Development and Validation of a Process for Screening Referrals to Special Education

Article excerpt

Abstract. This article describes efforts to examine the validity of a screening process that provides objective data for multidisciplinary team meetings where consideration is being given to teacher referral of a student for assessment and possible placement in special education. In this study, the accuracy with which this process, called Problem Validation Screening (PVS), identified students needing an eligibility assessment was examined. All first and second grade students at a participating school were administered several screening instruments. Students who met screening criteria on any of the screening instruments, and/or who were referred by their teachers, were exposed to a more intensive package of assessment activities termed the "Criterion Assessment" along with two commonly used achievement tests (Iowa Test of Basic Skills and Woodcock-Johnson Psychoeducational Battery-Revised). Predictive power estimates are reported for PVS to quantify the accuracy and utility of PVS as a screening device.

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Of all the responsibilities of school based professionals, arguably one of the most important is the conduct of activities that lead to the referral and placement of children in special education. Often school psychologists and others responsible for the evaluation of children for special education hold the perception that they are the major determiner of whether a child is eligible for special education services. Operationally, the process may differ from perception. Algozzine, Ysseldyke, and Christenson (1983), for example, have shown that most children who are referred by the teacher are tested (i.e., 92%) and the overwhelming majority of those who are tested are placed in special education (i.e., 73%). In 1997, Ysseldyke, Vanderwood, and Shriner replicated this study to determine the effect of programs designed to reduce the number of students receiving formal psychoeducational evaluations (e.g., prereferral problem-solving committees, mandated prereferral interventions) and obtained remarkably similar and stable results.

Given the tremendous emphasis in the United States on prereferral intervention and consultation as well as the continual refinement and revision of psychoeducational assessment procedures, it is fundamentally important to examine why these data show no reduction in the number of referred children who are tested and placed each year. This question is pivotal because this trend has led to a dramatic increase in the percentage of children labeled with a disability and eligible for special education services over the last 20 years (Ysseldyke et al., 1997). Between 1976-77 and 1996-97, the number of students receiving services in the Learning Disabled (LD) category increased from 797,213 to 2,259,000, representing a 283% increase (U.S. Department of Education, 1998). Increased numbers of children placed in special education are not a cause for concern if this leads to more effective services (Marshall et al. v. Georgia, 1984); however, it may be cause for alarm if placement is associated with negative outcomes such as decreased probability of high school graduation and decreased levels of academic achievement.

Initially, those who viewed increased identification and eligibility as a problem attributed it to a failure of diagnostic procedures (e.g., intelligence tests) to properly discriminate children who have disabilities from children who do not have disabilities. For example, there is considerable debate over the degree to which children with learning disabilities can be diagnostically differentiated from low-achieving children (Epps, Ysseldyke, & McGue, 1984; Fuchs, Mathes, Fuchs, & Lipsey, 2001; Kavale, Fuchs, & Scruggs, 1994; Ysseldyke, Algozzine, Shinn, & McGue, 1982). This issue of inappropriate, invalid, or biased identification has been shown to be most acute for minority children whose numbers are often overrepresented in special education (Donovan & Cross, 2002). …