The reauthorized Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 (P.L.108-446) (IDEA 2004) was signed into law on December 3, 2004, by President George W. Bush. IDEA 2004 includes provisions that could lead to significant changes in the way in which students with SLD are identified. Of particular relevance to the process of SLD determination are the following provisions of the statute:
- Local educational agency (LEA) shall not be required to take into consideration whether a child has a sevre disrepancy between achievement and intellectual ability (IDEA 2004).
- LEAs may use response to scientific-based instruction.
- "Responsiveness to Intervention" (RTI) is not specifically identified in the law.
- LEAs are given flexibility in determining SLD implementation options.
- Using special education funding to provide early intervening for all students is permitted.
This movement toward change stems from criticisms of current SLD determination components, procedures, and criteria. Although the focus and scope of the debate varies, much of the criticism stems from discrepancies between conceptual definitions and operational definitions of SLD (Reschly & Hosp, 2004). Most notably, although conceptual definitions are multi-faceted, operational definitions have typically reduced the construct of SLD to a single dimension, a discrepancy between achievement and ability. In improving the process of SLD determination, understanding the components of the conceptual definition of SLD is important. In general, SLD involves learning and cognition disorders intrinsic to the individual, which are specific in that they each significantly affect a relatively narrow range of academic and performance outcomes (Bradley, Danielson, & Hallahan, 2002). The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1997 regulations define SLD as follows:
SPECIFIC LEARNING DISABILITY - 20 U.S.C. § 1401(26)(A); 34 C.F.R. § 300.7(c)(10)
(A) GENERAL - The term 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 an imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do mathematical calculations.
(B) DISORDERS INCLUDED - The term includes such conditions as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia and developmental aphasia.
(C) DISORDERS NOT INCLUDED - The term does not include learning problems that are primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor disabilities, of mental retardation, of emotional disturbance, or of environmental, cultural or economic disadvantage.
SLD identification procedures, therefore, need to adequately address the components in the conceptual definition in a systematic and analytical fashion to accurately identify the presence of a learning disability. Ideally, identification of SLD should include a student-centered, comprehensive evaluation and problem-solving approach that ensures students who have a learning disability are efficiently identified. Additionally, general education must assume significant responsibility for delivery of high-quality instruction, research-based interventions, and prompt identification of individuals at risk while collaborating with special education and related services personnel (2004 Learning Disabilities Roundtable, 2005).
Previous SLD determination procedures and practices have been faulted in several areas: irrelevance of aptitude-achievement discrepancy and cognitive measures to instructional planning or outcomes; lack of equitable treatment across educational settings; and delays in disability determination. Another criticism of practices has been that students were judged to have an SLD without assessing the availability and use of general education interventions that have proven their effectiveness for youngsters presenting similar behaviors of concern (e.g., limited reading acquisition). One could not be confident that the achievement and behavior problems that a child presented were inherent to the child or attributable to shortcomings in the instructional settings.
Earlier statutes regarding the determination of SLD included a provision for evaluating the extent to which students had received appropriate learning experiences. However, no systematic process was outlined in the earlier regulations for ensuring that the "learning experiences" provided before referral for evaluation were those that have been found to be typically effective for the child's age and ability levels (i.e., "appropriate"). The responsiveness to scientific-based intervention (e.g., RTI) concept in IDEA 2004 is an elaboration or greater specification of this basic concept. With this emphasis, school staffs may consider how a youngster's performance in general education and, more specifically, the youngster's performance in response to specific scientific research-based instruction, informs SLD determination.