According to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act
According to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a specific learning disability is defined as a “disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, that may manifest itself in the imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or to do mathematical calculations, including conditions such as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia. Specific learning disability does not include learning problems that are primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor disabilities, of intellectual disability, of emotional disturbance, or of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage”(Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 2004). In the state of Oklahoma, the rule was adopted that it must not require the use of a severe discrepancy between intellectual ability and academic achievement and that it must allow the use of a process based on the child’s response to systematic, research-based intervention or response to intervention (RTI) (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 2004). The response to intervention (RTI) approach was authorized by the President’s Commission on Excellence in Special Education and by numerous professional organizations and looks as if it may replace current learning disability diagnostic practices (Burns, 2007). The three most common approaches to identifying a student with a learning disability are known as ability-achievement, response to intervention, and pattern of strengths and weaknesses (Maki, Burns, & Sullivan, 2017). This paper will mainly focus on the approaches that are approved by the Oklahoma State Department of Education which includes the use of ability-achievement and response to intervention. Approximately 67% of states allow the use of the traditional discrepancy model and 20% of states prohibit its use. Only 16% of states mandate the use of response to intervention models in learning disability identification (Maki, Floyd, & Roberson, 2015). Approximately 35% of states still have not provided any guidance on how to calculate a severe discrepancy nor do they give assistance to determine the significance of a severe discrepancy (Maki et al., 2015). However, after IDEA added the language that allowed states to use response to intervention, the incident of learning disabilities has progressively decreased (Maki et al., 2015). Therefore, it is important to address the current methods used to identify students with specific learning disabilities and the shortfalls of the use of the discrepancy model.
There are a variety of ways that students can qualify for a specific learning disability (SLD). The prevalence of an SLD varies from state to state due to the various methods that each state chooses to use (Maki, Burns, & Sullivan, 2017). This leads to highly problematic eligibility criteria and identification because of the dependence on the method that is utilized to qualify a student (Schroeder, Drefs & Cormier, 2017). Currently, students with a learning disability represent 40% of the student population that receives special education services (Maki et al., 2017). Therefore, there is a growing number of students that have significant academic needs and supports which raises the question as to how reliable and valid are the processes that we have available now (Maki et al., 2017).
Traditional Discrepancy Model
The traditional discrepancy model is also known as the IQ-achievement discrepancy model (O’Donnell ; Miller, 2011). The use of the discrepancy model has been long viewed as controversial and increasingly criticized (Maki, Floyd, ; Roberson, 2015). This model first proposed to use a 1 standard deviation discrepancy between a student’s IQ and achievement to qualify for a specific learning disability, however, this practice differs from state to state (Maki et al., 2015). Based on IDEA, the vast majority of states (48 out of 50) understood that the use of some variation of the discrepancy model would satisfy SLD qualification (O’Donnell ; Miller, 2011). However, researchers found that the discrepancy model had several different methodologies and fidelity of implementation, diverse criteria for what would be considered a severe enough discrepancy between IQ and achievement, controversy in the use of intelligence tests, subjective decision making (O’Donnell & Miller, 2011), lack of treatment validity and poor reliability (Maki et al., 2015), inconsistent identification decisions (Maki, Burns, & Sullivan, 2017), does not lead to differentiated instruction or successful remediation and tends to overlook students who are actually struggling academically (Dombrowski, Kamphaus, & Reynolds, 2004). The discrepancy model is often called the “wait to fail” approach because students must achieve very little progress over time before a significant discrepancy is found between IQ and achievement (Maki, Floyd, & Roberson, 2015). Along those same lines, the discrepancy model is unable to identify students in early childhood because the students are not old enough to show a discrepancy (Dombrowski et al., 2004). Today, the discrepancy model has been argued to be impractical, irrational, non-theoretical, not empirical, illegal and unethical (Dombrowski et al., 2004). Most importantly, recent research supports the idea to abandon the use of the discrepancy model to identify students with a specific learning disability (Dombrowski et al., 2004).
Response to Intervention
Response to intervention, or RTI, assesses how well a student who is below grade level performs with targeted intervention, so that a school can rule out whether the deficit is due to instruction. In other words, RTI is able to decipher the difference between the learner and the instruction that the learner has or has not adequately received. RTI also looks at a student’s personal and academic performance, but does not factor in the individual’s IQ (Brueggemann, Kamphaus, & Dombrowski, 2008). Within the RTI framework, there are two main types of response to intervention models. The first model is the problem solving approach. In this approach, the interventions are matched to the student needs. The second approach is known as the standard treatment protocol. In this approach, it does not vary from student to student, but it does utilize packaged interventions using fixed procedures for all students (Maki, Floyd, & Roberson, 2015). In all RTI models, students receive early intervention to support academic need (Brueggemann et al., 2008), and provide scientific, research based intervention (O’Donnell ; Miller, 2011). Initially, response to intervention will universally screen all students by using a curriculum based assessment (CBA) to find any academic deficits for their first level, called Tier 1 (O’Donnell & Miller, 2011). CBA’s are defined as an assessment approach that offers valuable data to create instructional plans for the student (Burns, 2007). CBA models often involve observations and collecting data on the student’s performance to make instructional decisions (Dombrowski, Kamphaus, & Reynolds, 2004). CBA also involves the use of baseline data, interventions, and progress monitoring (Dombrowski et al., 2004). Any students who did not meet the standard are qualified to receive as many as two different research-based interventions at the Tier 2 level. The remaining students who did not show adequate progress with their Tier 2 interventions are possibly eligible for further testing and additional supports and services (O’Donnell ; Miller, 2011), and are then typically identified as having a learning disability. This is known as Tier 3. (Maki, Burns, ; Sullivan, 2017). Students in Tier 3, continue to be monitored on their progress toward their specific goal through curriculum based measurements (Brueggemann et al., 2008). Response to intervention (RTI) is now considered by both IDEA and researchers, to be an alternate approach to LD diagnosis, that doesn’t have the same pitfalls as other methods. (Brueggemann et al., 2008). In fact, one of the positive aspects of RTI is that there is a connection between the assessment of skills and the support provided for those skills (O’Donnell ; Miller, 2011). Response to intervention also helps to identify those students who are considered dually discrepant, where the student lacks adequate growth in an intervention and also has poor academic achievement (Brueggemann et al., 2008). RTI has led to improved student outcomes and has reduced the number of students receiving special education services (Maki, Floyd, ; Roberson, 2015). Specifically, when an intervention is provided at the child’s instructional level, it leads to improvement in fluency (Burns, 2007). Despite the fact that IDEA’s requirements for SLD diagnosis include the use of RTI as an option, it did not eliminate the discrepancy model (discrepancy between IQ and achievement) as a choice (O’Donnell & Miller, 2011). The discrepancy model is still most commonly used to qualify students with a learning disability in both Canada and the United States (Schroeder, Drefs & Cormier, 2017). One major weakness with the use of response to intervention, however, is the flexibility to choose between various cut scores, methods, or measures (Schroeder et al., 2017). One of the biggest concerns that educators face today is the idea that we must qualify students for a specific category before providing them with additional help. Our focus should not be on classification and eligibility, but instead we should focus on designing and evaluating interventions to better support any student that needs additional assistance (Miciak, Fletcher, Stuebing, Vaughn, & Tolar, 2013).
Implications for Future Research
Research shows that there is a much higher level of acceptability with school psychologists for the response to intervention model in the use of SLD qualification, versus the use of the discrepancy model (O’Donnell ; Miller, 2011). The survey question that received the most consistent answers was about the connection of the assessment to the support provided, with strongly agree for the RTI model, and strongly disagree for the discrepancy model, indicating that response to intervention had a more effective use of intervention to support academic skills than the discrepancy model (O’Donnell & Miller, 2011). Research also found, that the more that school psychologists learned about the response to intervention model, the more likely they were to find its practices preferable (O’Donnell ; Miller, 2011). More research is needed to dissect the most important measures to use to properly identify students with learning disabilities (Schroeder et al., 2017). Additional research is also needed to determine which RTI approach is the most effective and comprehensive (Burns, 2007).