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Learning Disabilities & Early Intervention Strategies:
How to Reform the Special Education Referral
Identification Process

Hearing of House Committee on Education and the Workforce Subcommittee on Education Reform

On June 6, 2002, the House held an IDEA hearing about "Learning Disabilities and Early Intervention Strategies: How to Reform the Special Education Referral and Identification Process."

This is a brief overview of witness testimony from IDEA News Briefing #10 (July 8, 2002) from the IDEA Rapid Response Network (information about the IDEA Rapid Response Network is at the end of this article). Download complete testimony of witnesses.

Representative William Goodling's Testimony

William F. Gooding, Educator and Former Chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce and chief author of the last IDEA reauthorization, did not address learning disabilities except in passing.

He reiterated many of the points made in previous hearings:
* there is a teacher shortage and a problem in teacher training;
* paperwork needs to be reduced by investigating (and funding) technology to streamline forms;
* there should be incentives to mediate before litigating and a limitation on attorneys' fees (he didn't specify whether this limit should apply to school districts or only to attorneys who counsel parents);
* a focus on early and research-based intervention for young children; and
* a fostering of increased parental involvement.

Dr. Robert Pasternack's Testimony

Robert Pasternack, Assistant Secretary for Special Education and Rehabilitative Services U.S. Department of Education, focused on reading. He spoke in support of the Leave No Child Behind Act, Reading First and Early Reading First programs.

He emphasized building on the No Child Left Behind Act to focus on scientifically based early reading interventions and achieving results for all children, not just those in special education.

He argued for a focus on prevention, early identification, and early intervention.

"2 out of 3 fourth graders cannot read proficiently.
7 out of 10 inner city and rural fourth graders cannot read at the most basic level."
- Rod Paige, Secretary of Education

Dr. Pasternak questioned the use of models based on discrepancies between IQ test scores and reading performance for identifying which children should receive special education services.

Dr. Reid Lyon's Testimony

Dr. G. Reid Lyon, Research Psychologist and Chief of the Child Development and Behavior Branch of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) in Rockville, MD, discussed the collaborative work of the NICHD and OSERS on early reading.

On learning disabilities, he spoke of the "persistent debate about:

(a) the definition of the disability,
(b) the diagnostic criteria and assessment procedures employed in the identification process,
(c) the content, intensity, and duration of instructional practices provided, and
(d) the policies and legal requirements that guide the identification and education of students with LD."

Dr. Lyon cited statistics about the rise of LD diagnoses in the past two decades and argued that the rise in children identified and given services has not resulted in improved performance for those children, especially those identified late (after
age 9).

"Does the education profession create instructional casualties by inadequately preparing both general education and special education teachers to address learning differences among children?" -
Dr. Reid Lyon, National Institutes of Health

Dr. Lyon asked for explanations of the increase in students diagnosed with LD and questioned whether the increase results from improved identification practices or an ambiguous definition of the disability: "Put another way, does the education profession create instructional casualties by inadequately preparing both general education and special education teachers to address learning differences among children? Once identified, why are special education services not effective in improving learning?"

Dr. Lyon proposed four factors that explain the increased incidence of LD:

1. The vague definition invites variability in identification procedures.
2. Traditional approaches to early reading instruction underestimate the variability among children in their talent and preparation for learning to read, and teachers are inadequately trained to address this variability.
3. Remediation is minimally effective after the second grade, so it is troubling that so many students are identified later than that.
4. Assessment procedures work against identifying children early.

Dr. Lyon believes that the traditional special education model has been ineffective because it is too little, too general, too unsystematic, and too late. Research shows, he argued, that this does not have to be the case, especially with LD that centers on reading difficulties.

Dr. Lyon argued for policies that begin with science first and follow with policy.

Like Mr. Pasternack, he argued for discontinuing the practice of using discrepancy
models to identify children with LD. He went into considerable detail about scientific findings.

Testimony of David Gordon

The testimony of David Gordon, Superintendent of the Elk Grove Unified School District in Elk Grove, California, is posted on the Committee's website as being available by request. We assume this is because it was not presented in electronic form.

Nearly one-third of college freshman need to take remedial classes before they can handle entry level courses.
Twelfth grade students rank among the lowest of industrial nations in math and science. -
Dr. Rod Paige, Secretary of Education

Testimony of Joseph Kovaleski

Joseph Kovaleski, Director of Pupil Services at the Cornwall-Lebanon Sch. District in Lititz, Pennsylvania, was trained as a school psychologist and is a special education administrator.

Kovaleski spoke of successful pre-referral early intervention programs in Pennsylvania using Instructional Support Teams that have led to decreases in identification of children who require special education services under IDEA.

He suggested that the testing process leads to over-identification, that the best way to identify children is to assess their response to effective instruction, and early literacy programs need to be fully funded. He also argued that screening processes need to address emotional and behavioral as well as academic needs

IDEA Rapid Response Network

The Disabilities Rights Education and Defense Fund (DREDF) launched the IDEA Rapid Response Network:

If you wish to receive email information about reauthorization and/or participate in the Network, please send an email to Include your name, contact information (postal address, telephone number, and email) and whether you want updates or wish to participate in the Network.

More information about the IDEA Rapid Response Network is available on the DREDF site.

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