The answer to that important question was recently addressed in Evaluation and Identification of Learning Disabilities, the latest Core Principle document published by the Learning Disabilities Association of America (LDA).
The following is excerpted from an interview with Monica McHale-Small, PhD, the Co-Chair of the LDA 2018 – 2020 Public Policy Committee, Adjunct Associate Professor at Temple University, and the lead writer about this Core Principle.
LDA: Dr. McHale-Small, in 2010 LDA collaborated on “The Learning Disabilities Association of America’s White Paper on Evaluation, Identification, and Eligibility Criteria for Students with Specific Learning Disabilities.” That paper addresses what needs to be in an evaluation for a specific learning disability, so why did the Board decide to develop a Core Principle on Evaluations and Identification?
MMS: The topic of evaluations and identification is also touched on in other LDA position papers including Response-to-Intervention and the Right to an Evaluation. However, there continues to be confusion among many, including parents, educators and policymakers, on the current best practice for an evaluation for a learning disability and its identification. The Board believed that LDA needed to adopt a paper that clearly and succinctly sets out this best practice.
LDA: The language in the Core Principle might be difficult for some parents and educators to understand. Why was the Core Principle written in this way?
MMS: The purpose of all the Core Principles is to establish a set of standards and guidelines reflecting the positions and philosophies of LDA. In this Core Principle our primary audience is those who can change the laws and policies that impact individuals with learning disabilities, including legislators, regulators, …. It was crucial to use the technical language used in the field so that there is no misunderstanding about the positions stated in the Core Principle.
LDA: So, can I ask you to explain some of the language?
LDA: The Core Principle states, “There is increasing scientific evidence of the genetic basis of Learning Disabilities.” How do genes impact who has a learning disability?
MMS: Learning disabilities are neurobiological which means they are based in the brain. Genes are among the things that influence brain development. What we know is that learning disabilities tend to run in families and this is because genes are passed down from parent to child. That means it is important to get a full family history of learning and attention difficulties when evaluating individuals for learning disabilities.
LDA: My next question is about the section in the Core Principle that I find most difficult to understand.
“In addition to standardized, norm-referenced assessments of cognitive abilities and academic achievement, an evaluation of Learning Disabilities must include data when available from criterion referenced and curriculum-based assessments, progress monitoring data pertaining to the student’s response to evidence-based interventions targeting specific academic deficits, and informal teacher designed assessments.”
What are, “standardized, norm-referenced assessment of cognitive abilities and academic achievement”?
MMS: Standardized means that the tests are given and scored in the same way for all test takers. Norm-referenced means that the performance of the individual is compared to a “norm-group”, a large, nationally representative sample of individuals of the same age. This is a way that we can look at an individual’s performance and see how close it is to what is typical for individuals of that same age. Norm-referenced, standardized tests use standard scores. Typically these scores have a mean or average of 100 and a standard deviation of 15. That means that scores that are considered ‘average’ range from 85 to 115.
Cognitive tests are assessments that look at the abilities that are related to academic performance; things like working memory, verbal skills, reasoning abilities, processing speed, things like that. Achievement tests look at the individuals reading, writing math, listening and speaking skills in comparison to other individuals of the same age.
LDA: So, if I suspect my child or student of having a learning disability, does that mean I should make sure certain cognitive processes are assessed?
MMS: Yes. And you can help the evaluator by describing the things that you notice your child has difficulty with. For example, maybe they consistently mispronounce words, have difficulty with rhyming, or have difficulty remembering multiple step directions. Things like that would give the evaluator important clues about what needs to be looked at more closely.
LDA: The Core Principle states that “identification of a learning disability” should be done by a “qualified professional.” A few are listed in the document, but I don’t see a student’s regular education teacher listed as someone who can make this decision. Is that correct?
MMS: The child’s regular education teacher is an important part of the team. That individual has a wealth of information about how your child functions in the classroom; what things they are good at and what things they struggle with. Classroom teachers can speak to how the child learns relative to their peers but they do not, typically, have the credentials and training to diagnose learning disabilities.
LDA: So, does that mean that if my child is getting good grades or has an average or above-average score on a standardized test like the WIAT, that he may still have learning disability?
MMS: Grades are never the best indicator because a lot of subjective information goes into teacher grades. The example above describes how a technically average score could still be indicative of a learning disability. It is important that all academic skills and subskills in reading, writing, listening, speaking and mathematics are assessed because it is very plausible that a child with a learning disability can score average or above average in some areas but have very deficient skills in other areas.