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  • Writer's pictureMichelle Mason, Ph.D.

Dyslexia or Specific Learning Disability?

Updated: Oct 28, 2020

National Dyslexia Awareness Month

Over the years, I have heard many parents talk to school personnel about concerns that their child may have dyslexia. What usually happens is that the teachers look at the parents blankly. This is not because they think that your child doesn’t have a problem, it is because schools don’t use the term dyslexia when checking if a child qualifies for special education. In IDEA, fourteen listed disabilities are covered under the special education law. Dyslexia is not one of them. The disability most closely related to dyslexia in IDEA is Specific Learning Disability (SLD)—Reading. Dysgraphia and Dyscalculia are also not included in IDEA, they would be listed as Specific Learning Disability—Writing and Specific Learning Disability—Math. This disability category includes such conditions as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia (a type of language disorder) (Special Education Guide, 2020)

In California, the criteria used for someone to qualify for services for a Specific Learning Disability are specific. There has to be a discrepancy between intelligence and ability (reading, writing, and/or math). There are also two other areas that a child can have a specific learning disability that are often overlooked and not tested for. These are oral expression and listening comprehension. The student also has to have a processing deficit: auditory (phonological processing), visual, and/or attention. A student can have one processing problem, two, or three.

To figure out if a child has a discrepancy between their intelligence and their achievement, the faculty usually administer two assessments. One is an IQ test, which measures intelligence. The other is an achievement test, which measures academic achievement. For a child to qualify for special education services there has to be a discrepancy of 1.5 standard deviations between the IQ test and one or more areas on the achievement test. One point five standard deviations are about 22 points. However, in some (rare) circumstances some school districts will use 16 points as the cutoff.

Here is an example, let’s say your child has a Full-Scale IQ Score of 100. The standard score for reading is 76, for math is 99, and for writing is 89. Even though your child is not meeting their potential in writing, they do not qualify for special education services in writing because the discrepancy is 11 points. For math, there is no chance or need that the child needs extra help because the child is working at the level you would suspect for someone that has that IQ score. However, a child with these scores would qualify for special education services in reading because there is a discrepancy between reading achievement and IQ score (100-76=24).

Even if your child has a discrepancy, they may not qualify for special education services as a student with a specific learning disability. Each student must have a processing issue. The processing issue can be auditory, visual, and/or attention. To check for an auditory processing issue, the child is usually administered the Comprehensive Test of Phonological Processing (CTOPP). Visual processing disorders are usually assessed by using the Beery VMI, and attention is usually assessed by the BASC-3.

To wrap up, while your child may have a diagnosis of dyslexia, dysgraphia, and/or dyscalculia they MAY not meet the criteria for special education services. Even if you already have an assessment, the school district will do their own assessment. The school district’s assessment report has to have the criteria listed above for a child to receive special education services.

By the way, a school district does not need to do the discrepancy model in evaluating whether a child has a specific learning disability. However, most school districts are still using the discrepancy model. Let me know if you would like to learn more about this.

Happy Dyslexia Awareness Month!

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