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NASP Communiqué, Vol. 35, #3
November 2006

Transitioning High School Students With Learning Disabilities Into Postsecondary Education: Assessment and Accommodations

By Diana Joyce, NCSP & Eric Rossen

An understanding of learning disability criteria for postsecondary education can be important to school psychologists in several ways. First, school psychologists provide high school evaluations that include transition planning goals. Often school psychologists’ evaluations are reviewed by colleges when determining if students are entitled to accommodations. Therefore, it is important to be aware that the criteria for substantiating a learning disability in postsecondary institutions can be somewhat different from that of K–12 schools. Secondly, unlike intervention teams in high schools, postsecondary institutions depend on students to initiate and monitor their own educational services. Well-designed transition plans in high school can begin to foster the self-advocacy and self-monitoring skills students will need in college. In addition, school psychologists may be hired privately by colleges and universities or parents to provide evaluations specifically for postsecondary institutions, thus requiring familiarity with college-age assessment measures and criteria for documenting accommodation needs.

Prevalence of Postsecondary Students With Learning Disabilities

From 1988 to 2000 it is estimated that 6 to 8% of first-year students in higher education institutions had a disability (e.g., hearing, vision, health) with specific learning disability (SLD) being the fastest growing category. In 1988 SLD accounted for 16.1% of disabilities. That percentage increased to 40.4% by 2000. Other categories of disabilities (e.g., hearing, orthopedic, blind) decreased while some (e.g., speech) remained constant (American Council on Education, 2001; US Department of Education [USDOE], 2002). Students with disabilities are most likely to be males (52%) and the majority (60%) attend two-year institutions or less than two-year programs (USDOE, 2002).

Among college students with identified disabilities, it is estimated that 63% of those at the community college level and 40% of those entering universities will need remedial coursework. Many will require continued accommodations throughout their postsecondary education. The area most frequently requiring remediation is math followed by English. Remediation in these two areas is particularly important as the majority of students with disabilities report career interests in business, engineering, elementary teaching, and computer programming (American Council on Education, 2001; Venzia, Kirst, & Antonio, 2003).

Mandates for Provision of Services to College Students

Experienced school psychologists are familiar with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and its revisions of 1997 and 2004. These standards provided pre-referral services, criteria for learning disabilities, monitoring of student intervention progress, and re-evaluation procedures for students through age 21. They also required transition planning that considers postsecondary education goals for students with disabilities. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (2004) was designed to align more closely with the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) initiative. It further mandated written and measurable postsecondary transition goals by age 16 that are reviewed yearly. This initiative was based on the premise that “as the graduation rates for children with disabilities continue to climb, providing effective transition services to promote successful post-school employment or education is an important measure of accountability for children with disabilities [Statue 2651 (14), IDEA, 2004].

Although IDEA provides a foundation for college through transition planning, it does not govern college level provisions for students with disabilities. The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 both contribute to provisions for services for college students with disabilities. The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Public Law 102-569, Section 504) ensures persons with disabilities are not denied equal access or benefits from any federally funded program or activity (e.g., public education institutions). To avoid discrimination, the Rehabilitation Act requires institutions to provide reasonable changes to their policies, practices, and procedures in the entrance criteria process for students with disabilities. The ADA (1990) also prohibits discrimination based on disability. Title II of the act mandates equal opportunity from all state and government programs, services, or activities including educational institutions (ADA, 1990).

Criteria for College-Age Learning Disability

For entering college students, the documentation for learning disabilities most frequently is provided through public high school evaluations, based on IDEA or Section 504 criteria. For students entering with evaluations from private clinical practitioners, evaluations are typically based on IDEA and/or the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) criteria (American Psychiatric Association, 1994; Gregg & Scott, 2000). The criteria for learning disabilities and the recommended documentation for college students is somewhat different from typical high school evaluations. Criteria are guided by three organizations: the Association on Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD), the National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities (NJCLD), and the Educational Testing Service (AHEAD Ad Hoc Committee on Learning Disabilities, 1997; NJCLD, 1998, 1999). Based on recommendations from these organizations, evaluations (and reports) should:

  • Be conducted by a qualified professional with comprehensive and relevant experience with adolescents and adult LD. The professional’s certification or license credentials (e.g., certified school psychologist, psychologist, certified speech pathologist) should be included in the report. As a courtesy, many colleges and universities maintain lists of psychologists and school psychologists who can provide psychoeducational assessments for college students. New evaluations are typically requested when a student has not previously been identified as LD or the student’s previous high school evaluations did not include all the components required for college LD criteria.
  • Be conducted within the past three years and establish a need for college-level accommodations by impact on learning or major life activity.
  • Be comprehensive including a diagnostic interview; measures of academic achievement, intellectual ability, and information processing with all standard scores including subtest scores and percentile ranks documented. Minimal re-evaluations, IEPs, and Section 504 plans typically do not qualify and must be supplemented with additional evaluation data.
  • Include a diagnosis rather than a special education (IDEA) classification. The diagnosis must be definitive, avoiding general terms such as “consistent with” or “suggestive of.”
  • Suggest accommodations with a rationale based on current needs and impact on a specific major life activity (AHEAD Ad Hoc Committee on Learning Disabilities, 1997; Educational Testing Service, 1999; NJCLD, 1999).

Seeking accommodations. In most postsecondary institutions, there is an Office of Disabilities Services. Students entering postsecondary education must first make a decision as to whether or not they wish to disclose a learning disability. Disclosure of a learning disability is not required, unless the student desires accommodations. It is primarily the student’s responsibility to notify the institution of his/her disability status and register with the Office of Disability Support Services in order to acquire accommodations. Families of first generation college students may not be aware of the need to be proactive in seeking services. School psychologists are in a particularly good position to prepare students and their parents for this expectation. Once accommodations are approved, some institutions will automatically inform faculty of students in their classes with disabilities, without disclosing the specific diagnosis. However, others colleges may require the student to individually notify instructors. When students are required to notify instructors they are often provided documentation which delineates specific accommodations needed.

Assessment procedures. Assessments for college students may include many of the same measures of intelligence, information processing, and academic achievement typically utilized by school psychologists, if age appropriate. Depending on the type of disability, measures of neuropsychological processes, learning styles, and comorbid mental health diagnoses (e.g., depression) also may be required. The NJCLD, which is comprised of several organizations (e.g., National Association of School Psychologists, AHEAD) developed the following definition of learning disabilities:

Learning disabilities is a general term that refers to a heterogeneous group of disorders manifested by significant difficulties in the acquisition and use of listening, speaking, reading, writing, reasoning, or mathematical abilities. These disorders are intrinsic to the individual, presumed to be due to central nervous system dysfunction, and may occur across the life span. Problems in self-regulatory behaviors, social perception, and social interaction may exist with learning disabilities but do not by themselves constitute a learning disability. Although learning disabilities may occur concomitantly with other handicapping conditions (for example, sensory impairment, mental retardation, serious emotional disturbance) or with extrinsic influences (such as cultural difference, insufficient or inappropriate instruction), they are not the result of those conditions or influences (NJCLD, 1991, p.20).

Evaluation of College-Age Learning Disabilities

Specific learning disabilities in academic areas such as math or reading are typically dependent on documenting a difference between intelligence and achievement with a processing deficit that negatively impacts academic performance. However, some institutions only require documentation of at least one academic area score at or below the 25th percentile, regardless of IQ as criteria for SLD (ADA Compliance Office, 2002). Therefore, establishing a discrepancy may not be required. Many institutions follow AHEAD (1997) guidelines that permit clinical judgment by the examiner on what constitutes a limitation in a major life activity. Justification for clinical judgment decisions are often based on the history portion of psychological reports or clinical interview data. Procedures may vary based on the LD standard chosen by individual colleges (Gregg & Scott, 2000).

Psychoeducational evaluation results and accommodation recommendations are shared directly with the student in a format similar to educational counseling. Examiners may include intelligence, achievement, and information processing measures to establish SLD criteria. In addition, other measures such as study skill habits may be included to help the examiner counsel students on self-monitoring their own efforts. The following sections discuss the most commonly used assessment tools for determining a learning disability in the college-age population.

Intelligence, achievement, and information processing. Intelligence measures often include the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale–III (Wechsler, 1997); the Woodcock-Johnson Psychoeducational Battery–3rd Edition: Tests of Cognitive Ability (Woodcock, McGrew, & Mather, 2001); the Kaufman Adolescent and Adult Intelligence Test (Kaufman & Kaufman, 1993); and the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale–5th Edition (Roid, 2003).

Achievement measures include the Scholastic Abilities Test for Adults (Bryant, Patton, & Dunn, 1991); Woodcock-Johnson Psychoeducational Battery–3rd Edition: Tests of Achievement (Woodcock, McGrew, & Mather, 2001); and the Wechsler Individual Achievement Tests II (Wechsler, 2001). Information processing measures include the Detroit Tests of Learning Aptitude-Adult (Hammill & Bryant, 1991); Wechsler Memory Scale–3rd Edition (Wechsler, 1997); and subtests of the Woodcock-Johnson Psychoeducational Battery–3rd Edition: Tests of Cognitive Ability. Achievement and processing data are particularly important to documenting the need for specific accommodations. For example, a severe deficit in processing speed coupled with writing deficits may support an argument for extended time on written exams and/or an alternate answer format.

Learning styles and study skills. Understanding learning strategy preferences for the student also can be an informative part of the assessment process (Gregg & Scott, 2000). The Learning and Study Strategies Inventory (LASSI; Weinstein, 2002); Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI; Myers & McCaulley, 1985); and the Motivated Strategies for Learning Questionnaire (MSLQ; Pintrich et al., 1991) are commonly used adult instruments. The LASSI provides information relevant to a student’s time management skills and use of summarizing strategies when studying. Poor scores in these areas may warrant a discussion with the student about the importance of attending study skills workshops. The MBTI can provide information on student preference for individual or group study strategies based on his/her introverted or extroverted qualities. Based on the results, the examiner may counsel extroverted students to consider joining a study group. The MSLQ includes information on a student’s planning abilities and self-monitoring of his/her own progress.

Diagnostic interview. Previous events or trends in an individual’s development may have a significant impact on current physical, psychological, and academic functioning. In addition, obtaining a thorough academic history, a medical history including any changes in medication and a family history of educational, learning, physical, or psychological difficulties may help guide the evaluation and diagnostic process. Many college students with specific learning disabilities also report comorbidity for other disabilities (e.g., hearing 7.5%, speech 13.4%, orthopedic 4.4%, vision 2.9%, health-related 5%). Therefore school psychologists should investigate and discuss the possibility of dual diagnoses (AHEAD, 2004). Parental interviews are not a required component of the evaluation; however, if the student gives consent, parental interviews can be a valuable source of information. When college students are of legal age, student consent is required to share evaluation and educational progress information with the parents.

Learning Disabilities Services and Accommodations

Broad services. Systemic services vary depending on the size of the institution, resources, and pedagogical practices. Some colleges and universities offer free or reduced- cost psychoeducational evaluations, tutoring, workshops on study methods, vocational counseling, and mental health clinics. Special classrooms, curriculum programs, and services, typically found in K–12 schools, are not applicable.

Course substitutions. The degree sought by students is an important factor in accommodations as course substitutions are sometimes permitted but limited to non-critical career content. For example, a student who is pursuing a math degree with a psychological report that documents a significant speech disability may be entitled to take a substitution for a foreign language class. However, a student with a math learning disability who wishes to pursue a mathematics degree may not be permitted to substitute other courses for a math requirement. The ADA (1990) guidelines (§240.153) require reasonable substitutions for graduation requirements if the substitution does not constitute a fundamental change in the required program core knowledge base. This stipulation differs from typical K–12 accommodations and must be considered when making accommodation recommendations in reports.

Individual accommodations. Accommodations (Table 1) can include extended time on tests and course assignments, large print books, taping lectures, lower total class hour load, note takers, change in test formats, scribes, computer software programs, interpreters, extra permitted absences, and extra course withdrawals (ADA Compliance Office, 2002). In addition, some accommodations may be provided for entrance exams and state or national qualifying exams. The approval of specific accommodations will depend on justification within the psychological report. A notable exception from K–12 accommodations is that core, degree-related curriculum and assignments cannot be reduced. The student must demonstrate the same standard of knowledge.

Table 1

Partial Listing of College Accommodations for Disabilities Testing

  • Extra time, test reader, preferential time-of-day testing
  • Exam delays (for medical treatment)
  • Alternate answer format (e.g., oral, computer, no scanning bubble sheets)
  • Intermittent rest for fatigue
  • Separate quiet room with proctor
  • Priority seating
  • Change of classroom
  • Environmental changes (e.g., equipment, furniture, professor location)
  • Frequent instructor feedback, course reviews
  • ADA access compliance
  • Longer response time for questions, turn-taking in discussions
  • Providing copies of lecture overhead transparencies (or PowerPoint slides)
  • Enlarged print
  • Advanced copies of syllabus, books, handouts
  • Alternatives to fine motor manipulation (e.g., lab experiments)
Assistive Technology
  • Tape recorded lectures, textbooks on tape
  • Computer software: text-to-speech, speech synthesizers, phonetic spell checker
  • Typed rather than handwritten assignments
  • Captioning, visual tracking
  • Telecommunication Device for the Deaf
  • Assistive listening devices
Personnel Assistance
  • Note taker
  • Scribes
  • Sign language interpreter
  • Readers
Administrative Accommodations
  • College Level Academic Skills Test (CLAST) waiver failed section in disability
  • Priority registration, reduced course load per semester, course substitutions
  • Extra course drops or withdrawals, support letters for petitions
  • Flexible attendance for medical procedures, time-of-day, medication compliance
Additional Services
  • Tutoring
  • Workshops (e.g., study skills, time management, learning strategies)
  • Mental health support groups (e.g., test anxiety groups, ADHD coaching)
  • Vocational counseling

Preparing High School Students for Transition

In K–12 schools, interventions, evaluations, and accommodations are ensured by parent/teacher referrals, child study teams, and administrative procedures. In contrast, acquiring college accommodations is highly dependent on the student’s own self-disclosure and self-initiated registration for services. School psychologists can assist students by ensuring the students themselves and their parents are aware of the need to register early with postsecondary institution disability services. By registering early, accommodations can be in-place during the first semester of college which is a critical adjustment period for new students. The final high school evaluation, intervention reports, and problem-solving team records can be instrumental in providing the student with required documentation that establishes a rationale for accommodations and negative impact on a major life activity (e.g., education).

Postsecondary accommodations for disabilities require students to pursue services, monitor their own accommodation efficacy, and request any needed changes. There are several ways school psychologists can foster important self-advocacy skills among students prior to high school graduation. Self-reliance can be developed by ensuring students’ attend their own high school IEP meetings. These meetings are a good opportunity for students to learn about the relationships between their own personal strengths and weaknesses and educational needs. Student participation can also be encouraged by soliciting the student’s input and teaching her/him to articulate educational needs.

Transition IEP goals can include increased student responsibility for their own interventions. Examples include self-monitoring their own work assignment completion, practicing organization skills, or attending study skills training. Once approved, accommodations in postsecondary institutions are not implemented in a responseto- intervention model and outcome data are not collected. The student has personal responsibility to report any resistance to implementation from faculty and ask the disabilities office for changes in accommodation, if warranted.


The number of students with disabilities enrolling in postsecondary education is steadily increasing (American Council on Education, 2001). As a result the role school psychologists in mandatory IEP transition planning and student/parent interactions has become progressively more important. In addition, with their understanding of disabilities, school psychologists are well-positioned to provide documentation for accommodation needs. School psychologists have many opportunities to directly influence positive transitions that improve college outcomes for high school graduates with disabilities.


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© 2006, National Association of School Psychologists. Diana Joyce, PhD, is a clinical faculty member at the University of Florida and a licensed psychologist and school psychologist who supervises the school psychology program practica. Eric Rossen, MEd, is a school psychology doctoral candidate at the University of Florida. He is currently interning with the Prince George’s County School District in Maryland.