Academic journal article Learning Disability Quarterly

Obscuring Vital Distinctions: The Oversimplification of Learning Disabilities within RTI

Academic journal article Learning Disability Quarterly

Obscuring Vital Distinctions: The Oversimplification of Learning Disabilities within RTI

Article excerpt

Abstract. The assessment procedures within Response to Intervention (RTI) models have begun to supplant the use of traditional, discrepancy-based frameworks for identifying students with specific learning disabilities (SLD). Many RTI proponents applaud this shift because of perceived shortcomings in utilizing discrepancy as an indicator of SLD. However, many professionals and organizations have noted the substantial variability between various RTI models and urged cautious implementation. RTI models that utilize substantively different assessment procedures as a primary or singular means of SLD identification are likely to produce numerous sources of measurement error, threats to validity, inaccuracy in identification, and potential legal challenges. This article examines from a psychometric perspective the risks in replacing discrepancy-based identification of SLD with the myriad options for measuring students' responsiveness and nonresponsiveness to instruction within the intervention tiers of RTI.


The category of specific learning disabilities (SLD) has long been beset by challenges to the veracity of its definition. Many of the questions raised have been substantive, whereas others have been little more than rhetorical distraction. Professional rejoinders have ranged from reflexive to deliberate; yet, viewed collectively and in historical perspective, they portray a field in a seemingly perpetual identity crisis. This is evidenced, in part, by the myriad attempts to provide alternative definitions. For example, Hammill (1990) noted that in the first 25 years of SLD as a category of disability, 11 different definitions received some degree of professional endorsement.

Illustrating this point, current introductory-level college textbooks typically provide both the 1977 federal definition of SLD contained in the reauthorized Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 2004 and various alternative definitions proffered by professional organizations, such as the 1989 proposal by the National Joint Commission on Learning Disabilities (NJCLD) and that of the Learning Disabilities Association of America (LDA) in 1986 (contained in Hallahan, Kauffman, & Pullen, 2009, and Hallahan, Lloyd, Kauffman, Weiss, & Martinez, 2005, respectively). Although such contrasts between definitions provide a context by which to appreciate areas of professional disagreement, they also highlight the protracted and unsuccessful quest for consensus in the field.

Dissatisfaction with the SLD definition derives more commonly from perceived shortcomings in assessing the disability than in the validity of the construct itself. This is evident in the numerous changes in identification procedures (e.g., grade-level deviations, intelligence-achievement discrepancy formulae) that have been proposed, implemented, and often subsequently revised over the years (Mellard, Deshler, & Barth, 2004) without a corresponding modification of the definition itself. Despite, and perhaps because of, the significant time and attention given historically to the definition (Kavale, 2005), the absence of change has resulted in a widespread belief that SLD cannot be clearly differentiated (Kavale, Spaulding, & Beam, 2009). Such doubt has produced concern that the category is often considered merely an oversophisticated representation of low achievement and that determination of SLD is frequently an arbitrary decision rather than one reached through a cohesive and diagnostically rigorous process (Fuchs, Deshler, & Reschly, 2004; Kavale, Holdnack, & Mostert, 2006).

The most recent source of dissonance related to identification of SLD is also the most prominent and widely discussed to date; namely, the eligibility schema contained in many proposed Response to Intervention (RTI) models. Because the reauthorization of IDEA stipulated that establishing an intelligence-achievement discrepancy (henceforth referred to as "discrepancy") is no longer required to determine SLD (Zirkel & Krohn, 2008), many states have begun to examine the use of RTI for such a purpose, and either already have or are in the process of phasing out the discrepancy option (Berkeley, Bender, Peaster, & Saunders, 2009). …

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