Using Pattern of Strengths and Weaknesses to Evaluate for Specific Learning Disabilities

child psychologist
Cross Country Education
January 19, 2021 22:17 PM (GMT-05:00)
What is the Pattern of Strengths and Weaknesses (PSW) Model, and how can school psychologists use this model to evaluate children for specific learning disabilities (SLDs)? 
The excerpt below was written by Maria Gregory and Marysa Enis and published on Psyched Services website and effectively outlines the broad constructs of the PSW model for school psychologists. 

Common PSW Methods

Under PSW models, school psychologists look beyond a student’s overall general ability score and, more specifically, at the various cognitive processes. As with all forms of assessment, this is not without controversy, but it has gone a long way to help people understand the biological bases of learning disabilities. 
Here are some common PSW methods: 
  • Cross-Battery Assessment (XBA) 
  • Milton Dehn’s Processing Model 
  • Discrepancy/Consistency Method (DCM) 
  • Concordance-Discordance 
  • Core-Selective Evaluation Process (C-SEP) 

What Do PSW Models Have in Common? 

Regardless of which model a clinician uses, the key is to establish a pattern. After testing multiple aspects of a student’s cognitive functioning, school psychologists look to answer the following questions: 
  • Does a student have cognitive weakness, or are all their scores within the average to above-average range? In contrast to some discrepancy models, under PSW, students are not identified with an SLD if all of their abilities are average. 
  • If a student has weaknesses, is there a clear and consistent pattern to show what they are? In other words, can the clinician easily tell what types of tasks are easier or harder for the student? If the scores are inconsistent, there may be a different issue contributing to the student’s difficulty. 
  • If there is a clear pattern, does the student also have academic weaknesses? In other words, did they also score below average for their grade in one or more of the following: Oral expression, listening comprehension, math calculation, math reasoning, reading fluency, basic reading skills, reading comprehension or written expression? 
  • If a student does have academic weaknesses, do those weaknesses make sense given their abilities on cognitive tests? For example, a weakness in fine-motor coordination should not impact a child’s ability to learn math, but it may affect their ability to write. 

What Should Districts Consider When Transitioning from a Discrepancy Model to a PSW Model? 

Each state and district may interpret the law regarding PSW and implement it differently. Further, shifting from the discrepancy model to PSW can be tricky for a number of reasons. Districts should expect and plan for the following issues: 
  • Students who met eligibility for an SLD under the discrepancy model may not meet it under PSW and vice versa. This is most likely to affect students with entirely average general ability scores (as PSW requires at least one weakness in cognition) and students with below-average general ability scores (as previous assessment may not have found a discrepancy between cognitive ability and achievement). 
  • As with any significant change, clinicians will need time, training, support, and mentorship to learn the ropes. Even so, their knowledge of child development, experience working with kids, and finely attuned clinical judgment is the most important factor in assessment. While it may be tempting to look for one fool-proof method for assessment of SLD, the truth is that there is no one-size-fits-all approach. 

School Psychologist Resources

We hope this resource from Gregory and Enis on the PSW Model makes a useful addition to your school psychologist toolkit. While you’re here, browse other resources shared by our team of school psychologists for their colleagues in the field. You’ll find information on topics like preschool special education evaluation and assessment, helping kids return to school after shutdowns, combatting racial injustice and keeping students safe, and of course, practicing self-care as a school psychologist

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