Navigating the New Eligibility Requirements for Learning Disabilities Assistance In Public Schools


Key background points to know:

  • Although the basic definition of a learning disability has not changed (a defined processing problem directly impacting an academic area), the determination of whether a child is eligible to receive learning disabilities services has changed effective 7-1-07. The new state regulations require that the student be provided with research-based intervention strategies that are carefully monitored before they can be considered for a learning disabilities program.Most, if not all, of this intervention would occur in the regular education program. The Georgia State Department of Education has developed a 4 tiered approach to providing intervention:
  • The first tier occurs in the regular classroom situation with differentiation of instruction and frequent progress monitoring.
  • The second tier is more formalized with greater frequency of progress monitoring, e.g. EIP.
  • The third tier involves SST designed interventions and individual assessment of progress.
  • The fourth-tier would include special education services.

The new requirements for eligibility for participation in a learning disabilities program in special education includes the following statement:

“the child exhibits a pattern of strengths and weaknesses in performance, achievement, or both, relative to age, state-approved grade level standards and intellectual development. Ultimately specific learning disability (eligibility) is determined by professional judgment using multiple sources”.

Required data collection also includes a provision that there must be 12 weeks minimum of supplementary instruction provided with at least four data collections of progress monitoring occurring during the 12 weeks. Parents must be provided with the progress monitoring results at regular intervals.

What Does This Mean?

What this means is that regular education has to be more diligent in designing and implementing effective instructional strategies for kids who are having difficulty and to be able to communicate this with parents and show the effects of the interventions. Special education can therefore deny a student services if this has not occurred. Therefore, it is important for parents to know what to do and what to ask for as their child is navigating through this process.

The idea of providing effective, research-based instruction to students who are having difficulty and monitoring the results is a good one. If done well it can be very helpful to many students. However, there are problems with this approach which will be more “problematic” in the earlier stages of implementation. First, it depends on the “quality” of the targeted instruction provided and the expertise of the teacher. Although the new regulations call for “scientific research-based interventions” for all ages and all academic domains, the availability of research-based approaches in all areas is limited and individual teachers may not have been trained in these areas. Second, the effectiveness of assessment/monitoring is crucial. If the interventions are not properly designed, implemented, monitored or assessed, the student can become “lost” in the process and lose valuable time.

Early intervention for students with learning disabilities is crucial and we cannot afford to lose time.

Another problem is that this is a relatively new approach for both regular and special education, despite the existence of SST for many years. There will be uncertainty especially early on as to how to implement these new requirements. It is likely to take years for regular education particularly to develop necessary approaches and for special education to develop their new procedures with confidence.

There are other very significant changes which can impact learning disabled students substantially:

The eligibility requirements state that students do not perform appropriately relative to not only age and intellectual development but also to state-approved grade level standards. Let’s say we have an 8th grade student who is very bright and should be achieving well above grade level.

Over the years the student has compensated for a serious reading disability using his intellectual skills and dogged perseverance. However, because he passes the minimal assessments ( e.g. CRCT), he is denied services in a learning disabilities program. Despite research which has determined that the major disability factor in adolescents with dyslexia is in reading fluency and he would be very slow and laborious in his reading and direct assessments of reading fluency performed independently have indicated very serious reading fluency problems, he may be denied services.

Indeed, as of this date, there is no state standard for reading fluency for a student in the 8th grade.

How then can one determine if he has met the “state standard”. The new eligibility requirements for learning disabilities have particularly added “reading fluency” as one of the 8 academic areas that would qualify a student for services if deficient, but there is no state standard for measuring it.

One of the most problematic phrases in the new state requirements is the following:

“though the child may be performing below age or state approved grade level standards, the results of progress monitoring must indicate that the child is not making the expected progress toward established benchmarks. This is indicated by comparing the child’s rate of progress toward attainment of grade level standards”.

This is extremely murky and subjective. How will this be determined? Parents are at a distinct disadvantage because this is so subjective. How does one determine how much progress is enough progress? How does one evaluate the evaluation of progress? I imagine that this will be the most difficult part of the whole eligibility determination and will vary tremendously from one school system to the next. If you (school system) are in the mindset of not wanting to put students in learning disabilities programs, this is what you would use. However, if you are in the mindset of wanting to put students in learning disabilities programs, you would be lenient in your definition. This seems unfair if there is great variability from school system to school system in their mindsets.

A few other important thoughts:

It is essential for you to know as parents that you have a right to send a written referral to the school requesting that your child receive a comprehensive evaluation for identification/eligibility for special education services, at any time during the RTI (Response to Intervention) process. Evaluation does not refer to a psychological evaluation or a neuropsychological evaluation, but to the implementation of the entire process.

If you have already received a neuropsychological evaluation, e.g. through this office, you should request in writing that your child be considered for learning disability services if that was recommended. Be prepared that if the school system has not already been providing RTI services, they may tell you that they have to do so. It is incumbent upon you as parents, therefore, to know what questions to ask and what to have in writing as you begin this rather confusing process. To assist you – attached is a template for parents that outlines the specific questions to ask and a space for answers. Using this template will help you to carefully monitor what is being done to help your child so that he or she does not become lost.

One other important note:

State regulations indicate that for children who require a psychological and clinical evaluation, it must be conducted by a qualified psychological examiner. In addition to school psychologists, the definition of a qualified psychological examiner includes:

“A psychologist licensed by the Georgia Board of Examiners of Psychologists and having training and experience in school psychology or child clinical psychology”.

Private child psychologists/neuropsychologists are therefore considered acceptable members of the evaluation team and results from their evaluation would be just as acceptable as those from the system’s school psychologist. In Dr. Lynda’s case, she meets the provision both of state licensing and 25 years experience in school psychology. In most cases no other additional neuropsychological or psychological assessment should be required as you navigate through the eligibility process.