could create, it will take one very bright pit-bull of an attorney whose child is faced with being denied public assistance to force the hand of school districts to make the required changes.
I can hardly wait.
Contact me for assistance getting your child’s learning disorder diagnosed and identified.
– Markus Lefkovits