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by Pat Lillie, LDA President

Throughout the year, LDA receives many questions and one of the most frequently asked is this one:

My child is academically struggling in school and has been determined by a private psychologist to have a learning disability in reading, math and written language. When I took the psychologist’s report to the school, they put him into a general education, pre-referral-to-special-education process called Response to Intervention (RTI).  The school held a meeting to which I was invited and I was told my son didn’t meet the criteria to be identified as having a learning disability and therefore, was not eligible for special education services.  I’m confused.  The private psychologist said my son has a learning disability and is in need of special education and an Individualized Education Program (IEP), but the school system says he does not have a learning disability.  Meanwhile my son continues to struggle in reading, written language and math as I struggle to help him keep up in school; however, I see him continuing to lose ground. On top of that, every day he resists going to school.  What should I do?

As a parent and grandparent of children with learning disabilities (LD), I’ll be very forthright and tell you that across our country, the system of evaluation, identification and determination for eligibility for special education services is in a massive state of disarray.  Whether or not your child is identified as having a learning disability and then determined to be eligible for special education services, depends on the policies of the state and school district in which you live and frequently on the administrators of the school which your child attends.

Regrettably, there is no set nationwide gold standard on how to evaluate a learning disability, or after the evaluation, how to determine if that child has a learning disability, or is eligible for services.  In one state, policies might allow your child to be determined to have a learning disability and receive services; in another state, the policies might deny the child identification and special education services.  The same holds true for school districts or school buildings since the decision is made by a team, guided by state and district policies.

When it comes to RTI, each state and each school district has a different way of carrying out Response to Intervention.  Data collected from an RTI process, called Progress Monitoring, plus homework samples, test scores, teacher input, parent input and information from a cognitive assessment carried out by a school psychologist or private psychologist, should all be considered as important material for the Comprehensive Evaluation.  All these factors play a large part in helping to decide if a child will be identified as having a Specific Learning Disability and then be determined to be eligible to receive special education services.

NOTE: One might think that every child in grades K through 12, identified as having a learning disability, has an Individualized Educational Program (IEP) or a 504 Plan; unfortunately, that is not true.  A child may very well have a learning disability, but not qualify for special education. There are many children in this country who have LD but because of state or local policies, are not considered eligible for special education services.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) states that school systems may or may not use RTI and also declares a state or school system may or may not use a Severe Discrepancy model (a term attached to a cognitive assessment).  IDEA also says to be eligible to be identified as having a specific learning disability, the child should be academically achieving below age and grade level (meaning academically achieving below other children in their classroom or grade).  If your child is in a high achieving school or if your child is in a low achieving school, that can make a difference as to whether a child is identified or not.

Each state has set a standard that a child must meet if they are going to be identified as having a learning disability.  In one state a child must be achieving below the 16th percentile to be identified as having a learning disability, in another state the child must be below the 33rd percentile. Confusing and mind boggling? Yes, it certainly is!

I’m assuming that your private psychologist listened to your child and listened as you described your child’s struggles in school; looked at samples of homework, class tests and scores on state end-of-year tests, then gave your child a cognitive assessment.  The sub test scores on the cognitive assessment are designed to show a person’s cognitive strengths and weaknesses.  If the sub test scores showed definitive highs and lows or strengths and weaknesses, and if the strengths and weaknesses lined up with areas where the child was struggling academically, that can give considerable evidence that the child has a specific learning disability.

Information from a cognitive assessment can be an “ah-ha” moment for a parent or a teacher; indicating that a child is not being lazy, or not trying hard enough, or purposely failing in a task or subject; rather, they have a cognitive weakness in that area.  I can’t tell you how many parents have felt guilty for thinking the child could perform better if they only tried harder.  Use the information from the cognitive assessment to become a well-informed advocate and to gain support and remediation for the areas of the child’s educational need.  And, use that information to help the child understand, celebrate and build on their areas of strengths.

LDA continues to stand behind the importance of including information from a cognitive assessment as a part of the comprehensive evaluation identification/ eligibility determination process.

Some states now have policies that eliminate the use of a cognitive assessment and declare that Response to Intervention is now the complete comprehensive evaluation process.  LDA absolutely disagrees with using RTI as the complete evaluation process.  In the 2004 Reauthorization of IDEA, RTI was marketed as a general education pre-referral process.  LDA gives support to the statement that RTI is a general education pre-referral process.  LDA supports the use of Progress Monitoring Data as a part of a SLD comprehensive evaluation.

To all parents and advocates who are in the process of obtaining the educational support a child needs in order to learn and progress academically:

  • Keep a file folder holding all of the child’s test results, teachers notes, homework samples, grades, etc.).
  • Be aware of the child’s levels of frustration, in schoolwork and daily activities.
  • Request a cognitive assessment for an understanding of the child’s strengths and weaknesses
  • Build on and celebrate the child’s strengths and try to find ways to accommodate the weak areas.
  • Educate yourself on technology that may be helpful for the child.
  • If the child has been denied special education and an IEP because they are academically not far enough behind their classmates; research the possibilities of a 504 Plan.
  • Explore LDA’s website for more information about learning disabilities, https://ldaamerica.org.

For more information on RTI, LDA is sponsoring a pre-conference symposium, February 20, 2018 on “Results Driven Accountability:  Is RTI Producing the Promised Results?  Has it Changed the Construct of Specific Learning Disabilities?”   The Symposium is featuring nationally recognized experts with differing perspectives.  Register for the Symposium or LDA Conference in Atlanta, Georgia, February 20 thru 24, 2018, at https://ldaamerica.org/events/annual-conference.

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