What is A Comprehensive Assessment for SLD? RTI, PSW, and the Disagreements in the Field

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What is A Comprehensive Assessment for SLD? RTI, PSW, and the Disagreements in the Field

              The debate in the field on what constitutes a comprehensive assessment for SLD rages on as those who argue for a smaller role for cognitive ability testing (Miciak, Fletcher, et.al., 2016) face off with others (Hale et. al., 2010) who cannot imagine conducting a thorough evaluation without an assessment of processing skills to light the way toward the identification of the presence of a learning disability and subsequent interventions. The arguments and counter arguments have grown so heated that they border on the personal. As Schneider and Kaufmann (2016) put it, “We find few things more annoying than when debate opponents present inaccurate versions of our views and then claim

victory by refuting positions we do not hold (p. 9).”

              The arguments include bashing (Krantzler, Benson, & Floyd, 2015) the usefulness of the Pattern of Strengths and Weakness (PSW) approach for the identification of learning disabilities, to questioning the need to include cognitive ability testing in an assessment, and even to different readings of the definition of a learning disability. Yet, Schneider and Kaufman assert that “…contemporary cognitive assessment is based on some of the sturdiest findings psychological science has to offer….; Cognitive assessment is increasingly based on sophisticated and robust theories of cognitive ability ...[and] Contemporary individual cognitive ability tests are the best they have ever been. The research literature on the validity of cognitive ability tests is enormous and, at least with respect to general ability tests, mind-numbingly consistent.”

              Nevertheless, the opponents of cognitive ability testing have an influence on legislation, legislators, and administrators who may hear and use the arguments in non-constructive ways. For example, the current definition of a learning disability is as follows:

“A disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or using language, spoken or written, which manifests itself in the imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do (IDEIA, 2006).”

Those who support cognitive processing as an essential ingredient of a learning disability evaluation cite the portion of the above definition that refers to “basic psychological processes” while the opponents focus on the manifestations of processing deficits, feeling processing skills are theoretical constructs while the manifestations of learning problems are concrete and observable. The latter reading points toward the RTI approach to identifying a learning disability. In fact, the idea underlying RTI-that providing help for students who need it-just makes sense. At the same time, Schneider and Kaufmann’s objection to “…the practice of labeling children who fail to respond to intervention as learning disabled on the grounds that not all children so identified will have cognitive processing deficits, (p. 11),” makes equal sense. Furthermore, I agree with their position that, “Persistent failure to respond to appropriate intervention is an important concept, but it is, in our opinion, best conceived as a correlate of disability, not a defining feature (p. 11).”ns.

So, where does this leave the professionals who are tasked with identifying students with learning disabilities and addressing their deficits? Again, the answer to this question depends on which side of the proverbial fence you sit. Opponents and proponents of processing skills as being important agree on their existence and significance. Opponents feel there is not yet sufficient research to state with confidence that knowing students’ cognitive profiles predicts the presence of a learning disability with fidelity or the response to an intervention based on those processing profiles. Proponents of cognitive testing feel that students with processing deficits do and will continue to exist whether or not you call these deficits learning disabilities. In this context, Schneider and Kaufmann wonder whether the field needs to develop a different term to characterize these students rather than learning disabled.

For the time being, professionals in the field need to respond to the needs of students, their teachers, and parents. Contemporary CHC theory provides a structure in which to consider observable, unexpected underachievement. Moreover, cognitive processing profiles offer a way to map out what may be hindering students’ efforts and how to address them as long as we consider the fact that: cognitive testing only accounts for 50% of the variance in achievement; and the relationships between the linkages between cognitive processing and the identification of learning disabilities as well as the creation of interventions which target the processing deficits are probabilistic rather than causative (Flanagan).

Things to Consider


              Professionals in the field need some guidelines in conducting comprehensive evaluations and generating interventions while the science catches up on the questions for which there are not yet discernable answers.                          

              Here are some things to keep in mind whether using an RTI or PSW framework (assuming that by now most in the field, including the opponents and proponents cited above, agree that the ability achievement discrepancy approach is not valid or useful):


Learning disabilities, like other disorders, are dimensional, not dichotomous. This implies that methods that are based upon cutoff points for either being fish or fowl are likely to result in too many false positives and false negatives;

RTI does not address the statutory requirement for a deficit in a basic psychological process;

RTI as an approach to identifying learning disabilities can be fraught with problems like the idea of declaring all who fail intervention approaches to be, de facto, learning disabled, as there are other reasons for not doing well at school;

RTI does not explain why students fail to benefit from intervention;

RTI has no consensus on establishing appropriate achievement benchmarks or intervention timelines to determine the aim line slope (a critical component of determining individual responsiveness);

RTI has no agreed-upon methods for teacher training or supervision methods to ensure interventions are carried out with integrity;

Response to the Right Intervention (RTRI) is RTI based upon an understanding of the neurocognitive bases of learning and behavior. Interventions are tailored to students’ learning and behavioral profiles which are developed using a theoretical framework that links assessment and instructional practices and can be the “fix” for RTI. In the RTRI model, “…selective cognitive processing and neuropsychological assessment data, in addition to classroom grades and curriculum based or criterion referenced measures are collected early in the RTI process to better guide the selection of evidence-based measures (Della Toffalo, 2012).” In RTI, these measures are not applied until Tier 111, allowing more time to pass and student failure to evolve.

 PSW forces practitioners to really understand the neuropsychological processes that are part and parcel of the academic areas being assessed moves the diagnostic process away from formulaic approaches and places;

PSW encourages the best practices in assessment by including multiple data sources-including executive functioning- and asking practitioners to explain findings that are incongruent:

-non-cohesive normative data;

-discrepancies between ecological validity and normative findings;

While PSW has cutoffs, an SLD diagnosis is not solely based on quantitative factors

-when normative scores indicate SLD, this is not conclusive without multiple sources of information including exclusionary factors being considered

-when normative scores indicate the absence of SLD, this is not conclusive without multiple sources of information including exclusionary factors;

PSW approaches should be clearly thought of as a way of thinking about observable achievement or the lack thereof for the purpose of understanding the problems and generating interventions that is based upon a theoretical framework that is currently our best science and clinical best practices. It puts the reins back into the hands of the practitioner who must collect and analyze multiple sources of data to make decisions rather than use a simple formula.

In New Jersey, the special education code requires a comprehensive assessment and prohibits the use of one method for determining eligibility.


Della Toffalo, D.A. (2012). Linking School Neuropsychology with Response‐To‐Intervention Models. In D. Miller (Ed.)., Best Practices in School Neuropsychology: Guidelines for Effective Practice, Assessment, and Evidence‐Based Intervention. Wiley online library https://doi.org/10.1002/9781118269855.ch8

Flanagan, D. P., Ortiz, S. O., & Alfonso, V. C. (2013). Essentials of cross-battery assessment, Vol. 84. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Hale, J. B., Alfonso, V., Berninger, V., Bracken, B., Christo, C., Clark, E., et al. (2010). Critical issues in response-to-intervention, comprehensive evaluation, and specific learning disabilities identification and intervention: An expert white paper consensus. Learning Disability Quarterly, 33, 223–236.

Kranzler, J. H., Floyd, R. G., Benson, N., Zaboski, B., & Thibodaux, L. (2016). Cross-battery assessment pattern of strengths and weaknesses approach to the identification of specific learning disorders: Evidence-based practice or pseudoscience? International Journal of School & Educational Psychology, 4(3), 146–157. https://doi.org/10.1080/21683603.2016.1192855

Miciak, J., Fletcher, J. M., & Stuebing, K. K. (2016). Accuracy and validity of methods for identifying learning disabilities in a response-to-intervention service delivery framework. In Jimerson, S. R., Burns, M. K., & VanDerHeyden, A. M. (Eds.) Handbook of response to intervention (pp. 421–440). New York: Springer.

Schneider, W.J., & Kaufman, A.S. (2017).  Let’s Not Do Away with Comprehensive Cognitive Assessments Just Yet. Archives of Clinical Neuropsychology 32, 8–20.

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