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How Should Students With Learning Disabilities Be Identified?

Who are students with learning disabilities? It depends on what state or school district you live in.

The combination of a surge in the use of response to intervention and a lack of consensus about how much of a role cognitive assessment should play in an evaluation prompted the National Center for Learning Disabilities this month to issue a new set of guidelines on its view of how students with specific learning disabilities should be identified.

As the use of RTI has grown, there have also been concerns that it has been used inappropriately, delaying or preventing the identification of some students as having learning disabilities, or other disabilities.

NCLD says comprehensive evaluations of students should include multiple prongs, which it cites as coming straight from the 2004 version of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. These include a variety of assessment tools and strategies to gather functional, developmental, and academic information about a child; an observation of the student in the learning environment; the determination that a student's learning struggles are not primarily the result of a visual, hearing, or physical disability, an intellectual disability, an emotional disturbance, cultural factors, environmental or economic disadvantage, or because they are learning English; and the determination that a student's struggles aren't primarily the result of a lack of instruction.

In addition, parents and a team of school staff must work together to determine if a child has a learning disability, NCLD says. Parents have to be provided with the results of repeated assessments of achievement.

For students participating in an RTI program, parents must be notified about their state's policies on the collection of student performance data, strategies for increasing the child's rate of learning, and their right to request an evaluation for special education services.

The RTI process can't be used to deny or delay these evaluations.

The new position from NCLD focuses heavily on RTI, noting that "when implemented with fidelity, RTI will expedite the [learning disability] evaluation process, as data on the child's response to instruction and intervention will have taken place prior to the onset of the 60-day timeline (or shorter if required by state policy) for an initial evaluation."

But it again emphasizes not substituting RTI for that evaluation.

"It is essential that schools proceed in a timely fashion," the position statement says, "with increasingly intensive interventions to ensure that the child is not languishing in an ineffective instructional program or intervention."

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