NASP Communiqué, Vol. 35, #3
Transitioning High School Students With Learning Disabilities Into
Postsecondary Education: Assessment and Accommodations
By Diana Joyce, NCSP &
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
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
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
- 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
- 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
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
Partial Listing of College Accommodations for Disabilities
- 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)
- 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
- Note taker
- Sign language interpreter
- 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
- 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
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
American Council on Education. (2001). College freshman with disabilities: A biennial
statistical profile. Washington, DC: Carol Henderson. Retrieved August 2,
2005 from http://www.heath.gwu.edu/PDFs/collegefreshmen.pdf
American Psychiatric Association. (1994). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental
disorders (4th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.
Americans with Disabilities Act Compliance Office. (2002). Providing services and
access to students and employees with disabilities in higher education: Effective
and reasonable accommodations. Gainesville, FL: University of Florida.
Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, 42 U.S.C.A. § 12101 et seq. (West 1993).
Association on Higher Education and Disability. (2004). Kansas AHEAD guidelines
for documentation of LD. Retrieved August 27, 2005, from http://www.ahead.
Association on Higher Education and Disability Ad Hoc Committee on Learning Disabilities.
(1997). Guidelines for documentation of learning disabilities in adolescents
and adults. Retrieved August 12, 2005, from http://www.ahead.org
Bryant, B. R., Patton, J. R., & Dunn, C. (1991). Scholastic Abilities Test for Adults.
Austin, TX: Pro-Ed.
Educational Testing Service. (1999). Documenting learning disabilities: Policy statement
for documentation of learning disability in adolescents and adults (Rev.
ed.). Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service.
Gregg, N., & Scott, S. S. (2000). Definition and documentation: Theory, measurement,
and the courts. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 33(1), 5–13.
Hammill, D., & Bryan, B. R. (1991). Detroit Tests of Learning Aptitude-Adult. Austin,
Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1997. 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq. Retrieved
July 6, 2006 from http://www.ed.gov
Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004. 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et
seq. Retrieved August 28, 2005 from http://www.ed.gov/policy/speced/guid/idea/
Kaufman, A. S., & Kaufman, N. L. (1993). The Kaufman Adolescent and Adult Intelligence
Test. Circle Pines, MN: American Guidance Service.
Myers, I. B., & McCaulley, M. H. (1985). Manual: A guide to the development and
use of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologists Press.
National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities. (1991). Learning disabilities: Issues
on definition. Retrieved November 22, 2005, from http://www.ldonline.org/
National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities. (1998). Operationalizing the NJCLD
definition of learning disabilities for on-going assessment in schools. Retrieved
November 2, 2005, from http://www.ldonline.org/njcld/operationalizing.
National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities, (1999). Learning disabilities: Issues
in higher education. Retrieved August 4, 2005, from http://www.ldonline.
Pintrich, P. R., Smith, D. A. F., Garcia, T., & McKeachie, W. J. (1991). A manual for
the use of the Strategies for Learning Questionnaire (MSLQ). Ann Arbor, MI:
National Center for Research to Improve Postsecondary Teaching and Learning,
The University of Michigan.
Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. § 701 et seq.
Roid, G. (2003). Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale: Fifth Edition. Chicago: Riverside.
US Department of Education. (2002). National postsecondary student aid survey:
Data analysis system. Retrieved August 26, 2005, from www.nces.ed.gov/surveys
Venezia, A., Kirst, M., & Antonio, A. (2003). Betraying the college dream: How disconnected
K–12 and postsecondary education systems undermine student aspirations.
Stanford, CA: Stanford Institute for Higher Education Research.
Wechsler, D. (1997). Wechsler Memory Scale–III. San Antonio, TX: The Psychological
Wechsler, D. (1997). Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale–III. San Antonio, TX: The Psychological
Wechsler, D. (2001). Wechsler Individual Achievement Test–Second Edition. San Antonio,
TX: The Psychological Corporation.
Weinstein, C. E. (2002). Learning & Study Strategies Inventory. Clearwater, FL: H&H
Woodcock, R. W., McGrew, K. S., & Mather, N. (2001). Woodcock-Johnson–III. Itasca,
IL: Riverside Publishing.
© 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.