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Response-to-Intervention: An Emerging Method for LD Identification

Widespread dissatisfaction with the discrepancy method for identifying learning disabilities has spurred new ideas.

By Candace Cortiella, The Advocacy Institute

Debate over the method used to identify students as learning disabled (LD) and in need of special education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) has gained considerable momentum during the last several years. A barrage of criticism has been directed at the "ability-achievement discrepancy" method of LD identification, which requires that students show a severe discrepancy between their IQ and academic achievement, through the use of standardized testing. This has resulted in intense interest in, and urgency for, finding alternative methods which could be both more timely and more reliable.

At the forefront of options being reviewed and researched is a process called "response-to-intervention" or RTI. A major study of RTI as an alternative method for LD identification is a significant portion of the work currently being conducted by the National Research Center on Learning Disabilities (NRCLD), a project of the U.S. Department of Education. This article briefly describes some criticisms of the "discrepancy" approach to evaluating a child for LD, and provides an overview of the RTI process.

The Debate Over LD Identification Procedures

Several issues have generated the debate about how to identify LD. First, there's been an alarming increase in the numbers of students served in the LD category of IDEA. Of the 6 million children in special education, half of those are identified as having a "specific learning disability," and the number has grown more than 300 percent since 1976. Policy makers have consistently expressed concern about the substantial number of students being served as LD under IDEA (now roughly 6 percent of all school-age children).

Second, a growing body of research suggests that the "ability-achievement discrepancy" method of identifying students as eligible for special education services requires students to fail or fall behind for a substantial period of time before they are eligible for help. This requirement for an "accumulation of failure" acts as a barrier to early help. Studies published by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development also indicate that the further behind a student falls, the more intensive the services must be to help close the achievement gap.

There's also sound evidence, in a study published by the National Research Council in 2002, that much of the testing used in this process is culturally biased, resulting in either too few or too many minority students being placed in certain categories of special education.

Features of the "Ability-achievement" Discrepancy Method

The ability-achievement discrepancy method dates back to 1977. When the U.S. Department of Education crafted the regulations to implement the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 (P.L. 94-142), now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), it needed to provide a process and criteria for identifying students in the category of "specific learning disability."

The process needed to differentiate between students who have low achievement because of low ability (as measured by IQ testing), and students whose low achievement is "unexpected" (those with normal or above normal ability, or IQ), and cannot be explained by other factors such as limited English proficiency.

To accomplish this, a requirement for the existence of a "severe discrepancy between achievement and intellectual ability" in one or more of seven domains of academic functioning was included in the final IDEA regulations.

To determine the existence of a "severe discrepancy," states generally require the administration of standardized ability (IQ) tests and academic achievement tests, followed by a comparison of the standard scores of the tests. If this comparison shows that the student's "achievement" is well below his or her "ability'" in at least one area (such as reading), then the student can be found eligible to receive special education services under the category of "specific learning disability."

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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