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

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By Candace Cortiella, The Advocacy Institute

Federal Procedures for Determining if a Student Has an SLD

Procedures for determining the existence of a specific learning disability are found in the federal regulations for IDEA 2004. It is important to note that these procedures are in addition to - not in place of - all IDEA requirements relating to evaluation and eligibility for all students suspected of having a disability and needing special education and related services.

Determining if a student has a specific learning disability, like any other disability determination under IDEA, cannot be based on any single criterion - meaning a single test, assessment, observation, or report. An evaluation of a student suspected of having SLD must include a variety of assessment tools and strategies. The evaluation must include input from the student's parents as well as an observation of the student's academic performance and behavior in the general education classroom. Once all agreed-upon assessments and evaluation measures have been completed and the student's parents have received copies of the evaluations along with full explanations of the findings, the eligibility group (see boxbelow) meets to make its determination.

Makeup of the Group that Determines Eligibility for Special Education

As with any eligibility determination, the determination of whether a student has an SLD and requires special education is made by a group that includes the student's parents and a team of qualified professionals. Those professionals must include the student's regular education teacher (or a regular teacher qualified to teach a child of the student's age) and others qualified to conduct diagnostic examinations. These individuals could be a school psychologist, a speech-language pathologist, or a remedial reading teacher. The individuals that make up the group may vary depending on the nature of the student's suspected disability.

Steps Schools Must Take to Determine If a Student Has an SLD

Step 1: Determination of Underachievement

Does the student fail to achieve adequately for his age in one or more of the following eight areas:

  • Oral expression
  • Listening comprehension
  • Written expression
  • Basic reading skill
  • Reading fluency skills
  • Reading comprehension
  • Mathematics calculation
  • Mathematics problem solving

This determination will be based on the student's mastery of grade-level content appropriate for the student's age, including performance against the state's academic content standards in reading and math. For a student who has been retained in a grade or is otherwise not in the grade typical for his age, achievement against the state's grade-level academic standards for the student's enrolled grade might be used to determine underachievement.

Step 2: Determination of Response to Interventions or a Pattern of Strengths and Weaknesses (or Both)

In determining a student's response to interventions, the following question must be asked: Does the student fail to make sufficient progress in achievement considered adequate for his age (or enrolled grade-level standards) when provided with a series of scientific, research-based interventions?

Documentation of a student's progress during a process of increasingly intensive interventions, such as those that occur in the RTI approach, can provide useful information for determining whether a student has an SLD and needs special education. Note that:

  • This documentation of progress is generally done using curriculum-based measurements (CBM).
  • An intervention process generally takes place prior to referring a student for a complete evaluation.
  • Determining why a student has not responded to research-based interventions requires a comprehensive evaluation.

As an alternative - or in addition - to an RTI approach, the following question may be asked: Do the results of the student's assessments and evaluations show a pattern of strengths and weaknesses in her academic performance, achievement (or both), or in intellectual development? Patterns of strengths and weaknesses commonly refer to the examination of profiles across or within tests that have typically been used to determine SLD, such as standardized achievement tests and aptitude (IQ) tests. Sometimes referred to as intra-individual differences or variability, these patterns of strengths and weaknesses are particularly relevant to the identification of SLD. Recognition of a discrepancy between ability and achievement, previously required for SLD identification, could also be considered as part of this step.

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"