Discrepancy Formulas Are Immoral
By Emerson Dickman, JD
There is one issue undermining special education service delivery that is particularly negative, pervasive, and insidious. In the field of public education, the system requires schools to quantify success. Baselines are required for every project, especially in special education. These baselines are supposed to measure the child’s growth and the system’s success. On the surface, this accountability approach seems rational, even scientifically valid. However, the baseline detected must be at a level of failure in order to mobilize efforts to address the needs of a child with a disability; this is the fundamental flaw.
Our system of special education rewards those who cure and overlooks those who prevent, because success at prevention is not immediately quantifiable. If a child is not failing, but merely destined to fail, that child receives no services until he is seen at a point in time when he is failing. This need to quantify success is manifest in the aptitude-achievement discrepancy formulas used to identify children for special education services. Such formulas are the single greatest weakness in the system of special education service delivery in the United States. Benjamin Franklin said that: “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” It is a tragic paradox that our schools are often precluded from intervening to prevent the predictably harmful developmental course experienced when disabilities go unremediated. “The only thing that such a formula prevents is prevention” (Jack Fletcher, University of Texas). Any such formula requires that a student cross a “threshold of severe failure” (Nancy Mather, University of Arizona). It is also clear that the student must remain on the wrong side of this threshold to justify continued service delivery. Thomas Hehir, the recent director of the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) has stated that the aptitude-achievement discrepancy formula, that his agency was responsible for interpreting and enforcing, was “a wait and fail model” that is “immoral.”
The inadequacy of the aptitude-achievement discrepancy formula is recognized by scientists, at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, and the United States Department of Education, yet it is in use more than ever. The current focus must be on developing an operational alternative that is scientifically valid and sufficiently administratively convenient to attract the support of public education administrators.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) defines a Specific Learning Disability at 20 USC 1401(26) as follows:
(A) In general: The term specific learning disability’ means a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, which disorder may manifest itself in imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do mathematical calculations.
(B) Disorders included: Such term includes such conditions as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia.
(C) Disorders not includes
(D) Such term does not include a learning problem that is primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor disabilities, of mental retardation, of emotional disturbance, or of environmental cultural, or economic disadvantage.
The Code of Federal Regulations (the Regulations) at 34 CFR 300.541 indicates that a Specific Learning Disability exists if:
(1). The child does not achieve commensurate with his or her age and ability levels in one or more of the areas listed in paragraph (a)(2) of this section, if provided with learning experiences appropriate for the child’s age and ability levels; and
(2). The team finds that a child has a severe discrepancy between achievement and intellectual ability in one or more of the following areas: (i) Oral expression. (ii) Listening comprehension. (iii) Written expression. (iv) Basic reading skill. (v) Reading comprehension. (vi) Mathematics calculation. (vii) Mathematics reasoning.
(b) The team may not identify a child as havin a specific learning disability if the severe discrepancy between ability and achievement is primarily the result of: (1) visual, hearing, or motor impairment; (2) Mental retardation; (3) Emotional disturbance; or (4) Environmental, cultural or economic disadvantage.
The Congress of the United States at 20 USC 1400 (c) (5) (E) (ii) has found that the goal of education is “to prepare all children to lead productive, independent adult lives, to the maximum extent possible.” By precluding effective prevention, discrepancy formulas are inconsistent with the stated purpose of education in this country. In order to reach consensus on an operational alternative, we must revisit one of the most difficult issues in the field of special education, the definition of learning disability. The aptitude-achievement discrepancy formula would declare a child eligible for special education if he has failed to achieve as predicted by reference to other children with similar intellectual potential.
The difficulty with this analysis is that there is no scientific reason to believe that a child that qualifies using this formula is, in fact, a child with a learning disability or that a child that does not qualify using this formula is, in fact, a child without a learning disability. In other words, if a child achieves commensurate with his ability, a learning disability cannot be ruled out and, conversely, the fact that a child does notachieve commensurate with his ability, is not proof of the existence of a learning disability.
Sally Shaywitz, M.D., from the Yale Child Study Center defines a learning disability simply as “a weakness in a sea of strengths.” For me, this statement has the power of epiphany. First and foremost, it requires and intra-individual analysis of skills and abilities – not achievement. In other words, a normal distribution of skills and abilities would be expected to fall within a predictable range above and below the individual’s average potential. Therefore, if a child with 150 IQ, or a child with a 50 IQ, were to exhibit skills and abilities within a predictable range above and below their measured potential they would not be said to have a learning disability. However, if a child exhibits an unexpected weakness in a discrete skill, such as a weakness in phonological processing, or in an identifiable cluster of discrete skills, such as the symptom complexes often referred to as a Nonverbal Learning Disability (NLD) or an Executive Function Deficit (EFD), the child may be considered as having a learning disability.
The NLD profile was introduced in the late 1960′s when researchers began suggesting the possibility of a learning disability profile with manifestations that included problems with interpersonal relationships and the ability to judge emotion. Currently, children said to fall within the NLD complex exhibit a, more or less, common profile involving a Verbal IQ significantly greater than their Performance IQ; pronounced deficits in social competence involved in peer relationships; problems with paralinguistic cues including expression, body language, prosody; difficulty interpreting figurative language including sarcasm, hyperbole, metaphor, collocations, idioms, and the like; relative academic weaknesses in math computation and expressive written language; and dysgraphia.
The EFD profile often includes some of the same social skills problems faced by the child with the NLD profile but impacts primarily on organizational skills, planning, maintaining set, self-regulation, attention, vigilance, inhibition, and even the ability to form the intention to act. The descriptions of NLD and EFD in this article are gross oversimplifications and provided for illustration only. Clearly, they overlap with AD/HD and the primary observable manifestations of social skills and organizational deficits can result from many other causes.
When discussing learning disabilities it is important to keep in mind that the profile we consider as being deficient is determined by the culture and the time in which the child lives. If any of the skills required for an individual to efficiently provide for self, family, or community are deficient, that individual is considered deficient. However, the skills required to provide for self, family, and community are different depending on the culture and time in which you live. In other words, the label “disability” is not determined by the deficit itself, but its social consequences” (Vigotsky, 1993). For instance, sense of direction, the ability to track animals, or the ability to distinguish poisonous plants, may be considered vestigial disabilities relevant to another culture and another time. When these skills were necessary to provide for self, family, and community, the ability to read was not a concern.
Another important factor to consider when describing what we understand to be a learning disability is the distinction between simply identifying behavior and discovering the causes of behavior. For instance, there are many reasons why a child may not have acquired literacy skills. A functional analysis of why the child does not have literacy skills commensurate with his potential (behavior) is necessary in order to determine the mechanism interfering with his ability to acquire literacy skills (the causes of behavior). When dealing with the concept of learning disabilities it is important to recognize that some behavior may not be related to the neurobiological foundation of the disability, but to the predictable psychosocial manifestations resulting from the lack of appropriate remediation. An understanding of the predictable developmental course from neurobiological to psychosocial is necessary in order to assure that the underlying learning disability is identified and receives appropriate attention. For instance, unexpected underachievement in reading results in a pervasive feeling of inadequacy that, in turn, results in developing cognitive dissonance that, in turn, results in behaviors intended to avoid challenges likely to display inadequacy.
Over time the disparity between expectations and relatively lower performance, both socially and academically, leads to psychological pain. This predictable occurrence can be understood in the context of cognitive dissonance theory. Cognitive dissonance is defined as an uncomfortable psychological state in which the individual experiences two incompatible beliefs or cognitions. It is not unusual for children with learning difficulties to experience significantly incompatible perspectives concerning their skills and abilities (self-efficacy). Childhood attributions and expectations that support an image of competency are increasingly challenged by a growing awareness of a lack of competence in critical areas of skill development. The conflict between childhood attributions and inconsistent performance results in a cognitive dissonance that causes psychological discomfort. Cognitive dissonance theory holds that the individual is then motivated by the attendant discomfort to act in such a manner as to reduce dissonance. Eventually, in order to resolve such discomfort, the child will often add a variable of effort or behavior to explain failure without challenging self-efficacy. It can be said that such a child would rather appear unwilling than unable.
The Center for Effective Collaboration and Practice, in 1998, challenged educators to “look beyond the overt topography of behavior, and focus, instead, upon identifying biological, social, affective, and environmental factors that initiate, sustain, or end behavior.” Reid Lyon, Ph.D. (Director of the Learning Disabilities Branch of the National Center for Child Health and Human Development of NIH) has said: If you don’t know the cause you get instructional paradigms built on faulty assumptions. Operational definitions lead us to recognizing and understanding cause.
In order for a definition of a primary neurocognitive deficit or specific learning disability to be operational it must precede, predict, and be: specific, universal,necessary, and sufficient. The areas enumerated in the Regulations, i.e., oral expression, listening comprehension, written expression, basic reading skills, mathematics calculation, and mathematics reasoning, do not precede or predict, are nonspecific, are possibly artifactual, and develop as the result of living with a primary deficit. In other words, the learning disabilities enumerated in IDEA identify behavior and not the causes of the behavior. A variable may be said to “precede and predict” if it foretells related problems in skill development. For instance, the best-defined learning disability at the present time is Dyslexia. The definition of Dyslexia, discussed in greater detail later in this article, identifies “insufficient phonological processing” as the variable predictive of difficulties with single word decoding. The identification of insufficient phonological processing as the core deficit of Dyslexia is “specific” because it is identifiable and distinguishable as a discrete variable different from others. Insufficient phonological processing, in other words, is not dysnomia, problems with the orthographic memory, or lack of educational opportunity, etc. Longitudinal research has indicated that the predictive ability of insufficient phonological processing on acquiring literacy skills is valid overtime and under differing circumstances and, therefore, it can be viewed as “universal.” In the absence of a finding of insufficient phonological processing, poor single word decoding cannot be predicted for a child who does not exhibit a generalized developmental disability or sensory impairment. Therefore, the identified variable can be said to be “necessary.” Research has also indicated that insufficient phonological processing virtually assures the existence of the predicted outcome and is, therefore, “sufficient.” The question we must consistently ask ourselves when evaluating whether or not a definition is truly operational is: Can the identified deficit be distinguished from other neurocognitive variables overtime and under differing circumstances and is it predictive of a particular outcome?
The overriding goal of any change in the field of education is to improve outcomes for children. How does an operational definition of learning disability improve outcomes for children? Delivering services to a child in an environment with many children is not dissimilar to delivering mail in a country with many residents. The zip code and street address tell us the neighborhood. In other words, a particular child may live in the State called developmental disability, the town called genetic anomaly, and the street called Down Syndrome. This address may get us to the house, but it does not tell us what is going on in the house. It shows us where someone lives, but not howthey live. The more scientific analogy would be to the Linnaean Hierarchy used to classify plants and animals, i.e., Phylum to Class to Order to Family to Genus to Species. This taxonomy (a formal system of classification and labeling) tells us a great deal about the subject of our investigation, however, as Darwin pointed out, even at the most specific and lowest level of such a hierarchy there are differences related to variations in adaptation to environment and other influences.
Once a taxonomy involving definitions and labels get us to the front door, a phenomenological approach (observing the child’s unique behaviors and traits) is necessary to distinguish the individual and, finally, a functional analysis is required to identify the factors causing the behaviors intended to be remediated, compensated, accommodated, or promoted.
Over 15 years of research funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development has provided sufficient information about Dyslexia to have developed an operational definition. When reading the definition note that it recognizes a hierarchy of taxonomic levels in the field of learning disabilities, i.e., (1) learning disability, (2) language-based, and (3) dyslexia. The definition also recognizes the need for a phenomenological perspective to identify characteristics unique to the individual, i.e., variable difficulty with different forms of language.
Dyslexia is one of several distinct learning disabilities. It is a specific language-based disorder of constitutional origin characterized by difficulties in single word decoding, usually reflecting insufficient phonological processing abilities. These difficulties in single word decoding are often unexpected in relation to age and other cognitive and academic abilities; they are not the result of generalized developmental disability or sensory impairment. Dyslexia is manifest by variable difficulty with different forms of language, often including, in addition to problems reading, a conspicuous problem with acquiring proficiency in writing and spelling.
It is important, from the point of view of getting appropriate remediation that we, as parents, understand the function of labels when correctly used. For instance a child may have a learning disability that is language-based and that, due to the cause being insufficient phonological processing, is identified as dyslexia.
The term learning disability is too high in the hierarchy of taxonomic levels to specifically reference all neuro-cognitive variables that, if unexpectedly deficient, have a social impact. It would be like in biology expecting the definition of phylum to specifically reference all related species. The list is potentially endless and constantly being modified as the demands of our time and culture identify the ever-changing grab bag of skills necessary to provide for self, family, and community. On the other hand, does it make any sense to list the secondary or consequential behaviors such as those enumerated in the Regulations, e.g., oral expression, listening comprehension, written expression, basic reading skills, mathematics calculation, mathematics reasoning. Such a definition would have little value in identifying the needs of the child or in helping to prescribe an appropriate education.
However, all may not be lost. The definition of dyslexia adopted by NICHD provides a handy guide for the development of a definition with potential, to wit:
Learning disabilities are a class of distinct disorders of constitutional origin that predict anomalies in the adaptive development of skills, having consequences across the lifespan, are unexpected in relation to age and other cognitive and academic abilities, and are not the result of generalized developmental delay, sensory impairment, or instructional inadequacy.
Such a definition would recognize the place of learning disabilities in a system for the classification of disabilities (a hierarchy of taxonomic levels) and motivate the development of sub-classifications such as language-based learning disabilities and sub-sub-classifications such as dyslexia.
A child with dyslexia uncomplicated by other issues is not expected to have difficulty with peers, athletics, authority, or motivation. Such children are friendly, empathetic, and caring. It is easy to see why teachers often accommodate their deficits and grade on effort. The very existence of a disability is in question because the child has friends, is nice to teachers, and works hard. What do you say when the school district says they won’t even test for a learning disability because the child gets good grades?
Research funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development of the National Institutes of Health indicate that if youngsters with reading disability are not identified and provided with intervention before reaching nine years of age, at least 74% of them will remain disabled throughout their high school years.
Clearly, the process of reading, which appears quite natural, is actually intricate, complex and intentional. More important, while the act of reading may appear’ natural and easy for most of us, for many children it is neither natural or easy; in fact, it is down right frustrating. For these children we have not a classroom to waste’ (Adam’s 1991) as they face the tyranny of time’ (Kameenui, 1994), because the pedagogical clock for students who are behind in reading and literacy development continues to tick mercilessly, and the opportunities for these students to catch up diminishes over time’ (Kameenui, Professor and Associate Director of the National Center to Improve the Tools of Education at the College of Education, University of Oregon).
A New Jersey Administrative Court Judge held that reading is the foundation upon which all scholastic success depends (R.E. v. Jersey City Board of Ed. OAL Dkt No. EDS 7018-97 October 1997). Unfortunately, children that do not easily break the code often suffer a phenomenon referred to as the Mathew Effect. Dr. Keith Stanovich has coined the phrase Matthew Effect to describe the impact that a single unremediated deficit can have on the development of skills that are not deficient. The phrase comes from the Gospel according to Matthew where it is inferred that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.
Whereas IQ and general cognitive skills seem not to have much bearing on early reading achievement, early reading failures seem to result in a progressive diminution in IQ scores and general cognitive skills. In the words of Keith Stanovich, who has developed this argument with scholarship and force:
Slow reading acquisition has cognitive, behavioral, and motivational consequences that slow the development of other cognitive skills and inhibit performance on many academic tasks. In short, as reading develops, other cognitive processes linked to it track the level of reading skills. Knowledge bases that are in reciprocal relationships with reading are also inhibited from further development. The longer this development sequence is allowed to continue, the more generalized the deficits will become, seeping into more and more areas of cognition and behavior. Or to put it more simply—and sadly—in the words of a tearful nine year old, already falling frustratingly behind his peers in reading progress, Reading affects everything you do.
Adams, M.J. (1990) Beginning to Read, the MIT Press, pp. 59-60.
As children get older, the intensity and duration of reading intervention must increase exponentially to achieve the same improvement that is possible with younger children Birsh, J.R. (1999) Multisensory Teaching of Basic Language Skills, Paul H. Brookes, p.xx.
Because of the wide acceptance of the definition of dyslexia and its use by researchers, diagnosticians, and practitioners throughout the United States, remediation has become more focused and effective. Clearly, the primary form of dyslexia is a problem with the mechanisms involved in processing phonological information. Remediation, that focuses on visual deficits as the culprit (as once thought, e.g., reversals, transpositions, mirror vision, letters dancing on the page) would be misguided and a waste of time. The specific method or combination of methods chosen for a particular child is finally going to depend on the phenomenological and functional assessment of the child as an individual, even among dyslexics. If we are to develop instructional paradigms built on valid assumptions we need a nomenclature that informs education. The educational classification used to support eligibility for services may be Specific Learning Disability, but the specific learning disability identified as Dyslexia begins to inform as to the character of the services that need to be provided. Specific learning disability refers to a box of crayons; dyslexia refers to a blue crayon. The fact that a particular term has a scientific or medical use does not mean that it is not educationally useful as well
A significant practical problem in implementing any change that would have the potential for prevention is the political and economic impact. At present resources for special education are focused on curing. The effect of implementing a prevention component is to cause an initial increase in cost because the pool of children who need to be cured is not immediately diminished. Although the long-term benefits are obvious and the increase in cost is temporary, the political impact is immediate. Fiscal conservatives will yell, “tax and spend,” while the more moderate will await the support of a nation that is responding more and more to simplified rhetoric and sound bites and doesn’t have the time or patience to analyze these important issues to the extent that they deserve. We all must make our voices heard.