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IDEA 2004 Close Up: Evaluation and Eligibility for Specific Learning Disabilities

An expert outlines the federal laws on special education evaluation and eligibility.

By Candace Cortiella, The Advocacy Institute

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA 2004) - and the federal regulations that provide guidance to states on how to implement the Act - contain important changes to the way schools can evaluate students suspected of having specific learning disabilities (SLD).

Definition of Specific Learning Disability (SLD) under IDEA 2004

Both IDEA 2004 (which went into effect in 2005) and IDEA 2004 federal regulations (in effect since 2006) maintain the same definition of SLD as previous versions of the law and regulations. That definition, found in United States Code (20 U.S.C. §1401 [30]), reads as follows:

"The term 'specific learning disability' means a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, which disorder may manifest itself in the imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do mathematical calculations.

Such term includes such conditions as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia.

Such term does not include a learning problem that is primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor disabilities, of mental retardation, of emotional disturbance, or of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage."

While the definition of SLD remains unchanged in IDEA 2004, changes to the ways that schools can determine whether a student has an SLD are sure to have significant impact on school identification practices and procedures.

Significant Changes to SLD Identification Requirements under IDEA 2004

By far the most significant change included in IDEA 2004 is the elimination of the requirement for a student to show a "severe discrepancy" between intellectual ability and academic achievement in order to be identified as having an SLD. Before IDEA 2004, such a discrepancy had to be found in one or more of the following areas:

  • oral expression
  • listening comprehension
  • written expression
  • basic reading skill
  • reading comprehension
  • mathematics calculation
  • mathematics reasoning

This "discrepancy" requirement", which has been part of federal special education regulations since 1977, has been under attack for some time. Critics charge that, by using this approach to identifying SLD, students must fail for long periods of time before they will show sufficiently large deficits in academic achievement to satisfy the "severe discrepancy" requirement and begin receiving special education services. Equally important was the growing evidence that such a requirement was particularly problematic for students living in poverty, students of culturally different backgrounds, or those whose native language was not English.

Recognizing that the "discrepancy" approach was resulting in both late identification and misidentification of SLD, Congress included a new provision in IDEA 2004 stating that school districts are not required to take into account a severe discrepancy between ability (IQ) and achievement when determining whether a student has a specific learning disability. In updating IDEA, Congress clearly indicated a strong desire to see schools begin to use procedures to identify SLD that are more relevant to the instruction students receive in the classroom. To encourage such change, IDEA 2004 included an additional provision stating that school districts could use a process designed to determine if a student responds to scientific, research-based intervention as a part of the evaluation procedures.

A current example of such processes is known as "Responsiveness to Intervention" ("Response to Intervention," or "RTI"). In an RTI process, students who show signs of learning difficulties are provided with a series of increasingly intensive, individualized instructional or behavioral interventions. These kinds of interventions are designed and delivered by general education staff in collaboration with other experts such as special educators and school psychologists and are based on reliable research. This type of intervention process includes systematic monitoring of the student's progress. Students who do not show improvement, or "responsiveness," to this series of interventions are considered to be "at risk" for learning disabilities and possibly in need of special education services in order to receive educational benefit from instruction.

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.

Comments from readers

"Part of the problem of this definition is that when measuring children for developmental delays or intervention requirements, it does not take into account the choice of the dominant caretaker or parent to preference non-English rather than English - which necessarily produces impairment in oral expression or language understanding. Forcing the system to make up for parental negligence in school preparation by failing to teach basic language skills in English misuses the educational law to become guarantor of parental failure to plan and carry out necessary skills a child will need in English speaking schools."
"i am a mother of a 4 year old that has special needs in learning , i am looking to move to Fernandina beach , FL but i am not sure if my son would have the same education as the one he has here ...can someone help me !?"
"You have described the changes in the federal definition of SLD clearly and I would like to link your information on my new website Is that okay with you?"
"Excellent, succinct summary, making a usable, easy to follow set of guidelines, spelling out exceptions and using appropriate emphases - especially with regards to the role and place of parents in the team"