By Candace Cortiella, The Advocacy Institute
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
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.
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.
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
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