Figures and Tables
Several authoritative groups have issued recommendations to change the ability-achievement discrepancy method of determining SLD eligibility including the President's Commission on Excellence in Special Education ("A New Era," 2002) and the National Academy of Sciences Panel on Minority Representation in Gifted and Special Education (Donovan & Cross, 2002). The recommendations of two additional authoritative groups directly involved with SLD are reviewed in more detail below.
LD Roundtable. The LD Roundtable, the successor to the National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities (NJCLD), composed of 10 national organizations and representing 350,000 parents and professionals involved with SLD, explicitly rejected the use of the ability-achievement discrepancy as part of SLD classification criteria in their recommendations for the 2003 reauthorization of IDEA. The Roundtable suggestions for criteria to replace the ability-achievement discrepancy were general and vague; however, they emphasized, "Identification must be documented by systematic assessments and reporting, appropriate regular education interventions, high quality instruction, administrative and other support services for all professionals." (LD Roundtable, 2002, p. 8).
The LD Roundtable participants did not recommend changes in the IDEA definition of SLD, although the NJCLD formulated an SLD definition in 1988 that did not mention psychological process disorders (Hammill, 1990). It is likely that this was not a mere oversight, but more likely a conscious effort to focus on the most pressing issues, elimination of the ability-achievement discrepancy and development of a reasonable set of alternative procedures.
LD Summit Follow-Up. The OSEP established an SLD Summit in August 2001 to bring together the research community regarding the state of knowledge on identification, including definition and classification criteria, and recommendations for improved practices (Bradley, Danielson, & Hallahan, 2002). The format was 9 major papers with 3 to 5 commentaries on each. The Summit was followed-up by a smaller group of scholars, primarily the authors of the major papers, to formulate a set of recommendations based on the current state of knowledge. The 8 consensus statements including one with a minority opinion appear in Table 1.
Further commentary and discussion appeared in Bradley et al. (2002) regarding each of the conclusions. Discussion here will focus only on issues directly related to definition and classification criteria. The Summit follow-up group clearly confirmed a commitment to the SLD diagnostic construct in the first conclusion, however, the processing disorder feature of the current Federal definition was largely rejected in the 6th conclusion. Tying together these conclusions reveals that the researchers see SLD as a disorder of cognition and learning, intrinsic to the individual, and unexplained by other plausible causes. The researchers do not, however, see value in either the measurement of psychological process disorders or in using this information to design academic interventions.
The most contentious issue was the ability-achievement discrepancy classification yielding majority and minority reports. The actual vote for each of the views was not reported. The majority view clearly rejected the ability-achievement discrepancy and further suggested that the use of a comprehensive intellectual assessment battery was not necessary. The implementation of exclusion factors including screening out MR was also endorsed in the majority view. From this combination of features, it is likely that the majority view is not an endorsement of a non-categorical approach of the kind advocated in other sources (e.g., Donovan & Cross, 2002) or implemented in a few states (Reschly, Tilly, & Grimes, 1999). This group endorsed the continued existence of SLD as a separate category of educational disability.
Arguably the most important conclusion of the Summit consensus group had to do with alternatives to the current ability-achievement requirement. In the 7th conclusion a response to treatment approach to eligibility determination was endorsed that has the potential to prevent reading disorders, improve early identification-early intervention, improve the quality of interventions, and implement progress monitoring to determine if interventions are working and to improve interventions in general and special education when initial goals are not achieved. The commentary on response to intervention and problem solving quite appropriately suggested careful evaluation of these approaches and comparisons to traditional methods to identify students with SLD.
Table 1. Consensus Conclusions: LD Summit Follow-Up (Bradley et al., 2002)*
* See Bradley et. al., 2002, pp 791-806.
1. Concept of LD
Strong converging evidence supports the validity of the concept of specific learning disabilities (SLD). This evidence is particularly impressive because it converges across different indicators and methodologies. The central concept of SLD involves disorders of learning and cognition that are intrinsic to the individual. SLD are specific in the sense that these disorders each significantly affect a relatively narrow range of academic and performance outcomes. SLD may occur in combination with other disabling conditions, but they are not due primarily to other conditions, such as mental retardation, behavioral disturbance, lack of opportunities to learn, or primary sensory deficits.
2. The Responsibility of Special Education to Children with SLD
Students with SLD require special education. As defined in IDEA, the term "special education" means specially designed instruction, at no cost to the parents, to meet the unique needs of a child with disability (§300.26).
3. Lifelong Disorder
SLD are frequently experienced across the life span with manifestations varying as a function of developmental stage and environmental demands.
4. Prevalence Rates
It is difficult to know the true prevalence rate of SLD. However, based on reading research, conducted largely in the elementary grades, we know that: a) High-quality classroom instruction is a way to meet many of the educational needs of individuals with learning difficulties, and b) Supplemental intensive small-group instruction can reduce the prevalence of learning difficulties. Even with the above interventions, approximately 6 percent of students may exhibit SLD and will need special education intervention.
Prevalence rates for students with SLD involving math and written expression are difficult to estimate given the current lack of research evidence.
5. Achievement Discrepancy
Majority: IQ/achievement discrepancy is neither necessary nor sufficient for identifying individuals with SLD. IQ tests do not need to be given in most evaluations of children with SLD.
There should be some evidence that an individual with SLD is performing outside the ranges associated with mental retardation, either by performance on achievement tests or by performance on a screening measure of intellectual aptitude or adaptive behavior.
Minority: Aptitude/achievement discrepancy is an appropriate marker of SLD, but is not sufficient to document the presence or absence of underachievement, which is a critical aspect of the concept of SLD.
6. Processing Deficit
Although processing difficulties have been linked to some SLD (e.g., phonological processing and reading), direct links with other processes have not been established. Currently available methods for measuring many processing difficulties are inadequate. Therefore, systematically measuring processing difficulties and their link to treatment is not yet feasible.
7. Response to Intervention
There should be alternative ways to identify individuals with SLD in addition to achievement testing, history, and observations of the child. Response to quality intervention is the most promising method of alternative identification and can both promote effective practices in schools and help to close the gap between identification and treatment. Any effort to scale up response to intervention should be based on problem-solving models that use progress monitoring to gauge the intensity of intervention in relation to the student's response to intervention. Problem-solving models have been shown to be effective in public school settings and in research.
8. Effective Intervention for Students with SLD
There is strong evidence that there are interventions that are effective for many individuals with SLD when implemented with consistency, appropriate intensity, and fidelity.
Despite this knowledge, there are interventions for individuals with SLD that are demonstrably ineffective but are still being used.
The consensus group chose not to deal with the processing based SLD definition in IDEA. A major component of the current definition, processing disorder, was largely dismissed, but no formal discussion or suggestions for a revised SLD definition appeared in the report of the researchers' discussions. It is tempting to ask, if no clear measure or understanding of processing factors exists, then why continue with a definition that emphasizes processing factors? The answer may be very pragmatic.
Ability-achievement discrepancy has fallen on hard times regarding the official views of national professional associations and most SLD researchers. It remains as the most common, though not universal, method of SLD identification in the states. In the next section state SLD definitions and classification criteria are discussed.