The importance of understanding students’ cognitive processing skills was affirmed by the Learning Disability Association of America (LDAA):
It is LDA’s position that all students referred for evaluation because of learning difficulties deserve a process that determines not simply whether they are eligible for services but one that provides a comprehensive understanding of an individual’s functioning, pinpointing both strengths and weaknesses and creating a better understanding of the strengths they have and the supports they need.” McHale- Small, M., Tridas, E., S., Cárdenas-Hagan, E., Allsopp, D.H., van Ingen Lauer, S., Scott, K., & Elbeheri, G. (2023). Specific Learning Disabilities Principles and Standards. Learning Disabilities Association of America. ldaamerica.org.
Testing for eligibility for special education services, especially when the determinative factor is a discrepancy formula with arbitrary cutoffs, robs students, parents, and teachers of the crucial information needed to not only understand academic struggles, but also to drive interventions targeted to cognitive processing skill deficits.
“Even if a student never enters the special education system, the general education teacher, the student’s parents, and the student him- or herself would receive valuable information regarding why there was such a struggle in acquiring academic content, to the point of possibly needing special education. ((Kavale, Holdnack, & Mostert, Learning Disability Quarterly, 2006, 28 (1), p.113-127).”
As parents struggle with the increasing incidence of learning problems, particularly after several years of covid driven virtual instruction, requests for child study team (CST) evaluations have increased. However, CST’s have pushed back as they were already deluged by requests for evaluations and services not only from parents, but also from teachers. Moreover, many CST evaluations lack the specificity needed to explain students’ cognitive profiles, stopping at determining eligibility. Yet, the field has progressed to the point that there is a consensus that processing skill deficits are the root cause of learning disabilities. In addition, different cognitive skill profiles are the key to deciding what kinds of interventions are needed to remediate learning disorders.
In fact, the universally accepted definition of a learning disability is a disorder in one or more basic psychological processes which manifests itself in the imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do mathematical calculations. In New Jersey, the outdated special education code stipulates two ways to determine the presence of a learning disability, and, paradoxically, neither adheres to this definition. The discrepancy approach compares students’ cognitive abilities with their achievement and applies a statistical formula nad arbitrary cutoffs to see who qualifies. Similarly, the response to intervention route to determining the presence of a learning disability also does not address the presence of deficits in basic psychological processes. Instead, students are assessed using mostly functional data, and interventions are implemented, making students who do not progress as a result of these interventions automatically assigned the designation of learning disabled. To make matters worse, discrepancy cutoffs are determined by individual school districts, and response to intervention programs are also determined by districts with no view toward understanding students’ cognitive processing strengths and weaknesses or using this information to drive interventions!
Recent legislative efforts by four of the largest professional associations in New Jersey resulted in the passage of a bill by the Senate to amend the special education code to bring it into line with the latest science and the definition of a learning disability. While its’ passage by the Assembly is yet to be determined, students continue to be assessed by methods that may either designate them as learning disabled when they are and are not so.
Parents, teachers, and advocates for children need to be aware of the importance of measuring cognitive skills and how they address learning struggles, a task best done by a thorough neuropsychological evaluation. These assessments are more comprehensive than CST psychoeducational evaluations and answer the following questions: WHY are students not progressing? And WHAT to do about it?
Parents should be aware that when CST evaluations are not sufficiently comprehensive or when parents do not agree with the findings, they can request an independent evaluation at the expense of the district. When doing so, the neuropsychological evaluation is the most comprehensive.