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What You Need to Know About IDEA 2004
Specific Learning Disabilities: Discrepancy & Response to Intervention Models
by Peter Wright, Esq. & Pamela Wright, MA, MSW

Identifying Children with Specific Learning Disabilities

Learning disabilities account for nearly half of all children enrolled in special education programs. This led experts in the field to question the models for identifying children with learning disabilities.

Experts in the field of learning disabilities believe that many children identified with specific learning disabilities are “victims of poor teaching. The statement that many children identified as LD are “teaching disabled” is often accurate. Almost all children can learn to read if taught appropriately, but many do not get the help they need because their teachers are not adequately prepared. (Early Warning System by G. Reid Lyon and Jack M. Fletcher)

When Congress reauthorized IDEA, they changed the law about how to identify children with specific learning disabilities. IDEA 2004 says schools “shall not be required to take into consideration whether a 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.” (Section 1414(b)) (See Wrightslaw: Special Education Law, page 95)

Abandon Discrepancy Models

In the Commentary and Explanation to the proposed special education regulations, the U. S. Department of Education describes reasons why discrepancy models should be abandoned:

The IQ-discrepancy criterion is potentially harmful to students as it results in delaying intervention until the student’s achievement is sufficiently low that the discrepancy is achieved. For most students, identification as having an SLD occurs at an age when the academic problems are difficult to remediate with the most intense remediation efforts (Torgesen, et. al., 2001)

… the “wait to fail” model does not lead to “closing the achievement gap for most students placed in special education. Many students placed in special education as SLD show minimal gains in achievement and few actually leave special education. (Donovon & Cross, 2002).

Adopt "Response to Intervention" or "Response to Instruction" (RTI) Models

IDEA 2004 states, “when determining whether a child has a specific learning disability ... a local educational agency shall not be required to take into consideration whether a child has a severe discrepancy between achievement and intellectual ability" ... a school "may use a process that determines if the child responds to scientific, research-based intervention as part of the evaluation procedures ..." (Section 1414(b)(6)). (See Wrightslaw: Special Education Law, page 97)

In the explanation and commentary to the proposed IDEA 2004 regulations, the U. S. Department of Education “strongly recommends” that schools use a response to intervention model that

…uses a process based on systematic assessment of the student’s response to high quality, research-based general education instruction…that incorporate response to a research-based intervention…
Identification models that incorporate response to intervention represent a shift in special education toward the goals of better achievement and behavioral outcomes for students identified with SLD…” Commentary and Explanation of the Proposed Regulations for IDEA 2004

Diagnosing Learning Disabilities

Psychologists often diagnose learning disabilities by exclusion. If a child has a disability that adversely affects educational performance, and the child is not retarded, does not have a visual, hearing or motor disability, is not emotionally disturbed, and is not negatively affected by environmental, cultural or economic disadvantages, it is likely that the child has a learning disability.

According to the IDEA 2004 regulations, States “Must not require the use of a severe discrepancy between intellectual ability and achievement for determining if a child has a specific learning disability ... must permit the use of a process based on the child's response to scientific, research-based intervention and may permit the use of other alternative research-based procedures for determining whether a child has a specific learning disability…” (CFR 300.307(a)) (See Wrightslaw: Special Education Law, page 243)

Response to Intervention (RTI): Articles & Free Pubs . . . more articles, research, publications

A Parent Guide to RTI was created by Susan Bruce, Regional Education Coordinator for PRO*Parents of South Carolina, Inc. The Guide explains the RTI process and what IDEA requires, parent concerns and important questions about RTI, and what RTI means for our kids. Pdf format

Fletcher, Jack M., W. Alan Coulter, Daniel J. Reschly & Sharon Vaughn. Alternative Approaches to the Definition and Identification of Learning Disabilities: Some Questions and Answers. From Annals of Dyslexia.

To ensure adequate instruction for students with LD, identification must focus on assessments that are directly related to instruction. Services for struggling students must focus on intervention, not eligibility. Special education must focus on results and outcomes, not eligibility and process. Identification models that include RTI will lead to better achievement and behavior outcomes for students with LD and those at risk for LD.

Response to Intervention (RTI): A Primer for Parents
. Klotz, Mary Beth Ph.D., NCSP, Canter, Andrea, PhD, NASP National Association of School Psychologist.

Describes a "three-tier" system (beginning in general education and ending in special education) that serves the early intervention and disability identification objectives of RBI. The focus is on standard tutoring protocols, not "problem solving model," because available scientific research supports this approach.

Responsiveness to Intervention: A Blueprint for Practitioners, Policymakers, and Parents in Teaching Exceptional Children. Fuchs, Douglas, Lynn S. Fuchs. (2001)

Describes a "three-tier" system (beginning in general education and ending in special education) that serves the early intervention and disability identification objectives of RBI. The focus is on standard tutoring protocols, not "problem solving model," because available scientific research supports this approach.

Response to Instruction in the Identification of Learning Disabilities: A Guide for School Teams. Ovals, Joseph & David P. Prasse. (2004) Published in NASP Communique, 32 (5).

The authors explain why response to intervention is a promising alternative to the traditional IQ-achievement discrepancy model for identifying students with learning disabilities and improving classroom instruction in general education.”
URL: and Publications/Handouts/Families and Educators/nasp_rti.pdf

A Three-Tier Response to Intervention (RTI) Model
. LDOnline
Article describes a Three-Tier RTI Model as an alternative to the Discrepancy Model (the "Wait to Fail Model"). This article describes a three-tier reading model that monitors student progress with different levels of intervention intensity.

Lyon, G. Reid Lyon and Jack Fletcher. (2001) Early Warning System.

The authors describe three factors that caused a dramatic increase in children identified with LD. (1) Remediation is rarely effective after 2nd grade. (2) Measurement practices work against identifying LD children before 2nd grade. (3) Federal policy and the sociology of public education allow ineffective policies to continue. The authors make a case for implementing effective early intervention programs.

National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities. (2005) Responsiveness to Intervention & Learning Disabilities.

Examines concepts, potential benefits, practical issues, and questions associated with responsiveness to intervention (RTI) and learning disabilities (LD). Includes questions about implementation, eligibility, parent participation, structure and components, professional roles and competencies, and needed research.

More articles about RTI and Early Intervening.

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Revised: 02/15/19
Created: 12/06/05

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