Assessment of Learning Disabilities: It’s Not What You Think

By Marysa Enis and Maria Gregory

What Is the Best Method for Assessment of LD? Not Everyone Agrees.

There are debates brewing about how to assess for learning disabilities, and unless you are a school psychologist or private clinician, you probably don’t know about them. The debates aren’t just about which tests to use or when to use them. Well-informed and experienced clinicians don’t always agree on how to use them … or whether to use them at all.

These debates may be fun to have in graduate school where discussions revolve around history and theory and statistics. But the reality of special education assessment is a far cry from theory, and the minute school psychologists enter the public school system, theory makes way for law.

As it stands, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires states to adopt criteria for the identification of specific learning disabilities (SLD). What you may not realize, however, is that within these IDEA regulations, there is still plenty of room for debate.

To summarize the legalese, IDEA basically allows (not to be confused with requires) assessment teams to choose among three methods for the identification of specific learning disabilities (SLDs). These are commonly referred to as:

Each state has their own take on these regulations (click here to see California’s), and within that, each district (usually) has their own. Since assessment of learning disabilities is still very much a soft-science, the end result is that there are several methods (and methods within methods) being used to identify SLD.

Understandably, this lack of one-size-fits-all methodology can be overwhelming and confusing for those just entering the field, especially when they hear different “rules” from different people.

Debate Aside, These Practices are Best Practices

Regardless of which model a district uses, there are non-negotiable components of any best practice assessment. Districts can help by offering pre-referral interventions and data to show how a student performs. In the absence of this data, it can be very hard for school psychologists to adequately address the exclusionary factors in federal law (these state that the SLD can not be the primary result of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage).

With a few exceptions, professional organizations and legal counsel favor a pattern of strengths and weaknesses (PSW) approach, citing it as more accurate, ethical, and legally defensible than the others. While this approach is not immune to criticism (with some arguing that it leaves too much room for subjectivity and others arguing that it doesn’t leave enough), it is by far the recommended choice.

In this position paper, the California Association of School Psychologists (CASP) advocates for eliminating the ability/achievement discrepancy method altogether. California districts interested in moving away from the discrepancy model may wish to check out the Ventura County SELPA PSW procedural manual.

Key Components of Best Practice Assessment

  1. Thorough attempt to understand a child’s sociological, cultural, and environmental history.

    Tip: Ask parents to compare their child’s learning and behavior with others in the family. Is their development faster? Slower? The same? Did any other family members (including aunts, uncles, and grandparents) have difficulty with school?

  2. Detailed developmental history.

    Tip: Knowing when and how a child met milestones is extremely helpful when identifying patterns and corroborating test results.

  3. Data from multiple sources (including grades, work samples, teacher and parent reports, medical history, observations across multiple settings, and attendance and discipline records).

    Tip: For complicated cases where the data doesn’t quite add up, gather as much of this background as you can find. Add it to a timeline of the child’s sociological history. You might be surprised to find that a pattern emerges where you previously saw none.

  4. Thoughtful consideration of how behavior, personality, and history interact to affect learning.

    Tip: While IQ scores are a great tool for gauging how easy or hard a student is likely to find school, they account for only a fraction of a child’s learning and behavior.

Common Pitfalls that Preclude Best Practice Assessment

  1. Failure to consider and document test limitations, factors that may have affected validity, and breaks from standardized assessment procedures.

    Why: As clinicians, we ask others to trust our judgment. We know that our tests are not foolproof, but sometimes, in the interest of time, we act as though they are. If there was a fire drill during testing, say so. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the scores are invalid, but trusted clinicians explain why they do or do not put credence in their scores.

  2. Automatically concluding that a child does not meet criteria for LD because their IQ score is below average.

    Why: There are many factors other than innate ability that contribute to below-average scores on an IQ test. Before concluding that a child is a “slow-learner,” explore other options. Is the child culturally and linguistically diverse? If so, make sure to choose and interpret test materials that are appropriate (click here to read a previous post, 5 Best Practices for Bilingual Assessment). Are there concerns with social, emotional, or behavioral functioning? Explore those, too. Co-occurring conditions and environmental factors can serve to mask strengths or exacerbate weaknesses.

  3. Automatically concluding that a child does not meet criteria because they have cultural, sociological, or environmental disadvantage.

    Why: Learning disabilities do not discriminate, but rigid assessment procedures can.

  4. Interpreting a single subtest score in the absence of data to support validity/Ignoring statistically significant discrepancies among intra-cluster subtest scores.

    Why: If there is no data to corroborate a score, the score may not be valid. Before interpreting a single score, dig deeper by developing a hypothesis and testing it.

Our Take? There is no Need to Debate: It’s Clinical Judgement that Matters

While districts, parents, and clinicians debate about what is or isn’t the “right way” to assess for learning disabilities, there are children struggling to make it in school. These children don’t care about theory versus law. They just want to feel happy, confident, and capable.

Our take? No matter what method a district chooses for assessment of learning disabilities, school psychologists have the knowledge, expertise, and data needed to help children meet their needs. Sometimes we get lost among the layers of policy versus law, opinion versus research, wish versus need, and request versus right. But in the end, we hope that educators, parents, and clinicians remember that clinical judgement is the glue that holds these layers together.

Does your district have assessment needs? Psyched Services can help! In addition to offering comprehensive psychoeducational evaluations, we provide staff development, training, and support. Contact us now for a free consultation!


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