Specific Learning Disability Test

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The Specific Learning Disability Test: Accommodation Process and Suggestions

A Specific Learning Disability (SLD) refers to a breakdown in the learning process associated with difficulty learning or processing new information. Parents or adults that are seeking accommodations at school or a better understanding in how to help their child or themselves perform better in an academic environment should be encouraged have an assessment performed. An assessment can be performed on both children and adults, and can provide useful information on how a person learns regardless of their age.

What is the test and how does it work?

The specific learning disability test is comprised of two parts: an intelligence or ability test and an achievement or performance test. Commonly used intelligence tests are the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children Fourth Edition (WISC-IV) or the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale Fourth Edition (WAIS-IV). A commonly used achievement test is the Woodcock Johnson Test of Achievement Third Edition (WJ-III).

The intelligence testing is used to establish a student’s achievement ability, or potential to learn. This is what your brain says you are capable of achieving. An intelligence test will go through both academic areas and neuropsychological processes. The testing will provide an intelligence quotient (IQ) score for reading, writing, math, etc… as well as cognitive function, memory, processing speeds, etc… The testing will also provide a Full Scale Intelligence Quotient, which is what is typically referred to when discussing IQ.

The achievement portion of the testing will go through a number of the same areas as the intelligence testing, but it determines where a student is actually achieving whereas the intelligence score determines where a student may potentially achieve. Additionally, the achievement score should also provide information on the individual student’s learning preference (tactile, auditory, etc…) to help create a learning profile based on their individual strengths and preferences.

Once the intelligence and achievement testing has been completed a licensed psychologist, or in some case a nurse with advanced training, needs to interpret the results. A learning difficulty or learning disability will be highlighted in any area where there is a significant gap between the intelligence and achievement scores. A learning difficulty suggests that there is a gap between IQ and achievement but it is not significant enough to warrant government/school resources. A learning disability is defined by the government and is typically a discrepancy of 1.5-2.0 standard deviations between IQ and achievement where the mean IQ is 100 and the deviation is 15. These are based on the average difference of people in the same age or grade range.

Examples of 1.5 standard deviations
- IQ of 130 and achievement of 95
- IQ of 100 and achievement of 80
- IQ of 80 and achievement of 70

Once a significant discrepancy is highlighted in a particular area the interpreter should determine where the breakdown of information is occurring. Information will be lost in one of three areas:

Input – New information is presented in a manner the student does not understand.
Processing – Information is presented appropriately, but is processed slowly, inaccurately, or there is an issue recalling the information from memory later on.
Output – Information is understood and processed appropriately, but when the student struggles in attempts to express their idea either orally or in writing.

The outcome of the testing should provide the student with information regarding any academic or neuropsychological disabilities that may be impacting their ability to learn effectively, a profile of how they prefer to learn, strategies for home, and accommodations the psychologist feels would enhance their learning experience in either the school or work setting.

When should testing occur?

A student’s IQ and their experiences determine how much information the testing can provide, and to some extent, how long results will remain valid. Students under 7 years old should be referred to a pediatric psychologist for testing, because their IQ is still forming and their achievement scores will vary drastically. Testing at this stage may provide early warning signs for some academic areas, but it is essentially a snapshot of the student’s development.

Students over 7 will have more reliable results that can be used to help develop an education plan. Third grade is an ideal time to have a child tested because their IQ has likely settled and should remain within a few points of that range for their life short of a traumatic event, such as a brain injury.

Testing should be administered every three to five years depending on the scores and input of the educators and parents. Most colleges and educational boards (GED, Professional Trades, Social Security Disability) will require results that have been validated in the last three years. A student that has had two or three intelligence tests with consistent scores may be eligible to waive the IQ testing once they are older. Current testing is important to measure a student’s achievement process as they progress. A student that has had an effective intervention may statistically close the gap between their IQ and achievement and essentially eliminate their learning difficulty on paper and may no longer qualify for accommodations.

It is important to note, especially when discussing this type of testing with a child, that these tests are geared toward learning the student’s learning preferences and are not necessarily looking for a “problem.” Diagnosing a learning difficulty is merely a side product of this type of testing. It will identify strengths and weaknesses and provide the school, parent, or workplace valuable information in the development of their students and staff. This type of testing would be valuable to any child one they have reached the third grade regardless of whether or not there are recognizable signs of a learning difficulty.

Students that are preparing to go into college or adults preparing for the workplace may have never been tested before even if they have a learning difficulty. It is common for students that have high intelligence scores to develop coping mechanisms to overcome the obstacles their learning difficulty may have presented them. High-school, college, and graduate level students that begin struggling after years of high marks may simply be at a level where their coping mechanisms can no longer keep pace with the level of difficulty new material is providing them. Students that have compensated for a learning difficulty through coping mechanisms or putting in unusually long hours may find that understanding their learning preferences or disabilities allows them to use their time more effectively as they study or to advocate for themselves in the school or workplace.

What outside information should be provided to the evaluator?

Report cards, ACT results, teacher or supervisor observations, and past testing results will all provide useful information to the evaluator while they are writing up the final report. Any information that helps paint a more complete picture of the student’s medical and academic history can be useful in not only the diagnosis process, but the recommendations for the student after testing.

Students and their parents should remember that information will remain confidential with the evaluator. Testing that is performed outside of the school setting will only be shared with the school if the student or parent chooses to share that information. Drug and alcohol abuse, stress at home, and an unstable family life may all contribute to learning difficulties and should be discussed openly with the evaluator. Psychologists, psychiatrists, and other professionals should know how to use the information provided to them, and excess information is less problematic than not enough information.

Will the testing diagnose ADHD or Autism?

No. ADHD is a neurobehavioral condition that impacts a student’s ability to learn in a manner that is different from a learning difficulty. There may be red flag symptoms of ADHD that appear during the Specific Learning Disability testing, such as processing speed or working memory issues, but this testing alone is not enough to diagnose any of the ADHD Types. Because ADHD testing is not standardized this type of testing may be a useful component of the ADHD diagnosis process. It is also important to note that students there is a thirty-percent comorbidity rate between ADHD and learning disabilities, so students that have been diagnosed with ADHD may also have their learning impacted by a learning disability.

Autism Spectrum Disorders are a complex disorder in brain development that will not be diagnosed through learning disability testing.

What should I do after a diagnosis?

This result will vary depending on the student’s age, and the purpose they had the testing done. Part of the testing process should include the opportunity to sit down with the psychologist or psychiatrist that has performed the testing to discuss the results and potential next steps.

For students in elementary or middle school the next step will likely be to discuss the results with the school’s counselor or special education department in order to arrange a 504 Plan or Individualized Education Plan (IEP). The decision process of any plan should include the input of both the parents and the teachers. Plans may include supplementing a student’s education in their existing classroom setting, shifting to a new class, or providing extracurricular supplemental education tools. Parents that have questions concerning 504 Plans or IEP’s should speak with a professional or contact the Office of Civil Rights to learn more.

Students at any stage in a home-school setting should discuss options with their diagnosing psychologist or psychiatrist to get ideas to incorporate the results into their at home educational model. Understanding the student’s learning profile, implementing the study recommended by the testing, and getting the student comfortable with the types of accommodations they may expect in a post-secondary or work setting is all useful information.

Post-secondary and career-minded adults that have received a diagnosis should discuss self-advocacy with their diagnosing psychologist or psychiatrist. They may also wish to contact their school’s counseling department, or their work’s human resource department to identify what steps they are expected to take in order to receive accommodations. Discovering these steps prior to the assessment will also help the evaluator cater the report to the student’s needs.

Finally, it is important to acknowledge that not every student that is tested will have a learning difficulty. Students with average or low intelligence scores without a discrepancy with their achievement may be limited by their brain’s natural ability. Students that are diagnosed with low ability will still benefit from testing by implementing their learning ability to its utmost effectiveness and discussing realistic options with their diagnosing psychologist or psychiatrist.