Future of IQ Testing – Identifying Learning Disabilities

The usefulness of IQ testing for identifying learning disabilities is hotly debated. And with changes in the law, issues like cost and ethics are also being discussed.

When reading specialists meet with small groups of students under the new Response to Intervention model, they collect information about how the student responds to instructional strategies and approaches aimed at helping those students “get” what they’re having problems within their regular class. Later, if and when a child’s academic problems become serious enough that the child is suspected of having a learning disability, a team of professionals looks at the notes and reports the reading specialist made during those small group times.

Is that it? Is that all there is now to decide whether a child has a learning disability?

James B Hale, Ph.D. thinks that it is pretty obvious from the new regulations on IDEA 2004 that something beyond just data from the different interventions that get tried with a child will be required.

“So, if you adopt an RTI-only perspective, what multiple measures will be used? How will practitioners assess all areas of suspected disability, including language (i.e., “communicative), motor, cognitive, and intellectual function? …Maybe I’m wrong, but I think if people are making classification decisions solely on the basis of RTI data, they are now OUT OF COMPLIANCE with the law. RTI data can be *part* of a comprehensive evaluation (as it should be), but it is NOT a SUBSTITUTE for a comprehensive evaluation,” Hale said as part of a discussion of the issue on a National Association of School Psychologists listserv.

Dr. Hale is a certified school psychologist and special education teacher who now teaches as part of the graduate program in school psychology at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine.

The preamble to the new regulations clears up some of the discussion: “The Department (of Education) does not believe that an assessment of psychological or cognitive processing should be required in determining whether a child has an SLD. There is no current evidence that such assessments are necessary or sufficient for identifying SLD…In many cases, though, assessments of cognitive processes simply add to the testing burden and do not contribute to interventions.” (p 649). With some 1244 pages of the preamble to be waded through, there’s probably a lot left to be discovered in the new regs.

In email communication, Guy M. McBride, Ph.D., pointed out that there is a major difference between saying, on the one hand, that we must still perform IQ tests on kids suspected of having a learning disability because the law still (the argument goes) requires it and, on the other hand, saying that we should be performing those tests because they provide us with important information. If the IQ test is no longer a hard and fast requirement, school systems could save money by not testing for IQ – maybe a lot of money when you consider that tests for one child can cost as much as $8,000.

“Depending on the criteria adopted by their states …public agencies could realize savings under the final regulations by reducing the amount of a school psychologist’s time involved in conducting cognitive assessments that would have been needed to document an IQ discrepancy,” said McBride. McBride is a school psychologist in North Carolina with over three decades of experience.

Can we use IQ tests to help decide whether a child has a learning disability? If the team evaluating the child thinks that would be useful, certainly. Do we have to use IQ tests anymore? It seems pretty clear from the preamble of the regs that IQ testing is not a legal requirement under IDEA 2004. But §300.304 (Evaluation procedures) of the regs say that “(c)Each public agency must ensure that– (6) In evaluating each child with a disability under §§300.304 through 300.306, the evaluation is sufficiently comprehensive to identify all of the child’s special education and related services needs…”

For school administrators, the question becomes one of what it means to be “sufficiently comprehensive” without actually administering the WISC-III (Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children) or some similar test. And some on the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) listserv are arguing that the issue is not just legal, but ethical – that it is perhaps impossible to be “sufficiently comprehensive” without a test like the WISC-III, or that it is a disservice to the child being evaluated to not perform such a test.

It will probably be at least a few months before most states announce how they will define “specific learning disability” in light of the new regs – and what role IQ testing will play in the definition…

Will we continue testing intelligence?

If there is any doubt about whether the Response to Intervention framework by itself constitutes evaluation for a disability, §300.302, entitled “Screening for instructional purposes is not evaluation” makes at least that issue pretty clear: “The screening of a student by a teacher or specialist to determine appropriate instructional strategies for curriculum implementation shall not be considered to be an evaluation for eligibility for special education and related services.” Or is it clear? School districts are, at the very least, allowed to decide that a child has a learning disability based in part (perhaps in large part) on the child’s response to those same instructional interventions.

The process seems ironic: evidently what happens when a reading specialist meets with a child that is having problems in class does not constitute an evaluation; but when an eligibility committee looks at that reading specialist’s notes later, looking at those notes is part of an evaluation — a required part of the evaluation for learning disabilities under the new regs.

While states can’t require the use of the old “severe discrepancy” model and must allow RtI to be used as part of the evaluation procedure, they are also permitted to come up with their own alternative system for identifying learning disabilities (as long as it’s based on scientific research).

So what is a learning disability under the new regulations? The regs say that an eligibility committee may determine that a child has a specific learning disability if “the child does not achieve adequately for the child’s age or to meet State-approved grade-level standards” in a list of eight skill areas having to do with language arts and math; and “the child does not make sufficient progress …when using a process based on the child’s response to scientific, research-based intervention;” and the child “exhibits a pattern of strengths and weaknesses in performance, achievement, or both, relative to age, State-approved grade-level standards, or intellectual development, that is determined by the group to be relevant to the identification of a specific learning disability, using appropriate assessments.”

It is that last bold section that leads to the most confusion – and the reg’s use of the word “or” there. A student can apparently now be identified as having a learning disability because his performance and/or achievement don’t match up to his age. The student could also evidently be identified now as having a learning disability because they can’t perform and/or achieve at the level that a state’s standards say they should (and that sounds like a curriculum-based measure).

If the child has been referred for special education evaluation and they don’t qualify under either of those measures, does “or intellectual development” in that phrase in the regulations require or just permit some sort of an assessment of cognitive function (an IQ test)? Ask me again in a year and I will tell you what most states have decided. Ask me again in two years and I will tell you whether the courts thought the states were right about it.