SLD Evaluation: Linking Cognitive Assessment Data to Learning Strategies

Young student having difficulty in classroomThe Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA)  2004,  and subsequent regulations published August 2006 have significantly changed the way students suspected of having specific learning disabilities (SLD) are identified and found eligible for special education.

According to the 2006 IDEA regulations (§300.307) concerning SLD, each state must adopt criteria for determining whether a child has a specific learning disability as defined by §300.8 (c)(10) that:

  1. must not require the use of severe discrepancy between intellectual ability and achievement for determining whether a child has a specific learning disability as defined in §300.8 (c)(10);
  2. must permit the use of a process based on the child’s response to scientific, research-based intervention; and
  3. may permit the use of other alternative research-based procedures for determining whether a child has a specific learning disability as defined in §300.8 (c)(10); (IDEA, 20 U.S.C. §1414 (b)(6)(A).

Local education agencies (LEAs) must use criteria set forth by their respective State Education Agencies (SEAs). While the federal government provides guidelines for state educational agencies to follow, individual states are charged with the responsibility of setting the criteria to be used by local education agencies. A recent study (Schultz & Stephens, 2008) conducted to identify the criteria of SLD identification used by each of the fifty states indicate many states allow the option of other alternative research-based procedures along with severe discrepancy and a process based on RTI. The present article will describe one of these alternative based assessment procedures, specifically the processing deficit approaches, and how it may assist educators in linking specific strategies to address the unique needs of a student with SLD.

Cognitive Processing Deficit Approaches

Several states allow assessment personnel to use a “research-based alternative eligibility method” when determining SLD eligibility. Of the fifty states, twenty-one (N = 21) allow for the use of an alternative method of eligibility, generally by determining if a student exhibits a pattern of strengths and weaknesses and/or examining specific areas of cognitive processes that interfere with learning.

SLD identification based on processing deficits approaches has primarily focused on operationalizing the federal definition of SLD and the processes linked to reading. According to Ahearn (2003), there is some agreement among professionals involved in SLD identification that certain psychological processing problems are involved in SLD, such as limitations in working memory capacity, phonological processing deficits, and auditory perception. Identifying SLD by examining processing deficits has also given meaning to the most salient component of the federal definition of SLDâ€-a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes (Fiorello, Hale, & Snyder, 2006; Flanagan , Ortiz, Alfonso, & Dynda, A.M., 2006; Kavale, Holdnack,& Mostert, 2005). Perhaps most important inherent in this type of approach is being able to use the data from cognitive assessment to link to specific strategies (Fiorello, Hale, & Snyder, 2006).

In a processing deficit approach, a comprehensive SLD evaluation would include measurement of specific psychological processes that interfere with a student’s ability to perform academically (Flanagan et al., 2006; Kavale et al., 2005). In addition to a thorough examination of exclusionary factors and measures of achievement, this approach measures psychological processes in order to establish logical and empirical links between the psychological process and academic area of concern (Fiorello & Primerano, 2005; Flanagan et al., 2006). For example, deficits in fluid intelligence (Gf) and the links between math achievement have been cited both logically and empirically (Floyd, Evans, & McGrew, 2003) as well as auditory processing (Ga) and reading achievement (Anthony & Francis, 2005; Evans, Floyd, McGrew & Leforgee, 2001; Fiorello et al., 2006; Volker, Lopata, & Cook-Cottone, 2006).

A practical example is illustrated in the Indiana and Texas state regulations regarding SLD identification. Indiana’s Special Education rules (2008) described SLD as neurological in origin and allow intellectual development that is determined by the group to be relevant to the identification of a specific learning disability to be used as evidence to support SLD determination. Specific cognitive processes that are linked to specific academic skills are assessed. For example, nonverbal problem solving, working and long-term memory, processing speed, and attention are assessed when a student has difficulty in math. In a similar fashion, the commissioner’s rules concerning special education in Texas (2008) permits examining a pattern of strengths and weaknesses and examining specific areas of cognitive processing and linking them to areas of achievement as a method of SLD identification.

In addition to not achieving adequately on age or grade level achievement standards, a student may have SLD if he or she:
(II) exhibits a pattern of strengths and weaknesses in performance, achievement, or both relative to age, grade-level standards, or intellectual ability, as indicated by significant variance among specific areas of cognitive function, such as working memory and verbal comprehension, or between specific areas of cognitive function and academic achievement (p.4).

Linking Assessment Data to Intervention

Common criticisms of using severe discrepancy models to identify SLD has been that discrepancy formulas do not inform instruction (Gresham, 2001, Kavale, 2005) and it does not contribute to an understanding of the SLD of a student (Meyer, 2000). Advantages of using cognitive processing deficit approaches to identify students with SLD has been to help practitioners develop targeted interventions based on the students unique needs (Fiorello, Hale, & Snyder, 2006) and to inform further intervention planning when a student fails to respond to RTI efforts prior to referral (Flanagan, Ortiz, Alfonzo, & Dynda, 2006).

The remainder of this article will focus on linking interventions to cognitive assessment data. While several theoretical intelligence models can be used to address cognitive processes, this article will use the Cattell-Horn-Carroll (CHC) theory of intelligence due to the wide range of cognitive abilities described and the significant impact of CHC on test development and revisions (Flanagan, Ortiz, and Alfonzo, 2007). Seven broad basic psychological processes will be briefly described that are commonly measured and examples of interventions and strategies that may be appropriate to use to address deficiencies in these areas.

Cognitive Processes and Interventions/Strategies

Cognitive Process Children with processing deficits may benefit from:
Fluid Intelligence: Refers to mental operations that a person uses when presented with a relatively novel task that cannot be performed automatically. Includes concept formation, problem solving, reorganizing and transforming Step-by-step instructions, problem solving strategies, sequencing skills development, explicit and systematic teaching, categorization skills, and graphic organizers.
Crystallized Intelligence: Refers to the breadth and depth of a person’s general fund of knowledge. These knowledge stores are acquired through formal school experiences and general life experience. These stores are primarily language based and include both declarative and procedural knowledge. Relating new information to prior knowledge, vocabulary strategies and instruction, rich learning experiences (e.g., museums, field trips, and virtual field trips), scaffolded instruction, and incorporating student interests in learning.
Short-Term Memory: Refers to the ability to apprehend and hold information in immediate awareness and then use it within a few seconds (p. 29). Short, simple instructions, overlearning, repetition, review, and memory strategies (eg., chunking, mnemonics, verbal rehearsal)
Visual Processing: Refers to the ability to think with visual patterns and stimuli. Includes the ability to rotate, reverse, and manipulate spatial configurations, and spatial orientation. Manipulatives, note taking assistance, graph paper, verbal descriptions of visual stimuli, assist with visual discrimination tasks.
Auditory Processing: Refers to the ability to notice, compare, discriminate, and distinguish distinct and separate sounds. Provide phonological awareness activities (e.g., rhyming, alliteration, songs, imitations), explicit and systematic phonics instructions, and visual aids.
Long-term Storage and Retrieval: Refers to the ability of storing new or previously acquired information and then fluently retrieving that information. Overlearning, repetition, mnemonic instruction, graphic organizers, cues, additional practice and time.
Processing Speed: Refers to the ability to fluently and automatically perform cognitive tasks (mental quickness). Proving additional time, focus on quality and accuracy, note taking assistance, fluency building (e.g., practicing to reduce cognitive demands, flashcards)

(Cognitive Processes adapted from Flanagan, Ortiz, Alfonzo, & Mascolo, 2006, p. 25-30; Interventions/Strategies adapted from Mather and Jaffe, 2002)


While the debate on the best method to identify students with SLD will continue, linking intervention and strategies to data obtained from a cognitive assessment holds significant promise to students with SLD. As the states’ response to 2006 regulations mature, it will be important for policy makers and researchers to continue to improve upon contemporary and emerging practices.

Author: by Edward Schultz, Assistant Professor of Special Education, Midwestern State University, Wichita Falls TX

Ahearn, E.M. (2003). Specific learning disability: Current approaches to identification and proposals for change. Retrieved October 3, 2008 from
Anthony, J.L., & Francis, D.J. (2005). Development of phonological awareness. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 14, 255-259.
Evans, J.J., Floyd, R.G., McGrew, K.S., & Leforgee, M.H. (2001). The relations between measures of Cattell-Horn-Carroll (CHC) Cognitive abilities and reading achievement during achievement during childhood and adolescence. School Psychology Review, 31, 246-262.
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Flanagan, D.P., Ortiz. S.O., & Alfonso,V.C. (2007). Essentials of Cross Battery Assessment, 2nd Ed. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Flanagan, D.P., Ortiz. S.O., Alfonso, V.C., & Dynda, A.M. (2006). Integration of response to intervention and norm-referenced tests in learning disability identification: Learning from the tower of Babel. Psychology in the Schools, 43, 807-825.
Flanagan, D.P., Ortiz. S.O., Alfonso, V.C., & Mascolo, J.T. (2006). The Achievement Test Desk Reference: A Guide to Learning Disability Identification, 2nd Ed. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Floyd, R.G., Evans, J.J., & McGrew, K.S. (2003). Relations between measures of Cattel-Horn-Carroll (CHC) cognitive abilities and mathematics achievement across the school-age years. Psychology in the Schools, 40, 155-171.
Gresham, F. (2001). Responsiveness to intervention: An alternative approach to the identification of learning disabilities [paper]. Learning Disabilities Summit, August 2001. Retrieved April, 10, 2009, from
Indiana State Board of Education (2008). Special education rules title 511 article 7 rules 32-47. Retrieved October 2, 2008 from
Kavale, K.A. (2005). Identifying specific learning disability: Is responsiveness to intervention the answer? Journal of Learning Disabilities, 38, 553-562.
Kavale, K.A., Holdnack, J.A., & Mostert, M.P. (2005). Responsiveness to intervention and the identification of specific learning disability: A critique and alternative proposal. Learning Disability Quarterly, 28-2-16.
Mather, N., & Jaffe, L. (2002). Woodcock-Johnson III: Reports, Recommendations, and Strategies. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Schultz, E., & Stephens, T. (2008). SLD identification: An analysis of state policies 2008-2009. Manuscript submitted for publication. Texas Education Agency (2008). Special education rules and regulations. Retrieved November 5, 2008 from
Volker, M.A., Lopata, C., & Cook-Cottone, C. (2006). Assessment of children with intellectual giftedness and reading disabilities. Psychology in the Schools, 43, 855-869.


  1. Christina says:

    I was tested when I was younger for learning disabuilities and it turns out I have a learning disabulity and I want to get tested again to make sure i know what I have. Where can I get that done for a low price and in the newyork yonkers area?.
    Thank you,

    • Ask your health insurance first, because they may cover it and have a particular group of psychologists to pick from. Otherwise, Google clinical psychologists in your area who conduct assessments and read the reviews.

    • If you’re 21 or under and looking for valid, reliable insight with respect to cognitive strengths and needs we can help through with our web-based learning assessment. It’s low cost, self-administered at home, takes about an hour and highly reliable. The assessment we use spans 4 domains and was normed with over 10,000 children and we connect learning profile to learning strategies and other resources. If you are in need of a medical diagnosis for other reasons, there’s not much choice other than seeing a licensed neuropsychologist. But your’e dilemma is a common one… there are not many valid options available.

  2. Try looking for a new diag. who is looking for the experience to evaluate. They may do it for free. Or maybe a teacher working towards getting her masters to become a diag. During grad school we assess as well but we they tell us to assess only people that we know will not qualify.

  3. Hello,
    I think that my 16 year old son may have a learning disability. I recall that when he was younger, his reading teacher indicated that he was behind two levels, and when I look back at his grades history from elementary to high school, he has been just barely passing. Most recently he asked a few questions I feel someone at his age should already know the answer too, and he does not read leisurely. I’m afraid that he is underdeveloped in certain aspects due to a learning disability including short term memory. I don’t know where to start. I do know that he has a class with a teacher aid ( English) so the school must have some idea

    • Talk to the guidance counselor at school & ask he be tested. There are tests that can be administered to narrow down the problem & get you & him the help needed. The pediatrician is another resource you can discuss this with. I don’t know where you are located but google local resources for children with disabilities. Someone at one of the agencies should be able to give you direction if you can’t get it from the school. Good Luck!!

    • You should definitely be able to get help from the school. While they don’t have an obligation to test your son, they are obligated to determine whether or not he needs to be tested. You should go to your son’s school and request that the Study Student Team (SST) meet to discuss your concerns that he may have a learning disability. Usually, the SST will meet with you and your son’s teachers, and strategies to help him will be discussed and implemented. Sometimes, only one SST is held before the team agrees to refer the student for special education assessment, other times the team may hold multiple meetings in order to try different strategies and see if your son can improve in his academic performance without special education services. Once he’s assessed, an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) meeting will be held and the team will discuss the findings of the assessment with you.

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