Learning Disability Identification

LD diagnosis is not easy: “Because there are lots of kinds of learning disabilities, it is hard to diagnose them and pinpoint the causes. LDs seem to be caused by the brain, but the exact causes are not known. Some risk factors are: Heredity; low birth weight, prematurity, birth trauma or distress; stress before or after birth; treatment for cancer or leukemia; central nervous system infections; severe head injuries; chronic medical illnesses, like diabetes or asthma; poor nutrition. LDs are not caused by environmental factors, like cultural differences, or bad teaching. Sometimes a sight or hearing problem, family stress, worry, or communication problems can affect a child’s ability to learn well (Boyse, 2008, University of Michigan Health System).”

The critics (e.g., President’s Commission on Excellence in Special Education, 2002) said it was necessary for psychologists to move away from the “discrepancy model,” the search for differences between general intelligence and academic learning. Though the concept is right (dating back 50 years to childhood aphasia), the misdiagnosis was in the area of statistical prediction. A score on a standardized test does not necessary predict learning potential, along the lines of response to intervention, nor does it separate out children whose learning patterns mimic learning disability, English language learners.

In proposed rules for IDEA 2004, the misdiagnosis opinion was made unequivocally: “There are many reasons why use of the IQ-discrepancy criterion should be abandoned. The IQ-discrepancy criterion is potentially harmful to students as it results in delaying intervention until the student’s achievement is sufficiently low so that the discrepancy is achieved. For most students, identification as having an SLD occurs at an age when the academic problems are difficult to remediate with the most intense remedial efforts (Torgesen et al., 2001). Not surprisingly, the “wait to fail” model that exemplifies most current identification practices for students with SLD does not result in significant closing of the achievement gap for most students placed in special education. Many students placed in special education as SLD show minimal gains in achievement and few actually leave special education (Donovon & Cross, 2002).”

It is unclear how SLP statistics are affected by the “wait to fail” model. Often SLPs place such children in the SLI category and begin treatment for oral language and phonology. Perhaps the number of SLI placements might be reduced if SLPs placed more children in the SLD category in the first place. Intervention could start early and be conducted by special education teachers.

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