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"Discrepancy" approach results in inconsistent LD identification rates across states

States vary widely in how they identify learning disabilities - and in the percentage of kids they serve in special education.

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 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.)

Candace Cortiella's work as Director of the nonprofit The Advocacy Institute focuses on improving the lives of people with learning disabilities, through public policy and other initiatives. The mother of a young adult with learning disabilities, she lives in the Washington, D.C., area.

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