How Is a Learning Disability Identified?
IDEA requires that two conditions be met to classify a child as Learning Disabled: (1) “the child does not achieve commensurate with his or her age and ability levels…if provided with learning experiences appropriate for the child’s age and ability levels;” and (2) “the team finds that a child has a severe discrepancy between achievement and intellectual ability” in one or more areas of academic skills.
The problem applying these rules involves defining exactly what it means to be below one’s expected level of performance. On the surface, this seems to make a lot of sense. It is assumed that a child would be able to perform at a “normal” or “average” level consistent with his/her ability were it not for the presence of LD. That is, children with LD are performing below their ability, intelligence, or potential. The problem here is that there are many barriers to accurately estimating a child’s potential, and the presence of a learning disability is by itself a very significant barrier. Obtaining an estimate of “intellectual ability” generally involves testing by a school or community psychologist. Although intelligence tests are rigorously constructed and subjected to lots of research before they are published, they have significant limitations. They typically are based on norms of the white middle class and are not always accurate or fair for other children with different life experiences. They often demand a level of language skill—in both understanding and self-expression—that is sometimes part of the constellation of problems exhibited by children with Learning Disabilities.
The danger of underestimating the child’s ability relates to the second condition in IDEA, the notion of a “severe discrepancy” between ability and achievement. Logically, if a child of normal ability is performing well below average for his or her grade level, it makes sense to say this child is underachieving relative to his or her potential, and therefore must have a disability. But what if the intelligence test results are not reliable for that child? What if the disability itself, or some other condition, led to low results on the intelligence test? In that case, the measures of achievement (such as reading and math tests) might be consistent—yielding similar results—with the measures of ability, and therefore no discrepancy exits. This child would then not likely be classified as Learning Disabled and would not be found eligible for special education.
There is still another possibility. It is also possible that testing could result in the identification of a child who really is not disabled, but the victim of poor teaching, poor attendance, poor motivation, etc. If the child scores in the average range or better on the intelligence test, and well below average on tests of achievement, he or she may easily qualify as a child with a Learning Disability, even though the reasons for poor achievement have nothing to do with how the child learns or processes information! While teams are required to consider these “exclusionary” factors, there is little guidance given to school personnel on how to rule out these conditions. Too often and too quickly, children are labeled as having a disability without much effort to provide them with good classroom instruction or to address a problem in attendance or health or self esteem, issues that are frequently to blame in poor achievement.
Due to the problems noted above and the rapid increase in the number of children labeled Learning Disabled each year, as well as research that calls this system of diagnosis into question, Congress has adopted some changes in how Learning Disabilities are identified in schools. In the next section, we’ll look at some of these changes and how they might impact children with achievement problems.
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