Brought to you by Learning Disabilities Worldwide (LDW®) through the generosity of Saint Joseph's University
When a student begins to struggle with the academics presented at school, often in the early elementary grades, teachers and parents alike typically suspect that there may be an underlying learning problem. Although teachers have some degree of experience with students who have Learning Disabilities (LD), classroom interactions are not the sole determining factor in a child's classification or diagnosis of LD. Current federal guidelines call for schools to employ a Response to Intervention (RTI) approach, usually structured as a three-tired instructional model (See LDW website, Educator tab, The RTI Series for a complete discussion). Utilizing this model, teachers monitor the progress of all students in the English language arts and math curriculum in an effort to determine if the student's learning rate is progressing adequately when utilizing the general mode of classroom instruction. Under RTI, if students are recognized as struggling or failing to make progress, changes are made to the child's instructional method, intensity, or group size. After the child's instructional methodology is altered, he or she is progress monitored in an attempt to determine if the student's learning progress has improved with the change in instruction.
If the student's academic situation does not improve after attempts to remediate the learning problems through the classroom based RTI process, the student should be referred for a special education evaluation. This is sometimes referred to as Tier 3 in the RTI model as the child would have passed through Tier 1 and 2 prior to being referred for a special education evaluation. Although the thought of special education may fill some parents with dread, a good comprehensive evaluation can mean the difference between a child's success in the school setting, or ongoing frustration with school.
Help through IDEA
Federal legislation first enacted in 1975, renamed and reauthorized in 1990 as the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA), mandated that school districts provide a free, standardized evaluation to students for the purpose of determining special education eligibility. Under this federal law, students and their families have legal protections that guarantee their rights under the law, such as maintaining the confidentiality of the student's and family's private information, and having evaluations conducted in the student's native language, among other basic rights. IDEA (IDEA, 2006) is such an important piece of federal legislation that it has continued to be reauthorized by the federal government every few years. The latest reauthorization was passed in 2004 in an attempt to bring No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation and IDEA guidelines closer together. Although education law is not perfect, the overarching goal of both IDEA and NCLB (No Child Left Behind, 2012) is to provide the student with a free and appropriate public education (FERPA, 2011) as guaranteed by federal law.
What is a Special Education Evaluation?
In order to facilitate a special education evaluation, parents must provide their written and informed consent. That is, schools and school personnel are not allowed to evaluate a student for special education services without the written consent of the parent or legal guardian. Consent is a tricky concept as in order to give informed consent the parent must understand what the purpose of the evaluation is and how the school will go about collecting the necessary information. In this regard, it is important to convey to the family that special education is not a place, but a continuum of services and accommodations afforded to the student in order to best support his or her learning needs. Once a family trusts that the school has the student's best interests in mind, then families are more able to relax and understand that the evaluation process is like detective work, gathering clues about the student's academic strengths and weaknesses in order to build an individualized learning profile.
Many different types of work samples, interviews, observations and standardized tests go into a special education evaluation. The information collected is the hard data that is utilized in order to make educational decisions that are appropriate for the student. Almost all comprehensive evaluations will include standardized measures of intelligence, general academic achievement, reading ability and executive functioning. Each of these standardized tests serves a purpose in the comprehensive evaluation, providing information about how a child learns, what they have learned in the school setting thus far and what kind of services are needed to adequately support the student's education.
Intelligence Tests. The purpose of many of the intelligence tests employed in school settings is to measure the innate ability, sometimes thought of as potential, of the student. The typical student with LD performs within the average range on intelligence tests although there may be some indication of where the student is strong and where they are weak. One of the tests utilized for this purpose is the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children (WISC) (The Psychological Corporation, 2001), which measures innate intelligence in four indices – verbal, working memory, perceptual reasoning and processing speed. How a student performs on this test can provide information about how to best support him or her in the school setting. For example, this instrument can provide information as to how quickly a student processes information relative to other individuals his or her age. If it is found that the student processes information at a slower pace, then the student can be granted extra time for their school work or on tests.
Tests of General Academic Achievement. These instruments sample a student's basic learning in many of the areas that are taught in school – reading, writing, spelling and math. These tests have all been developed with the understanding that students of a given age have been provided instruction in the basic skills associated with that age and grade level. However, being provided with instruction and having learned and mastered a concept are two different things. Students with LD who may have performed well on an intelligence test, may do poorly in one or more areas of an achievement test, demonstrating that he or she did not profit from the instruction provided in school. Thus the purpose of achievement tests is to measure how well a student learned what they should have been taught in school; some students may be advanced, others at an appropriate achievement level and still others may be weak, all dependent on the academic area measured. Typical batteries of achievement utilized in schools include the Wechsler Individual Achievement Test (WIAT) (Wechsler, 2005) and the Woodcock Johnson Tests of Achievement (Woodcock, McGrew, & Schenk, 2007). Both of these instruments can provide information about where a student's academic strengths and weaknesses are. For example, is the student performing adequately on math calculations but not on math word problems; is the student struggling with reading comprehension but doing fine with the decoding of words (phonics)? The examination of the profile of strengths and weaknesses of academic skills can help to shed light on whether the student has a learning disability and in what area.
Reading Tests. Although a general achievement test will usually identify if a student is struggling with reading, a further examination of the collection of skills that go into reading will help target instruction to provide the student with strategies to compensate for the specific area of reading difficulty. As the majority of students identified with LD have documented reading disabilities, a thorough evaluation of reading is warranted. Additionally it is important to examine what type of difficulty the student is having with reading so that instruction and services can target the specific area of difficulty. Students can present with reading difficulty in one or more areas of reading including - rate of reading (how fast or slow they read, either orally or silently, fluidly or with awkward starts and stops), decoding (phonetic understanding and application to sounding out words), and comprehension (does the student understand what they read). A skilled reader is able to integrate all of these tasks in a seamless manner. One instrument that is used in the school setting to evaluate these skills is the Gray battery of tests: Gray Oral Reading Test (GORT) and the Gray Silent Reading Test (GRST).
Tests of Executive Function. Although a neuropsychological evaluation has always included an examination of the executive functioning skills of the student, school systems have only recently begun to understand the importance of examining this constellation of skills. Executive functioning is a collection of abilities that allow a student to pay attention, inhibit impulsive responding, hold information in their mind, switch back and forth between ideas, and retrieve stored information. (For a fuller discussion of Executive Functioning see Strategies..., Vol.5 Number 3, Benhar). The ability to actively participate and monitor the execution of these skills is often referred to as self-regulation. Although students with LD may have weaknesses in one or more of these areas, identifying what the weakness is can help to establish individualized intervention supports. One tool used to examine these skills is A Developmental Neuropsychological Assessment, otherwise known as the NEPSY (Korkman, Kirk, & Kemp, 2007). The goal of the collection of tests known as the NEPSY is to assess basic and complex aspects of cognition that are not measured by intelligence and achievement tests but are critical to a student's ability to learn. As educational researchers have learned more about the brain and how students learn, the skill set known as executive functions have become an important area to evaluate and remediate. As with all skills, executive skills can be taught, reinforced and learned through the successful implementation of strategies.
Making the Evaluation Work for the Student
When the comprehensive evaluation is complete, parents and teachers should have a good understanding of the student's learning profile, complete with documented strengths and weaknesses. This individualized learning profile is transferred to the students Individualized Education Plan (IEP) if the results of the comprehensive evaluation determine that special education services are warranted. Within the IEP the student's annual goals, short-term objectives, classroom and testing accommodations, and service supports are developed and documented because the result of the evaluation determined that these supports were necessary for the support of the student's learning. The powerful combination of RTI and a comprehensive special education evaluation are designed to support the unique learning needs of students with LD. If parents, teachers, students and the school all work together, the process can be accomplished with all participants needs successfully met.
FERPA General Guidance for Parents, U.S. Department of Education, (2011).
IDEA Parent Guide, National Center for Learning Disabilities, 2006).
Korkman, M., Kirk, U., & Kemp, S.L. (2007). NEPSY II. Clinical and
interpretative manual. San Antonio, TX: Psychological Corporation.
No Child Left Behind. Ed Week. (2012, March).
The Psychological Corporation. (2001). Wechsler individual achievement test—
second edition. San Antonio, TX: Author.
Wechsler, D. (2005). Wechsler Individual Achievement Test 2nd Edition (WIAT II).
London: The Psychological Corp.
Woodcock, R., McGrew, K., & Schenk, F. (2007). Woodcock–Johnson III Normative
Update Technical Manual. Itasca: Riverside.
Micheline Malow, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor in the Department of Special Education at Manhattanville College located in Purchase, New York. Dr. Malow teaches courses in Foundations of Special Education and Child Development. She has presented at numerous professional conferences and published articles on risk taking behavior and students with disabilities. She has co-authored a book with Greenwood Press, Adolescents and Risk. Dr. Malow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.