The past several years have seen growing criticism of the way in which students are identified as needing special education services due to specific learning disabilities (SLD) under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). A 2003 study conducted by the National Research Center on Learning Disabilities (NRCLD) provided an analysis of then current requirements for SLD classification in each state in the country and uncovered substantial support for changes to those practices.

What is the NRCLD?

The National Research Center on Learning Disabilities is funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs as part of its ongoing work of examining current practices in the identification of students in need of special education due to learning disabilities. The center conducts research, makes recommendations, and provides training to help administrators, teachers, parents, and policy makers address the complex issues surrounding the proper identification of students with learning disabilities.

What was the focus of the 2003 NRCLD study?

The study examined then current policies and practices being used in each state for the identification of students as in need of special education services under the IDEA due to specific learning disabilities. Such an examination had not been conducted since 1994. The study summarized trends in states’ classification requirements. Researchers also conducted a “beliefs inventory” among the states to determine the opinions and attitudes toward current policies and practices. Lastly, the study looked closely at an alternative to current identification practices that is receiving increased attention.

Why do states differ substantially from one another in the way they identify students as SLD?

Prior to the IDEA 2004 reauthorization, IDEA 1997 regulations required that students found to have a specific learning disability (SLD) had to exhibit a “severe discrepancy between ability and achievement” in 1 or more of 7 achievement areas. In addition, the regulations required that several other plausible causes be ruled out as the primary cause of the underachievement, such as visual, hearing, or motor disabilities, mental retardation, emotional disturbance, and environmental, cultural, and economic disadvantage. These causes are frequently referred to as “exclusion” criteria.

However, the regulations did not provide guidance on how the “severe discrepancy” should be determined nor the magnitude of the discrepancy required to be considered “severe.” Without such direction, states developed differing procedures for SLD identification.

This lack of any consistent classification criteria was reflected in the varying rates of identification among states. Latest data showed that SLD prevalence, or percentage of students enrolled in public school identified as learning disabled and receiving special education, varied from a low of just under 3 percent in Kentucky to a high of almost 9½ percent in Rhode Island. The degree to which SLD classification criteria influenced the variance in prevalence is an area of ongoing study by the NCRLD. (To find your state’s LD prevalence rate, see this chart.)

Were there some commonalities among states’ SLD requirements?

At the time of the study, all states provided a definition of SLD and most, over two-thirds, used the definition that appears in federal IDEA (1997) regulations. Only 9 states used an SLD definition different from the federal definition.

Federal definition of specific learning disabilities

(i) General. The term means a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, that may manifest itself in an imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or to do mathematical calculations, including conditions such as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia. (ii) Disorders not included. The term does not include learning problems that are primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor disabilities, of mental retardation, of emotional disturbance, or of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage. 34 CFR 300.7(c)(10)

The 2003 NRCLD study revealed that a requirement of a severe discrepancy between intellectual ability and achievement was used in the SLD classification criteria for 48 of the 50 states. Only two states, Kansas and Louisiana, did not have the discrepancy requirement in their state rules for SLD identification. Both of these states had an SLD prevalence rate between 4½ and 5 percent. One state, Iowa, adopted “non-categorical” classification criteria which did not require the ability-achievement discrepancy. Iowa‘s prevalence rate was 6½ percent.

All states used the exclusion criteria in the 8 areas stated in the federal IDEA regulations. In addition, some states had adopted additional exclusion factors such as autism (CA, MI), emotional stress (LA, VT), difficulty adjusting to home or school (LA, VT) lack of motivation (LA, TN), and temporary crisis situation (LA, TN, VT).

All states included the following achievement domains as areas in which a student might be eligible for the SLD diagnosis: reading, mathematics, writing, oral expression, and listening comprehension. However, there was variance in the subcategories within these broad achievement areas. For example, math reasoning was identified specifically in about half of the states. Spelling was included in a few states. Only one state, New Hampshire, appears to have recognized nonverbal learning disabilities.

Meanwhile, few states included a statement about intellectual ability in either their SLD definition or classification criteria. Given that at least average or normal intelligence has always been considered central to SLD diagnosis, this finding is surprising. In fact, the study found that there was a discernable trend toward states’ definitions and criteria for SLD being silent about the assumption of average or normal intelligence.

The presence of a processing disorder, while prominent in the federal definition of SLD, was relatively absent from most states’ classification criteria. Only 13 states required determination of a processing disorder.

What is the most dramatic variance across states?

The methods used to determine the discrepancy and the magnitude of the discrepancy needed for IDEA eligibility varied greatly across the states. Further variance was caused by the fact that 21 states provided little or no guidance to their local school districts on how to determine discrepancy, allowing for districts within a state to have differing methods of SLD classification.

Among the 29 states that provided guidance on ways to determine discrepancy, the most commonly used methods were based on:

  • standard score discrepancy

  • standard deviation discrepancy

  • regression approaches

Each of these procedures has received criticism for a variety of reasons. Over the years, numerous efforts have been made to find a quantifiable method to identify the presence of SLD with objectivity and precision. However, research indicates that no purely numerical approach to SLD identification is possible.

The study also looked at the role of the multidisciplinary teams in local school districts who applied the definitions and classification criteria. In roughly two-thirds of the states, a majority of the multidisciplinary team had the authority to find a student eligible for SLD classification even if the criteria were not met.

What was the climate among states in regard to changing SLD identification practices?

The study sought to evaluate the likelihood of changes by the states through a “beliefs” inventory. Respondents to the inventory were the individual in each state designated as the principal contact person or authoritative source on SLD. Respondents generally agreed that:

  • too many students are being classified as LD, including too many minority students;

  • students are often classified as LD so that services can be provided even though they do not have a genuine disability;

  • the use of ability-achievement discrepancy method of determining SLD often causes harm because identification is delayed to later ages;

  • alternatives to the ability-achievement discrepancy method need to be adopted.

What was the most frequently discussed alternative to current SLD identification?

The study indicated that the “response-to-treatment” or “response-to-intervention” approach was receiving most of the attention as an alternative to the ability-achievement discrepancy method. Such an approach uses a multi-tiered process in which students experiencing learning difficulties are provided instructional support in general education that increases in intensity over time, eventually leading to special education services for those students who do not respond to any of the prior remedial interventions. This approach promises to help reduce the time between identification and treatment, since it is based on a problem-solving model using individualized evaluation and continuous progress monitoring.

However, such an approach is highly dependent upon improvement to the current level of professional development available to general education teachers, enhanced collaboration between general and special education teachers, as well as understanding and support from parents.

The ongoing work of the NRCLD will examine these emerging alternative methods of identifying students with learning disabilities and develop recommendations on improved, research-based identification methods.

Reviewed 2010


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