Eligibility for special education and related services under the category of Specific Learning Disability (SLD) involves perhaps the most complicated rules and analysis of any category under the IDEA. The understanding and acknowledgment of what constitutes a learning disability is changing as awareness, research, and information becomes more prevalent. Not only does research about learning disabilities in general effect the understanding of eligibility, but also research and developments about evaluation procedures and interventions can have an impact.
SLD is the only category under the IDEA that has specific evaluation procedures, beyond the general requirements for special education evaluations, that attach to the determination of eligibility. These specific evaluation procedures will be more thoroughly covered in a subsequent blog post.
IDEA's Definition of SLD Eligibility Under IDEA:
"In general, the term 'specific learning disability' means a disorder in 1 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." 20 U.S.C. section 1401(30).
The team may determine that a child has a specific learning disability IF:
"(1) the child does not achieve adequately for the child's age or to meet State-approved grade-level standards in one or more of the following areas, when provided with learning experiences and instruction appropriate for the child's age or State-approved grade level standards:
(i) oral expression
(ii) listening comprehension
(iii) written expression
(iv) basic reading skill
(v) reading fluency skills
(vi) reading comprehension
(vii) mathematics calculation
(viii) mathematics problem solving
(2) (i) the child does not make sufficient progress to meet age or State-approved grade-level standards in one or more of the areas identified in (1) above when using a process based on the child's response to scientific research-based intervention; or (ii) the child exhibits a pattern of strengths and weaknesses in performance, achievement, or both, relative to age, State-approved grade level standards, or intellectual development, that is determined by the group to be relevant to the identification of a specific learning disability, using appropriate assessments... and
(3) the group determines that its findings are not primarily the result of
(i) a visual, hearing, or motor disability
(ii) mental retardation
(iii) emotional disturbance
(iv) cultural factors
(v) environmental or economic disadvantage; or
(vi) limited English proficiency"
34 C.F.R. section 300.309
Thus, to simplify this, under the IDEA's definition, the determination is going to be based on whether the child is not making adequate or sufficient progress relative to his/her age and to grade level standards, in one of the specified skill areas, even given appropriate learning experiences and instruction or given research-based interventions.
Role of State Laws and Regulations:
Each state individually sets forth guidelines that further explain the process for determining eligibility under the category of SLD. The IDEA states that "a state must adopt... criteria for determining whether a child has a specific learning disability..." 34 C.F.R. section 300.307(a). States are prohibited from requiring the use of the "severe discrepancy" model, must allow the use of a response to intervention model, and may allow the use of other research-based procedures. 34 C.F.R. section 300.307(a). The individual school districts are required to use the criteria adopted by the state.
Prior to the 2004 changes to the IDEA, the "severe discrepancy model" was the primary method utilized to determine eligibility under the category of SLD.
The severe discrepancy model looks at whether there is a severe/significant discrepancy between a child's intellectual ability and that child's achievement in a specified academic area. Whether a discrepancy is "severe" is determined by the standard used in that district / state, and is typically based upon a difference of 1.5 standard deviations.
Child is given a general ability measure or IQ test and his/her overall ability / full scale IQ is found to be a 100.
Child is also given a standardized measure of academic achievement, and cluster scores in areas related to reading are found to be broad reading - 80, reading comprehension - 72, basic reading skills - 75.
The difference or discrepancy between ability and achievement in the area of broad reading would be 20 points, in the area of reading comprehension would be 28 points, and in the area of basic reading would be 25 points. On standardized measure wherein 100 is the mean, two and a half standard deviations is 22.5 points, so this child has a "severe discrepancy" in reading comprehension and basic reading skills.
Although states can no longer require the use of a severe discrepancy model, they can still adopt this model, and define it, as one option for school districts to utilize. Therefore, in some areas, the discrepancy model is still widely used.
It is important to note that the discrepancy model relies upon a comparison of the child's achievement academically to his/her own ability level, rather than merely to grade- or age- level expectations. However, even if a state allows for use of the discrepancy model, the state's procedures must be consistent with the definition of an SLD under the IDEA, see above. Under that definition, it is necessary to look at whether the child is achieving adequately / sufficiently to meet age or grade-level standards, not necessarily to meet expectations based upon their own IQ.
Response to Intervention Model:
Response to Intervention (RTI) is still a relatively new model in terms of special education eligibility. The idea behind RTI, though, is based in the finding that students who are provided with appropriate, research-based instructions should learn to read, write, do math, etc. This is similar to the idea behind the requirements of No Child Left Behind that students be provide with research based instructions. Basically, the IDEA's recognition of RTI as an appropriate process to take into consideration when making an eligibility determination is a recognition that there should be a determination that the child has learning difficulties even though he/she has been provided with research-based interventions within the general education setting before he/she is determined to have a disability.
The main components of an RTI program include (1) provision of scientific, research-based instruction and interventions within the general education program; (2) monitoring progress with specific measurement tools that are scientifically based; (3) adjustments to interventions and instruction provided based on the measurement of student progress.
RTI can take into consideration instructional curriculum that is already being used in the classroom, without the need for addition instruction / intervention prior to an eligibility determination. For example, if the District-wide curriculum for reading is a "research-based program," that has built-in periodic progress measurements, the consideration of RTI may look at the student's progress within that instructional program.
The District is not permitted to halt or delay the assessment timelines due to the utilization of the RTI model, as will be discussed more thoroughly in a subsequent blog post.
Stay tuned for Part 2 on this topic, which will cover Consideration of Other Factors, Specific Diagnoses vs. Eligibility, and Issues related to Highly Intelligent Students with SLD.