Students with Special Needs

When a child is blind or deaf, the evidence is clear. In these situations, it is also straightforward to see what the child needs. Students with special needs, however, are not always straightforward to identify. One area concerns learning disabilities. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in the US defines specific learning disabilities in the following manner:
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, that may manifest itself in the imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or to do mathematical calculations, including conditions such as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia.
The identification and choice of interventions for specific learning disability, however, remain challenging. A significant number of approaches currently employed in school districts in the US fall under a cognitive discrepancy identification scheme based on an individual pattern of strengths and weaknesses (PSW).

Above copied from West Virginia Department of Education
It is indeed comforting that there are prescribed methods and standards applied in the identification of students with special needs. In medicine, a correct diagnosis and treatment is crucial. Methods therefore undergo rigorous clinical trials to see if these are effective or not. Unfortunately, with specific learning disability identification and intervention, this is not the case. PSW methods do not have sufficient backing from research based evidence. And a paper scheduled to be published in the Journal of Educational Psychology shows that PSW methods "are at best superfluous, and may be detrimental to the goal of ensuring the availability of high-quality academic instruction for all struggling students."

The authors of the study based their conclusion on an empirical investigation that includes over 200 students from three school districts in the Southwestern U.S. Their findings are quite disconcerting. First, the two common methods used for identification; the crossbattery assessment method and the concordance/discordance model, do not identify the same children as having a specific learning disability. Out of the 175 students identified with a specific learning disability by one of these two methods, only 59 are identified by both. This is not even better than tossing a coin. The second finding is that learning outcomes are not dependent on whether a student is identified or not with a specific learning disability. This study does raise serious questions on how schools should manage specific learning disabilities.