When Congress passed a new version of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) last year, it altered many aspects that affect the work of psychologists in elementary and secondary schools. Some psychologists' paperwork could decrease, for example, and others may be allowed to use e-mail to streamline the process of arranging meetings with parents (see sidebar). But no doubt the biggest change to affect practitioners is in how they assess children for learning disabilities.

Under the revised law, school districts are no longer required to use the IQ-achievement discrepancy model to assess whether a child is learning disabled. As a result, psychologists working in schools that adopt new assessment methods must alter how they assess students, perhaps in ways they aren't familiar with.

Psychologists have long debated the current assessment method, which uses the discrepancy between a student's cognitive and achievement test scores to assess learning disabilities. Some feel that model isn't effective, while others feel an imperfect model is better than the new models, which focus instead on student interventions but lack scientific proof that they work. As a result, some psychologists welcome a potential shift away from discrepancy models, while others remain wary.

Either way, the new law presents psychologists with a chance to support what they feel are the best ways to deliver special education services and decide which students need them, says Ron Palomares, PhD, APA's assistant executive director for policy and advocacy in the schools.

"The changes in IDEA call upon psychologists to be advocates within their school districts," says Palomares. "Psychologists need to educate districts about appropriate models and advocate for what they feel the districts should do."

The basic IDEA

These potential changes to IDEA have swirled around in education circles for the past few years, and Congress officially reauthorized the 2004 IDEA in November. President Bush signed the bill into law in December.

IDEA guarantees public education to the nearly 7 million U.S. school- and preschool-age children with disabilities. Some form of IDEA has been on the books since the 1970s, and Congress last reauthorized the legislation in 1997. This year Congress authorized--though won't necessarily appropriate--nearly $12.4 billion in federal funds for IDEA, with planned annual increases of about $2.3 billion per year through 2011.

The U.S. Department of Education's Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services will write the new IDEA legislation into regulations that take effect July 1.

But how the regulations will affect practitioners is not immediately apparent, since the legislation stipulates that states or local school districts make their own decisions on what assessment methods to use.

Previously, IDEA mandated that school districts use more than one method to assess whether students have learning disabilities. Since the 1970s, schools used the IQ-achievement discrepancy model to meet that requirement.

The discrepancy model compares students' IQs with their scores on achievement tests in, for example, math or reading. If students have a large enough discrepancy--often between one and two standard deviations --between their IQs and achievement test scores, they qualify as learning disabled.

The model has its shortcomings. Critics say it's a wait-to-fail approach, only stepping in when a child struggles. And it doesn't help students who have an IQ score as low as an achievement test score--thereby showing no discrepancy.

"The discrepancy model is like working in quicksand," says Rachel Stroud, PhD, a school psychologist at Lake Murray Elementary School in Chapin, S.C. Eligibility decisions for learning disabilities, she says, are based in large part on a model that does not have strong scientific footing. "But right now I use it because it's in my state regulations," she adds. "It's not sound but it's what we have."

The discrepancy model has endured, Stroud says, primarily because no better alternative has taken its place. However, an alternative method called "response to intervention," or RTI, has gained popularity.

In this model, students work through several interventions before receiving special education. Struggling students receive an intervention in the main classroom--such as moving to the front of the class. If they fail to respond, they move into smaller group instruction. Should that not work, they enter special education programs.

But RTI has its own problems. It doesn't rely on cognitive assessments like the discrepancy model, and it doesn't clearly explain how teachers and psychologists should measure a child's responses to the interventions or how they can know if an intervention was valid or successful.

"My fear is that students put in some interventions will continue to struggle, and people will say it didn't work, even though there was no evidence that it should have worked because it was not implemented systematically," Stroud says.

Others say a combination of several models might work.

"RTI should certainly be part of pre-referral interventions, but to totally disband psychological assessment would be inappropriate," adds Rosemary Flanagan, PhD, a professor and director of the school psychology program at Adelphi University. "RTI may not be the total answer because we don't have standardized tools for it yet. Without those, how do you decide who's in need of services?"

What the changes mean for psychologists

Many psychologists are concerned that, in a rush to abandon the flawed discrepancy model, some schools could turn to invalid assessment models.

"Getting away from the discrepancy model could potentially open floodgates to special education referrals," says Dinah Graham, PhD, a psychologist who contracts with several school districts in the Dallas area. "This could dilute resources by putting kids in special education who may not need the services."

How psychologists will perform assessments under the new changes remains unclear. For example, how do psychologists familiarize themselves with assessment methods that aren't well-studied? What do psychologists do who contract with several school districts that employ differing assessment methods? What do graduate students who've trained using discrepancy models do now as they enter the job market?

Those questions have led some psychologists to diversify their skills. Flanagan has ensured that a consultation course that her graduate students receive provides an emphasis on skills in RTI methods, in addition to their traditional assessments courses. In the course, students complete a consultation project in schools with students, usually working on designing a reading program for students. "It would be foolish from a training point of view not to expose them to this," she says.

Now that elementary and secondary schools aren't tied to the discrepancy model, how they decide to assess students--by staying with the model they have, finding a new one or forging some combination of the two--is a decision they will make later this year. Here's where psychologists in schools can make their voices heard, experts say.

"The key issue is what will happen locally," Flanagan says. "School psychologists will have to educate administrators, teachers and parents on the pros and cons of each model. Hopefully the adopted model will allow for flexible assessments."

"School psychologists have a big role here," adds Stroud, who for the moment can only wait to see what regulations South Carolina or her district might propose. "Just to help people understand good evidence-based treatments and data collection is something we can help with."

APA's Palomares recommends psychologists learn about the different models and inform local school districts about the most effective methods. Some districts will devise new policies and will need the expertise of psychologists who do the assessments, he says.

One way to gather that information is at APA's half-day Institute for Psychology in the Schools, held the day before APA's Annual Convention each year, Palomares says. At the 2004 convention in Honolulu, participants discussed IQ assessment and potential alternatives. The 12th annual institute is making plans to discuss similar issues, Palomares says. The institute will be held Aug. 17, 1-5 p.m., before the 2005 convention in Washington, D.C., Aug. 18-21.

Further Reading

  • IDEA information is available at the U.S. Department of Education Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services at www.ed.gov/about/offices/list/osers/osep/index.html.

  • Further descriptions of learning disabilities assessment models appear in the September 2003 Monitor article "Who is learning disabled?" (Vol. 34, No. 8, pages 58–60).

  • More information on IDEA and other legislation is available from APA's Public Policy Office.