Identifying learning-disabled students

Public schools seem to be using the learning-disabled (LD) label in a manner quite different from how it is defined in state and federal regulations. One hundred and fifty children referred to school study teams in five southern California schools were retested by Donald L. MacMillan, Frank M. Gresham and Kathleen M. Bocian, University of California/Riverside.

The researchers’ conclusions were strikingly different from those reached by school personnel. Public schools are identifying an undifferentiated and nonspecific group of children as LD on the basis their current level of functioning rather than the established criteria for LD.

Federal and state regulations define LD as a discrepancy between aptitude and achievement of at least one-and-one-half standard deviations (22 points). In addition, they specify that the poor achievement should not be due to factors such as mental retardation, emotional disturbance or economic disadvantage.

MacMillan et al. used the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children (WISC III) and the Wide Range Achievement Test Revised (WRAT-R) to test for a discrepancy between aptitude and achievement. Identification as LD requires a minimum WISC III score of 82 and a 22-point difference between the IQ score and any one of the WRAT-R achievement scores (reading, math or spelling).

Gap between state requirements and school decisions

Researchers identified 46 of the 150 referred children as LD. The schools identified significantly more students, or 61, as LD. Looking at individual students, researchers found that 19 of the students identified by the schools had neither the minimum IQ nor the 22-point discrepancy between ability and achievement. Seven of the students who had sufficient IQ as well as the 22-point discrepancy were judged ineligible for special-education services by their schools. Another 18 students with below-average IQs (less than 75) were classified as LD.

MacMillan and colleagues concluded that many children are being identified as LD when they are not, and others who are LD are not being identified. There was a huge gap between state requirements and school decisions. Discussions with school committee members made it clear that they did not accept the criteria established by the state. They did not believe that the tests or the criteria specified had instructional validity, but felt certain that they were identifying the proper children as LD. Mental retardation was perceived as being an extremely pessimistic label, so they were reluctant to use it. In general, school personnel did not give much weight to aptitude scores.

MacMillan et al. conclude that schools identify children as LD on the basis of level of achievement, not achievement relative to aptitude. Schools’ concept of LD is liberal, embracing children with mild mental retardation or conduct and oppositional-defiant disorders. This explains, at least in part, the dramatic increase in the number of students served as LD in the public schools and the decline in the numbers of students labeled mentally retarded.

School personnel view IQ as irrelevant and are primarily concerned with the children’s needs. When one child performs better academically than others — even if he is performing far below his ability — he may not receive help. Committees identify the children whom they perceive to need help the most. MacMillan et al. suggest that educators consider whether federal and state regulations should be revised to correspond to actual school practices or whether practices should be brought into compliance with regulations.

“Discrepancy Between Definitions of Learning Disabilities and School Practices: An Empirical InvestigationJournal of Learning Disabilities, Volume 31, Number 4, July/August 1998, pp. 314-326.

Published in ERN October 1998 Volume 11 Number 7

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