Redefining learning disabilities

iStock_000016876858XSmallFederal law currently defines learning disabilities as intrinsic disorders in basic psychological processing that are diagnosed in terms of a severe discrepancy between achievement and intellectual ability. Robert J. Sternberg and Elena L. Grigorenko, Yale University, say this definition is wrong and should be changed. They assert that it represents political expediency rather than fundamental knowledge about psychology and education.

Sternberg and Grigorenko explain that the diagnosis of learning disabilities is influenced by the society in which a child lives. The same child born into one society may be legitimately labeled as having a learning disability that would not be apparent in another society. For example, a child might have difficulty learning to read in an English-speaking country, but if she were born in a Spanish-speaking country she might have no trouble learning to read that much more phonetically regular language.

Politically motivated process

However, learning disabilities are not solely features of the educational system or society — some children are exceptionally difficult to teach. But these researchers claim that labeling is too often used in place of understanding. We label a child, pretending that the label gives us understanding, when it does not. Labeling is also used as an excuse for failing to adequately educate a child.

At some level, nearly everyone has a learning disability — we are all good at some things and not good at others. In addition, what is labeled as learning disability sometimes comes close to being what would formerly have been called low intelligence.

States and school districts differ greatly in their rates of identification. The law does not specify which tests should be used or how much of a discrepancy between ability and achievement is sufficient to label a child. Rates of identification are increasing. Schools may have a financial interest in identifying children, because they receive additional state or federal funds for children who have been labeled.

In addition, schools bend to parental pressure and avoid litigation by labeling children so they may receive extra services. Children identified as learning disabled can be given extra time on statewide or nationally standardized tests, which raises their individual test scores and also the test scores of the school and district, making them look better. Increasing rates of identification, therefore, do not necessarily represent increasing numbers of children with learning disabilities.

In these researchers’ opinions, labeling is driven more by political than by educational needs. Using test scores alone to identify learning disabilities poses problems. Often children with very different learning needs are lumped together.

Using scores on I.Q. tests is of dubious value, Sternberg and Grigorenko write. I.Q. tests measure only a part of intelligence and are confounded with the verbal and reading skills required on many tests.

In addition, test-score differences do not mean the same thing at different points along the spectrum of scores. A child with an extremely high I.Q. could be labeled as learning disabled even if he had above-average reading achievement, if the discrepancy between his scores was large enough. At the other end of the spectrum, below-average skills might not receive a disabled label if the child’s I.Q. was average or slightly below average. In this situation, the child who receives the extra help would be the one who needs it less. Finally, Sternberg and Grigorenko point out that discrepancy scores tend to be statistically unreliable.

Identified on the basis of educational needs only

Sternberg and Grigorenko state that the entire system needs to be changed. They recommend that decisions about services for children with learning disabilities should be based on educational needs. The goal must be to help all children make the most of their strengths and correct their weaknesses.

Discrepancy scores should not be used to identify learning-disabled students. That method is psychologically and psychometrically indefensible. Children should be identified as needing help on the basis of achievement only. There is no need to use I.Q. scores to tell us if children are underachieving. These researchers believe that any child’s achievement can be modified. If the achievement is low, schools should take steps to help the child improve, regardless of I.Q.

Interventions must be tailored to actual disabilities, not to labels. Accommodations should be aimed at helping students correct their weaknesses, rather than providing an excuse for poor education. Curricula must be taught in ways that value the full range of learning and thinking abilities. For example, instruction should value creative and practical abilities that may be important in later life. Children with learning disabilities must be helped to make the most of their strengths even if they are not ones traditionally valued by schools.

In conclusion, our society has developed a system for identifying and dealing with learning disabilities that mostly reflects political rather than educational or scientific considerations. Sternberg and Grigorenko call for us to put educational considerations first and to let educators, not politicians, determine what is best for children.

“Learning Disabilities, Schooling, and Society” Phil Delta Kappan Volume 83, Number 4, December 2001 Pp. 335-338.

Published in ERN February 2002 Volume 15 Number 2


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