Idaho’s current specific learning disabilities (SLD) eligibility policy reflects a clinical approach taken when a preponderance of evidence indicates that the three primary characteristics of the SLD definition are present:
an inability to achieve to grade level academic standards that
results from a disorder in one of the basic psychological processes, and
is not primarily due to a lack of appropriate instruction, cultural or economic difference, or vision or hearing problems.
In theory, the clinical approach is better aligned with the complex, heterogeneous, and individualized nature of learning disabilities (LD). In practice of course, this approach presents implementation concerns that need to be addressed to ensure reliable and consistent application.
Idaho’s revised SLD policy represented a significant change to practice not only for multidisciplinary teams (MDTs), but also for the state’s entire educational system. The requirement to provide documentation that effective instruction and intervention have been provided to the student has implications for the entire school system since such data must collected long before the MDT conducts the comprehensive evaluation. Although the SLD policy doesn’t use the term RTI data, the requirement that a team document that the instruction has been generally effective for most students and include a progress monitoring graph indicating the child has not responded to evidence-based instruction is, in essence, consistent with the RTI framework.
And therein lies the rub—RTI is in place in some districts across the state, but overall, most districts are in various stages of implementation, with many districts choosing not to implement at all. The requirement in the SLD identification process to document student response to intervention represents somewhat of a back door approach to requiring RTI, in that teams must document the efficacy of both core instruction as well as research-based interventions implemented to address specific skill deficits. Because the SLD identification policy requires documentation of effective instruction and intervention, schools by default must now begin to offer these practices. In short, the success of implementation of the revised SLD policy requires a significant shift in general education practice.
The change also required significant shifts in practice for the MDT in terms of assessment procedures. The previous SLD identification policy required the documentation of a discrepancy between aptitude and achievement. In Idaho, achievement was measured through the use of broad area scores on standardized academic achievement tests and aptitude was measured through full-scale IQ scores. The evaluation process was standardized for all students suspected of having an SLD, and teams implemented these practices primarily for documentation purposes. As mentioned above, the revised policy assumes a more clinical approach to the evaluation. MDTs must first provide appropriate interventions to support student learning; then, if the student does not respond to these interventions, the team conducts a comprehensive evaluation using assessments specific to the area of academic concern and related cognitive processes to determine the student’s relative areas of strength and weaknesses. This means that there is no standard battery of assessments used to determine the presence of SLD for children. The team must develop hypotheses based on student performance and the data that they collect; each hypothesis developed is then testable through an intentional evaluation process that focuses on the areas of concern for that individual child.
The revision of the SLD policy, then, had significant implications for both general education and special education. If schools were to be successful in implementing the new policy, the state SLD committee recognized that in addition to policy change, a significant training and support effort must accompany the policy rollout.
First, the state SLD committee decided to conduct a pilot of the new SLD eligibility process. Districts were requested to have each school submit an SLD eligibility file that would be reviewed through a peer review process held at the end of the school year. The goals of the peer review process were as follows:
To train special education teachers and school psychologists on the new SLD policy through a review of numerous eligibility reports;
To provide feedback to schools and districts;
To identify state training priorities.
Peer reviewers were gathered at one central location for a 2-day training that included a review of SLD eligibility files with redacted identifying information. The goal was to train practitioners on the specifics of the new policy through a large-scale, systematic review of eligibility files. The peer reviewers used a rubric to provide feedback on the eligibility files—indicating strengths of the files, as well as areas that were less clear—and this feedback was compiled and sent back to districts and schools so that they could strengthen their procedures in relevant areas.
Additionally, the data from the peer review process were collected in a state database to establish a baseline of performance and to provide quantitative feedback at the state level as to the specific components of the SLD identification requirements that appeared to be implemented well, and about those that did not appear to be well implemented. A full copy of the results of this review will be published soon, but in general, through this systematic review, the state identified the following training priorities:
Aligning intervention (Tier 2) with the student’s area of need and evidence-based practice;
Monitoring student progress, including identifying appropriate goals and decision rules for when instruction needs to be changed;
Administering specific academic achievement assessments to diagnose the specific academic area of concern;
Conducting a psychological processing evaluation that identifies potential explanatory causes for the student’s learning difficulties.
As a result of this review, the state devised a long-term training plan that is currently in Year 2 of implementation. At the end of the 2012 academic year, the peer review process will be repeated to determine whether the training has led to improvements in implementing policy.
In the next post in this blog series, I’ll discuss the training efforts aimed at Priorities 1 and 2 above, and include a more detailed description as to what this training and support effort looks like at a school and individual level.
The National Center for Learning Disabilities, Inc., is a not-for-profit, tax-exempt organization under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. All contributions are tax-deductible to the extent permitted by law.
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