Academic journal article Learning Disability Quarterly

Treatment Validity as a Unifying Construct for Identifying Learning Disabilities

Academic journal article Learning Disability Quarterly

Treatment Validity as a Unifying Construct for Identifying Learning Disabilities

Article excerpt

The purpose of this article is to revisit the issue of treatment validity as a framework for identifying learning disabilities. In 1995, an eligibility assessment process, rooted within a treatment validity model, was proposed that (a) examines the level of a student's performance as well as his/her responsiveness to instruction, (b) reserves judgment about the need for special education until the effects of individual student adaptations in the regular classroom have been explored, and (c) prior to placement, verifies that a special education program enhances learning. We review the components of this model and reconsider the advantages and disadvantages of verifying a special education program's effectiveness prior to placement.

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Over the 25-year history of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the percentage of students with learning disabilities has increased dramatically so that students with learning disabilities now comprise more than 50% of all children with disabilities (U.S. Department of Education, 1999). This precipitous increase in the prevalence of learning disabilities has raised questions about the methods by which these children are identified.

Concern over the process by which students with learning disabilities are identified appears well founded. Because learning disabilities are a "soft" disability (Reschly, 1996), for which no discernable physical markers currently are known, the identification process is subjective. Moreover, because learning disabilities are associated with unexpected failure to learn, the discrepancy between intelligence and achievement is the central organizing theme of most definitions of learning disabilities. Yet, the measurement of those discrepancies has proven problematic due to poor reliability of difference scores (Reynolds, 1984); in fact, varying discrepancy formulae and test instruments identify different sets of students (Shepard, Smith, & Vojir, 1983). In addition, research documents similar underlying deficits in children with reading disabilities who do and do not demonstrate discrepancies (Fletcher et al., 1998). These problems have led some to question the viability of the learning disabilities concept.

At the same time, public awareness about the scientific controversy over learning disabilities has grown. One reason for increasing public awareness is the high cost of a special education -- more than double the cost of regular education (Parrish, 1995). Another reason is the phenomenon of overrepresentation of students of color in special education. This has prompted placement bias litigation (Larry P. v. Riles, 1979/1986; Marshall et al. v. Georgia, 1984/1985; S-1 v. Turlington, 1986), which has led to public debate over learning disabilities and mild mental retardation identification issues (e.g., Polloway, 1985; Reschly, 1984, 1988; Snow, 1984) and about the very quality and value of special education services (D. Fuchs & Fuchs, 1995a, 1995b; Reschly, 1996).

The 1982 National Research Council's (NRC) (Heller, Holtzman, & Messick, 1982) analysis of the problem of minority student overrepresentation set the stage for much of the focus, tone, and substance of this debate. That NRC report reformulated the problem of overrepresentation from one of reducing disproportionality to that of determining the conditions under which inequality constitutes inequity of treatment. According to Messick (1984), disproportion signifies inequity only when children are unduly exposed to classification because they receive poor-quality regular education, are assessed invalidly for special education, or receive an ineffective special education that hinders their educational progress.

Over the past decade, this reformulation of the overrepresentation problem, along with the increasing prevalence of learning disabilities, concern about conceptual and technical issues with the identification of learning disabilities, and questions about special education costs and effectiveness, has fostered calls for eligibility decision making that relies on treatment validity as a unifying concept. …

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