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Deciphering the Federal Regulations on Identifying Children With Specific Learning Disabilities

By Robert Lichtenstein, NCSP, & Mary Beth Klotz, NCSP

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Of all the mandates that govern the practice of school psychology, perhaps none affects the day-to-day functioning of school psychologists more than the federal rules concerning identification of specific learning disabilities (SLD). The field is still adjusting to the most recent shift in these rules, which might be considered the third phase of SLD identification directives in the 32-year history of the federal special education law, that is now the Individuals With Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 (IDEA).

Phase 1 lasted all of 2 years. When the federal special education law was first introduced (the Education For All Handicapped Children Act of 1975), school personnel had only the definition of specific learning disabilities—largely unchanged to this day—as a guide: "[A] disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, which disorder may manifest itself in the imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do mathematical calculations." While seemingly a perfectly good definition, it gave school psychologists little to go on when it came to interpreting assessment data. There was little scientific evidence to indicate what these psychological processes were, and how they should be measured. More often than not, assessment logic operated in reverse: a child who was struggling academically was evaluated, and the low points of a cognitive test profile were presumed to be those causative processes. As school personnel interpreted the definition loosely and inconsistently, SLD prevalence rates escalated rapidly.

Bringing SLD prevalence rates under control was a major focus of the 1977 federal special education regulations. These regulations ushered in Phase 2, in the form of the ability–achievement discrepancy model. Consequently, WISC-wielding school psychologists were hired by the boatload, and states introduced formulas to operationalize what exactly constituted a severe discrepancy. School administrators were able to use these criteria to defend school team decisions to deny services. The only problem was that ability–achievement discrepancy formulas proved to be deficient in essential psychometric attributes—most particularly, validity. Studies revealed that IEP Teams, more often than not, disregarded federal and state mandates for making SLD identification decisions—whether from recognizing the shortcomings of the ability–achievement discrepancy rules or from a desire to rescue instructional casualties from regular education. Remarkably, the ability–achievement discrepancy requirement endured for over 25 years.

New SLD Identification Procedures

We now enter phase 3, as IDEA 2004 allows school districts and states to opt out of an ability–achievement discrepancy model, and offers a new consideration for making SLD identification decisions: (A) ... when determining whether a child has a specific learning disability ..., the local educational agency shall not be required to take into consideration whether the child has a severe discrepancy between achievement and intellectual ability in oral expression, listening comprehension, written expression, basic reading skill, reading comprehension, mathematical calculation, or mathematical reasoning. (B) ... In determining whether a child has a specific learning disability, a local educational agency may use a process which determines if a child responds to scientific, research-based intervention as a part of the evaluation procedures...." (P.L. 108–446, Section 614(b)(6)).

It is this section of IDEA 2004 that has spurred unprecedented attention to responseto- intervention (RTI) procedures. The U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) elaborated upon this and other aspects of IDEA 2004 by issuing the companion regulations on August 14, 2006. The good news is, the regulatory language is thorough and detailed. The bad news is, it is exceedingly difficult to understand and interpret. What follows is an attempt to elucidate the arcane language and logic of these regulations. Two major resources were consulted for this article: (1) OSEP's Analysis of Comments and Changes that accompanied the regulations (Assistance to States for the Education of Children With Disabilities and Preschool Grants for Children With Disabilities; Final Rule, 2006, pp. 46646–46661) and (2) OSEP's IDEA 2004 website. The federal regulations regarding SLD identification are reprinted verbatim in the online version of this article. The federal regulations regarding SLD identification are reprinted verbatim following the references for this article.

State Criteria Required

The IDEA regulations on SLD identification begin with the requirement that each state must adopt criteria for SLD identification consistent with the federal SLD regulations. OSEP regarded this as necessary to promote consistency within a state and in keeping with the obligation of states to carry out their child find responsibilities. States often provide guidelines or technical assistance to school districts regarding appropriate practices. In this case, the state guidance has been elevated to the status of a mandate, or legal requirement, because IDEA regulations say states must adopt these criteria and school districts must use them. While it is possible that a state will simply echo the federal regulations with its criteria, the regulations clearly suggest that states can and should elaborate further on acceptable practice and required procedures. This is especially relevant as school districts try to determine how to incorporate elements of RTI into the special education system.

A related question concerns the extent to which states can preclude certain practices, such as the use of an ability–achievement discrepancy as the basis for decision making. This is addressed in the Analysis of Comments and Changes with the clarification that "States are free to prohibit the use of a discrepancy model," the rationale being that "States are responsible for developing criteria to determine whether a child is a child with a disability" (p. 46646).

Alternative Research-Based Procedures

In addition to explicitly permitting school districts to use "a process based on the child's response to scientific, research-based intervention," the IDEA regulations permit the use of "other alternative research-based procedures." What exactly this refers to is unclear. The Analysis of Comments and Changes does provide two examples—(1) absolute low achievement with consideration of exclusionary factors and (2) combining features of different models—but does not suggest these are the leading or preferred alternatives (p. 46648). The caveat is that any such alternative must be research based. The intent is to allow for flexibility as practice continues to be informed by scientific research.

Group Members

The group that determines SLD eligibility is described in §300.308 of the regulations. OSEP decided to retain the language from the previous regulations given the diversity of comments from the field and the lack of consensus. The group that makes the determination of SLD eligibility (which, technically, is not synonymous with the IEP Team) must include, in addition to the child's parents and a teacher as defined in §300.308(a), "at least one person qualified to conduct individual diagnostic examination of children, such as a school psychologist, speech-language pathologist or remedial reading teacher" (§300.308). OSEP declined to require that school psychologists, speech-language pathologists, or other specific support services personnel (e.g., reading teachers, social workers, educational therapists) always be part of the school team, leaving this to be decided at the local level so that "the composition of the group may vary depending on the nature of the child's suspected disability, the expertise of the local staff, and other relevant factors" (Analysis of Comments and Changes, p. 46650).

SLD Identification Criteria

The guts of the SLD identification criteria are found in the beginning of the section labeled "Determining the existence of a specific learning disability" (§300.309(a)). In order to meet the SLD criteria, three conditions must be met, as shown in Figure 1. Underachievement. The first condition is underachievement in one of the eight specified academic areas: the seven areas previously used for ability–achievement comparisons, to which "reading fluency skills" has been added and "mathematical reasoning" has been changed to "mathematical problem solving." Underachievement is defined by the phrase, "[T]he child does not achieve adequately for the child's age or to meet State-approved grade-level standards ... when provided with learning experiences and instruction appropriate for the child's age or State-approved grade level standards" (§300.309(a)(1)).

The reference to state-approved grade-level standards is in keeping with the federal effort to further align IDEA with ESEA (the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001). One aspect of this involves gauging performance against criterion-based curricular expectations rather than comparing the child to others in the class or in the school district. As stated in the Analysis of Comments and Changes, "The performance of classmates and peers is not an appropriate standard if most children in a class or school are not meeting State-approved standards" (p. 46652). The Analysis further advises not to regard current grade placement as the standard for comparison when a child has not been permitted to progress to the next grade (p. 46652).

Models of identification. The second condition is the part that allows for different models of identification. A range of different possibilities is encompassed by the wording of §300.309(a)(2). The first option is a clear reference to an RTI approach: "The child does not make sufficient progress to meet age or State-approved grade-level standards in one or more of the areas identified in paragraph (a)(1) of this section when using a process based on the child's response to scientific, research-based intervention."

The second option is inclusive and amorphous, and perhaps the most intriguing part of the criteria: "The child exhibits a pattern of strengths and weaknesses in performance, achievement, or both, relative to age, State-approved grade-level standards, or intellectual development, that is determined by the group to be relevant to the identification of a specific learning disability, using appropriate assessments...." OSEP has not provided specific guidance on how to interpret what is meant by a "pattern of strengths and weaknesses," other than noting in the Analysis of Comments and Changes, "Patterns of strengths and weaknesses commonly refer to the examination of profiles across different tests used historically in the identification of children with SLD" (p. 46654). As OSEP guidance makes clear, the reference to "across," rather than within, tests is very intentional.

The regulations leave to the judgment of the decision-making group the determination of whether a pattern is "relevant to the identification of a specific learning disability" (§309(a)(2)(ii)). What is noteworthy, however, is that the pattern of strengths and weaknesses applies to performance and/or achievement. "Performance" presumably refers to functioning in the classroom (more on this concept later in this article). According to this wording and the Analysis of Comments and Changes (p. 46651), intraindividual differences in performance or achievement may be applicable to meeting this criterion, whereas a profile of cognitive strengths and weakness is not. The Analysis provides the guidance on this point that, "... an assessment of intra-individual differences in cognitive functions does not contribute to the identification and intervention decisions for children suspected of having an SLD" (p. 46651).

Assessment of intellectual development. It is explicitly noted in the Analysis of Comments and Changes that "The Department does not believe that an assessment of psychological or cognitive processing should be required in determining whether a child has an SLD" (p. 46651). Nevertheless, assessment of intellectual functioning continues to be recognized in the regulations. Intellectual development is one of the standards— along with age expectations and state-approved grade-level standards—against which strengths and weaknesses in performance or achievement patterns can be compared.

This is the clause that allows for comparisons between intellectual development and achievement. While the regulations make no reference to ability versus achievement or to ability–achievement discrepancy, the Analysis acknowledges that use of the term intellectual development "is consistent with the discretion in the Act in allowing the continued use of discrepancy models" (p. 46651). Again, the qualifier "relevant to the identification of a specific learning disability" must be considered. Not just any discrepancy between intellectual development and achievement meets this condition. The decision-making group must determine that the relationship between the pattern of achievement and level of intelligence is diagnostically significant.

Comprehensive evaluation. Also to be considered with respect to use of intelligence tests is the regulatory language concerning all special education evaluations: "The child is assessed in all areas related to the suspected disability, including, if appropriate, health, vision, social and emotional status, general intelligence, academic performance, communicative status, and motor abilities" (§300.304(c)(4)). Essentially, the regulations respect the expertise of the professionals who conduct the evaluation to determine what data are relevant for eligibility determination and educational planning purposes. Furthermore, the obligation to conduct a comprehensive evaluation remains intact. The Analysis of Comments and Changes states that "[A]n RTI process does not replace the need for a comprehensive evaluation" (p. 46647). Technical assistance materials from OSEP emphasize the importance of conducting a "comprehensive evaluation," even though the term does not appear in the statute. Interestingly, the term does appear in the IDEA regulations index, and refers the reader to section §300.304 (c)(6), which describes the evaluation requirements in detail.

As noted in the Analysis of Comments and Changes, an alternative model wherein the child would meet this second condition is low achievement relative to age or gradelevel expectations, while considering exclusionary factors (p. 46648). Concerns expressed by those who anticipate that an SLD identification model founded on low achievement would result in dramatic increases in referrals and special education placements are noted in the Analysis. OSEP rejected this reasoning, however, stating that "Well-implemented RTI models and models that identify problems early and promote interventions have reduced, not increased, the number of children identified as eligible for special education services, and have helped raise achievement levels for all children in a school"(p. 46652).

Exclusionary factors. The third condition that must be met is the long-established exclusionary clause. The exclusionary factors listed in §300.309(a)(3) cannot be the primary reason that the child has met the first two conditions. The list has been expanded to include the rule-outs applicable to all special education eligibility determinations; namely, that a child may not be determined to have a disability if the reason is lack of appropriate instruction in reading or math, or limited English proficiency. The list also makes a noteworthy adjustment in the wording of the IDEA 2004 definition of SLD in referring to "cultural factors," rather than cultural disadvantage.

Appropriate instruction, progress monitoring, and time lines. Parts (b) and (c) of §300.309 and all of §300.311 lay out important new requirements that relate to RTI. First, §300.309(b) requires implementation of elements of an RTI approach, regardless of the identification model used, to ensure that underachievement is not due to lack of appropriate instruction in reading or math. The evaluation team must review (1) data demonstrating that the child was provided with appropriate instruction in regular education settings, delivered by qualified personnel, and (2) documentation of repeated assessments of achievement "at reasonable intervals" to reflect student progress during instruction. The documentation of student progress must be provided to parents. While the passage makes no reference to curriculum based measurement, this would clearly be a means of fulfilling the repeated assessments requirement. Second, §300.309(c) specifies that the school district must promptly request parent consent for a special education evaluation if the child "has not made adequate progress after an appropriate period of time." School districts must adhere to the established time frame (i.e., 60 days, unless the state has established some other timeframe) in conducting special education evaluations unless "extended by mutual agreement of the child's parents and the evaluation team." This suggests that a school district is best served by providing appropriate instruction and documenting student progress prior to referral, in Tiers 1 and 2, as described in the NASP Position Statement on Identification of Specific Learning Disabilities (NASP, 2007). The evaluation team could also obtain RTI data as part of the special education evaluation, such as when a parent requests a formal evaluation and prior documentation is lacking. However, absent the parent's agreement to an extension, the school district would be on a tight timetable to obtain such data.

Documentation Requirements

Other documentation requirements are itemized in §300.311. This is an updating of what was described as the "multidisciplinary team report" in previous IDEA regulations, designed to ensure that all relevant data were obtained and all eligibility criteria have been met. This documentation requires the decision-making group to acknowledge that it has addressed each of the criteria shown in Figure 1. If an RTI approach has been in effect, the school team must document (a) the instructional strategies used, (b) the student data collected, and (c) that parents were notified of state policies, strategies for accelerating the child's learning, and the parents' right to request an evaluation.

Observations

The section on observation, which has undergone some fine-tuning, also has relevance to the earlier discussion about "a pattern of strengths and weaknesses in performance, achievement, or both." Neither the regulations nor the accompanying Analysis of Comments and Changes defines or clarifies the meaning of performance. Presumably, performance refers to functioning in the classroom setting. Evidence to support this interpretation can be derived from the explanation in the Analysis as to why observation of the child in the child's learning environment is a required component of the evaluation: "Objective observations are essential to assessing a child's performance and should be a part of routine classroom instruction" (p. 46659).

The new regulations provide a more elaborated description of the observation, as follows: "The public agency must ensure that the child is observed in the child's learning environment (including the regular classroom setting) to document the child's academic performance and behavior in the areas of difficulty" (§300.310(a)). This wording makes it clear that the observation is a strict requirement. The child's learning environment is not restricted to the regular classroom setting. Additionally, the observation should address behavior as well as academic performance, which is consistent with the requirement in §300.311(a)(3) to document relevant behavior. The regulations specify that observation may be conducted prior to referral (e.g., as part of a Tier 2 problem-solving process), in which case parent consent is not required; or after a referral for special education evaluation, in which case the observation must be conducted by a member of the decision-making group and requires parent consent (§ 300.310(b)).

Conclusion

As the regulations are implemented, IDEA 2004 will become more of a reality. The new regulations reflect a continuing effort to effect significant reforms in identification procedures and service delivery for children with SLD, mild disabilities, and other learning problems.

References

Assistance to States for the Education of Children With Disabilities and Preschool Grants for Children With Disabilities; Final Rule, 71 Fed. Reg. 46540 (Aug. 14, 2006) (to be codified at 34 C.F.R. Parts 300 and 301). Retrieved September 19, 2007, from http://www.ed.gov/legislation/ FedRegister/finrule/2006-3/081406a.pdf

National Association of School Psychologists (2007). Position Statement on Identification of Students With Specific Learning Disabilities. Retrieved September 19, 2007, from /about_nasp/positionpapers/Indentification_of_SLD.pdf

U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, Office of Special Education Programs. Identification of Specific Learning Disabilities. Building the legacy: IDEA 2004. Retrieved September 19, 2007, from http://idea.ed.gov/explore/view/p/%2Croot%2C dynamic%2CTopicalArea%2C13%2C


IDEA Regulations of August 14, 2006

§ 300.307  Specific learning disabilities.

(a) General. A State must adopt, consistent with § 300.309, criteria for determining whether a child has a specific learning disability as defined in § 300.8(c)(10). In addition, the criteria adopted by the State--

    (1) Must not require the use of a severe discrepancy between intellectual ability and achievement for determining whether a child has a specific learning disability, as defined in § 300.8(c)(10);

    (2) Must permit the use of a process based on the child's response to scientific, research-based intervention; and

    (3) May permit the use of other alternative research-based procedures for determining whether a child has a specific learning disability, as defined in § 300.8(c)(10).

(b) Consistency with State criteria. A public agency must use the State criteria adopted pursuant to paragraph (a) of this section in determining whether a child has a specific learning disability.

§ 300.308  Additional group members.

The determination of whether a child suspected of having a specific learning disability is a child with a disability as defined in § 300.8, must be made by the child's parents and a team of qualified professionals, which must include--

(a)(1) The child's regular teacher; or

    (2) If the child does not have a regular teacher, a regular classroom teacher qualified to teach a child of his or her age; or

    (3) For a child of less than school age, an individual qualified by the SEA to teach a child of his or her age; and

(b) At least one person qualified to conduct individual diagnostic examinations of children, such as a school psychologist, speech-language pathologist, or remedial reading teacher.

§ 300.309  Determining the existence of a specific learning disability.

(a) The group described in § 300.306 may determine that a child has a specific learning disability, as defined in § 300.8(c)(10), if--

    (1) The child does not achieve adequately for the child's age or to meet State-approved grade-level standards in one or more of the

following areas, when provided with learning experiences and instruction appropriate for the child's age or State-approved grade-

level standards:

    (i) Oral expression.

    (ii) Listening comprehension.

    (iii) Written expression.

    (iv) Basic reading skill.

    (v) Reading fluency skills.

    (vi) Reading comprehension.

    (vii) Mathematics calculation.

    (viii) Mathematics problem solving.

    (2)(i) The child does not make sufficient progress to meet age or State-approved grade-level standards in one or more of the areas identified in paragraph (a)(1) of this section when using a process based on the child's response to scientific, research-based intervention; or

   (ii) The child exhibits a pattern of strengths and weaknesses in performance, achievement, or both, relative to age, State-approved grade-level standards, or intellectual development, that is determined by the group to be relevant to the identification of a specific learning disability, using appropriate assessments, consistent with § 300.304 and 300.305; and

(3) The group determines that its findings under paragraphs (a)(1) and (2) of this section are not primarily the result of--

    (i) A visual, hearing, or motor disability;

    (ii) Mental retardation;

    (iii) Emotional disturbance;

    (iv) Cultural factors;

    (v) Environmental or economic disadvantage; or

    (vi) Limited English proficiency.

(b) To ensure that underachievement in a child suspected of having a specific learning disability is not due to lack of appropriate instruction in reading or math, the group must consider, as part of the evaluation described in § 300.304 through 300.306--

    (1) Data that demonstrate that prior to, or as a part of, the referral process, the child was provided appropriate instruction in regular education settings, delivered by qualified personnel; and

    (2) Data-based documentation of repeated assessments of achievement at reasonable intervals, reflecting formal assessment of student progress during instruction, which was provided to the child's parents.

(c) The public agency must promptly request parental consent to evaluate the child to determine if the child needs special education and related services, and must adhere to the timeframes described in § 300.301 and 300.303, unless extended by mutual written agreement of the child's parents and a group of qualified professionals, as described in § 300.306(a)(1)--

    (1) If, prior to a referral, a child has not made adequate progress after an appropriate period of time when provided instruction, as described in paragraphs (b)(1) and (b)(2) of this section; and

    (2) Whenever a child is referred for an evaluation.

§ 300.310  Observation.

(a) The public agency must ensure that the child is observed in the child's learning environment (including the regular classroom setting) to document the child's academic performance and behavior in the areas of difficulty.

(b) The group described in § 300.306(a)(1), in determining whether a child has a specific learning disability, must decide to--

    (1) Use information from an observation in routine classroom instruction and monitoring of the child's performance that was done before the child was referred for an evaluation; or

    (2) Have at least one member of the group described in § 300.306(a)(1) conduct an observation of the child's academic performance in the regular classroom after the child has been referred for an evaluation and parental consent, consistent with § 300.300(a), is obtained.

    (c) In the case of a child of less than school age or out of school, a group member must observe the child in an environment appropriate for a child of that age.

§ 300.311  Specific documentation for the eligibility determination.

(a) For a child suspected of having a specific learning disability, the documentation of the determination of eligibility, as required in § 300.306(a)(2), must contain a statement of--

    (1) Whether the child has a specific learning disability;

    (2) The basis for making the determination, including an assurance that the determination has been made in accordance with §300.306(c)(1);

    (3) The relevant behavior, if any, noted during the observation of the child and the relationship of that behavior to the child's academic functioning;

    (4) The educationally relevant medical findings, if any;

    (5) Whether--

    (i) The child does not achieve adequately for the child's age or to meet State-approved grade-level standards consistent with § 300.309(a)(1); and

    (ii)(A) The child does not make sufficient progress to meet age or State-approved grade-level standards consistent with § 300.309(a)(2)(i); or

    (B) The child exhibits a pattern of strengths and weaknesses in performance, achievement, or both, relative to age, State-approved grade level standards or intellectual development consistent with § 300.309(a)(2)(ii);

    (6) The determination of the group concerning the effects of a visual, hearing, or motor disability; mental retardation; emotional disturbance; cultural factors; environmental or economic disadvantage; or limited English proficiency on the child's achievement level; and

    (7) If the child has participated in a process that assesses the child's response to scientific, research-based intervention--

    (i) The instructional strategies used and the student-centered data collected; and

    (ii) The documentation that the child's parents were notified about--

    (A) The State's policies regarding the amount and nature of student performance data that would be collected and the general education services that would be provided;

    (B) Strategies for increasing the child's rate of learning; and

    (C) The parents' right to request an evaluation.

(b) Each group member must certify in writing whether the report reflects the member's conclusion. If it does not reflect the member's conclusion, the group member must submit a separate statement presenting the member's conclusions.