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Guide to Identification of Learning Disabilities

1998 New York State Edition

John O. Willis, Ed.D.
Ron Dumont, Ed.D.
Rivier College
Fairleigh Dickinson University



1. ß SLD means a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language . . . You cannot identify a SLD without specifying a disorder and showing how it impairs school work.

2. ß Severity of SLD is not measured by the severity of the weakness in basic process(es). It is measured by the severity of the impact on academic achievement. Real-life academic achievement is often more important than achievement test scores. Careful, diagnostic assessment of achievement is often the core of the evaluation.

3. ß The "exclusions" are not as important as most people think, as long as the disorder in basic process(es) and impact on academic achievement have been documented thoroughly and properly.

4. ß Students may have SLD as a disability secondary to another disability, even intellectual handicap.

5. ß Global intelligence measured by total IQ scores (GCA, MPC, BCA, etc.) is usually not a helpful construct for understanding the cognitive functioning of students with specific learning disabilities. Part 200 Regulations do not define "intellectual ability" even as "intelligence," much less as an "intelligence test score." Cognitive ability factors are usually the most helpful level of analysis.

6. ß Beware of assessing cognitive factors with fewer than three "clean," independent measures.

7. ß The factor structure of a test for persons with certain, specific disabilities may be very different from the factor structure for the norming sample.

8. ß It is almost always better to adopt an appropriate test than to adapt an inappropriate one for a student with a severe disability.

9. ß Parents, teachers, and the students themselves make important contributions to the evaluation, and they must be included in the process. Examiners should elicit genuine referral questions , not just "issues" to be answered by the evaluation. Interviews and questionnaires are essential parts of a complete evaluation.

10. ß To ensure the valuable contributions of parents, teachers, and students, evaluation results must be as clear as possible. Jargon and statistics must be defined very clearly.

11. ß The total evaluation must be integrated, which is not achieved with a staple.

12. ß SLD identification is a professional judgment by a team, not an exercise in arithmetic.

13. ß However, any arithmetic involved should be accurate.

14. ß Tests and scores are not interchangeable. A student's age- and grade-equivalent scores (which are horrible statistics) will not come out in the same rank order as the student's standard scores. Age-based and grade-based norms differ, and often both must be reported. Discontinuities between fall, winter, and spring norms can be dramatic. The same performance yields very different scores on different tests. The same grade equivalent yields different standard scores on different tests.

15. ß Reading tests use an extraordinary number of means of assessing reading. They are not interchangeable. Often, several reading tests must be used for a complete picture. Reading fluency and study skills are important.

16. ß Math tests almost always require limits-testing. Correct test scores, including "math-fact" errors and misreading of operations signs, must not be confused with the reality of the student's math skills.

17. ß Writing must be assessed carefully. The best formal written expression tests have many flaws. Writing samples may be needed in addition to tests.

18. ß Achievement testing should include detailed descriptions of actual skills, gaps, and weaknesses. It is useless simply to print a table of test scores and describe the scores in words.

19. ß Tests that combine separate skills in single scores (e.g., reading decoding and reading comprehension or math calculation and math applications) are as useful as a second handle on a snow shovel.

20. ß Discrepancy formulae are statistical nightmares. The Part 200 Regulations do not state that a "50% discrepancy" (whatever that may be) is the only way to identify a SLD. Legal precedent indicates that the absence of a "50% discrepancy" cannot be used to exclude children from SLD classification.

21. ß Norms are much more important than most people think. Norms are worse than most people think. Validity and reliability matter. Validity for specific purposes and reliability over realistic spans of time are rarely documented.

22. ß Diagnoses are not political or economic decisions.

23. ß Relative and transient weaknesses must be taken seriously.

24. ß Examiners must use the best instruments available. Inadequate tests should be used only when they are absolutely necessary and the best existing for the purpose.

25. ß All disabilities, including SLD, can be seen as mismatches between learning style and instruction. Changes in circumstances can alter the need for special education.

26. ß Evaluation processes that always or never recommend highly restrictive placements are equally suspect.

27. ß Fads in diagnosis and treatment must be avoided.

28. ß Evaluations must be a careful, thoughtful, thorough process, whether initial or re-evaluations

29. ß Concrete recommendations, individually planned for the student, are an important goal of the evaluation. Stock, boilerplate recommendations are not much help. A useful evaluation with recommendations does not cost much more than a useless one without recommendations.

30. ß Computers don't write reports. People do.

31. ß Evaluations should be individual and humanistic, consider multiple intelligences, reflect reality beyond test scores, and accept the possibility of improvement in areas of weakness as well as potential stability of individual patterns of strengths and weaknesses.

32. ß There is often a huge gap between the science of SLD identification and the social policy involved with the identification of SLD.

33. ß Best practice and educational law are often in conflict.

34. ß There is often a distinct difference between an evaluation for classification and an evaluation for diagnosis of educational difficulties.