Identifying Specific Learning Disabilities in an Era of School Closures and Learning Losses

Cross Country Education
April 01, 2022 02:05 AM (GMT-04:00)
Educator Resources

Extended school closures have made identifying specific learning disabilities (SLDs) harder than ever. School psychologists, special education teachers and other members of student support teams must now sort out whether each student’s difficulties result from lost instructional time or are due to a disability. Plus, school closures have interrupted timelines for data collection and student evaluations.

Educational professionals must follow federal and state laws and district and school procedures when identifying, evaluating and providing support for students with SLDs. Fortunately, though, there are reliable sources from trusted organizations with practical solutions and strategies to help school psychologists and educational professionals involved in identifying and evaluating SLDs during this challenging time. Here are some take-home points and tips from leading organizations.

The Pandemic’s Impact on Special Education Evaluations and SLD Identification

The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) report, The Pandemic’s Impact on Special Education Evaluations and SLD Identification, provides guidance to help the educational team identify specific learning disabilities as students return to in-person instruction. Suggestions are to:

  • Rebuild core instruction for all students and restructure evidence-based interventions for students with possible SLDs. Then watch closely for students whose academic deficits persist after class-wide interventions.
  • Remember that response to intervention (RTI) cannot cause an unreasonable delay in identifying students with SLD.
  • Reevaluate whether interventions used in the past are still effective.
  • Note that overidentifying SLDs may be more common, especially among students who have had limited access to online instruction, are economically disadvantaged, have limited English skills, or have parents pushing for early evaluation.
  • Compare data on students’ growth before and after closures and summer break.
  • Consider, within federal and local laws, requesting an extension of the evaluation timeline, if needed to ensure accurate identification of an SLD.
  • Employ any alternative assessments your school or state may use with caution, including those based on standardized tests, grade norms or IQ, patterns of strengths and weaknesses (PSW), or the ability-achievement discrepancy model.

Navigating Special Education Evaluations for Specific Learning Disabilities (SLD) Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic

The National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD) and the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) published Navigating Special Education Evaluations for Specific Learning Disabilities (SLD) Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic aimed at helping students “get timely and thorough evaluations to develop educational programs that meet their needs.” The educational team can:

  • Note that students’ learning rates may be slower in blended or virtual settings.
  • Use best practices when selecting, administering and interpreting assessment materials and be sure to document any adaptations, limitations, alterations or modifications of the materials.
  • Use multiple sources of information for evaluation, such as progress monitoring data, screening data, work samples, curriculum-based measurements and portfolios.
  • Avoid using a standard battery of assessments; instead, use only necessary evaluation tools.
  • Maintain regular contact with families whose children are in the evaluation pipeline.
  • Develop a policy and guidelines for prioritizing and addressing evaluation backlogs.

Principles for SLD Eligibility: Practice & Policy Considerations for States and School Districts

The Council of Administrators of Special Education, along with six other non-profit organizations, published Principles for SLD Eligibility: Practice & Policy Considerations for States and School Districts, which “describes school-level practices and policy considerations for states and school districts to encourage comprehensive, timely evaluations for special education for children suspected to have a specific learning disability.” Based on their recommendations, educators can:

  • Involve multidisciplinary teams in developing a comprehensive view of a student’s behavior and academic performance.
  • Consider the student’s language and culture.
  • Include information provided by the parents or guardians, including outside evaluation results.
  • Rule out other exclusionary criteria before determining that a child is eligible, such as intellectual disability, economic factors, lack of English proficiency or inadequate instruction.

Since learning losses and school interruptions have complicated SLD evaluation, it’s prudent for school psychologists and educators to seek training or a refresher on procedures for identifying specific learning disabilities. In the meantime, these tools should help!

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