Specific Learning Disability identification during COVID-19

Educators must ensure a lack of appropriate instruction during school closures isn't the only factor when considering if a student has a SLD.

An eligibility team must consider whether a student received “learning experiences and instruction appropriate for the child’s age or state-approved grade-level standards” in its determination of whether the student has a specific learning disability. In other words, students cannot be identified with SLD if the only factor in the determination is a lack of appropriate instruction. 34 CFR 300.309(a)(1).

That analysis has become more difficult because of the novel coronavirus, which caused extended school closures in the spring and will likely disrupt full-time in-person instruction for at least the first half of SY 2020-21. Although some schools were able to offer robust online instruction, many were challenged by a lack of preparation for remote learning, student access to devices and Wi-Fi, and student and parent participation.

“For some kids, [the learning loss] will be minimal but for others, it could be around 25 percent,” says Stacy Skalski, director of professional policy and practice at the National Association of School Psychologists.

Because of the potential five- or six-month gap in learning for some students, it will be very difficult for educators to rule out a lack of appropriate instruction as a causal factor in learning disabilities, according to NASP. The result may be the under-identification and overidentification of students with specific learning disabilities, Skalski says.

In an effort to prevent the misclassification of students with SLD, NASP has recommended that educators restructure the process for analyzing if a student is at risk for SLD by first establishing or reestablishing core instruction and evidence-based interventions before considering whether a lack of appropriate instruction contributes to a student’s low achievement.

The North Carolina State Board of Education implemented a new policy this month for SLD eligibility that focuses on using response to intervention as major component of a comprehensive evaluation. The state’s emphasis on core instruction and interventions—rather than a severe discrepancy approach—has been in development for years but some say will be even more important now as schools work to evaluate students for SLD during the pandemic.

Here are other considerations to make when referring and evaluating students for SLD eligibility during this time:

  • Partner with parents. Because most students learned from their homes this spring, parents have become an essential source of information about the status of their child’s learning. The information parents supply about their child’s strengths and needs will be very valuable, says Meghan Whittaker, director of policy and advocacy for the National Center for Learning Disabilities. “That’s the way forward, to bring parents to the table early and often.”
  • Use multiple sources of data. The North Carolina State Board of Education highlighted the need to use multiple sources data in determining special education eligibility in its Lighting Our Way Forward guidebook for reopening schools. The guidebook said IEP teams should consider the instruction provided to the student prior to school closures and the student’s response documented at the time of referral; the instruction provided during school closures and the student’s response; and the child’s performance on all the required screenings and evaluations for the suspected disabilities. Additionally, NASP recommends schools review students’ academic growth both before and after extended school closures and the summer break.
  • Look at other exclusionary factors. The IDEA requires schools to determine that a learning disability that is not a result of “visual, hearing, or motor disabilities, of intellectual disabilities, of emotional disturbance, of environmental, cultural, economic disadvantage, or limited English proficiency.” 34 CFR 300.309(a)(3). NCLD has recommended districts provide staff training in cultural competency as well as reviewing policies and practices in order to prevent personal and institutional biases. Schools should be careful not to focus on numerical targets in order to avoid disproportionality. Each student’s situation must be reviewed and considered on an individual basis.
  • Follow child find mandate. The IDEA requires schools to respond when there is a suspicion that a child has a disability. Even if schools use an RTI framework to provide classwide instruction and interventions, those practices cannot create unreasonable delays in identifying students with SLD. Schools also cannot request an extension for an SLD evaluation in order to implement RTI. Schools will likely be under time pressures to both ramp up instruction and interventions and meet their child find responsibilities. However, schools and parents can agree on extending evaluation timelines.
  • Consider assessments carefully. To process a backlog of evaluations, school systems may need to conduct some parts of a student’s assessment virtually if the evaluation cannot be conducted face-to-face. The American Psychological Association recommends focusing on full-scale scores rather than subscales in virtual settings in order prevent slight data problems from skewing test results. “Our norms don’t allow for us to have a six-month gap where students weren’t in school,” Skalski says.

Kara Arundel covers special education for Special Ed Connection, a DA sister publication. Links to documents mentioned above are available to subscribers. 

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