Two teams of experts in school psychology research presented differing views on the best way to assess children's learning disabilities at the 12th Annual Institute for Psychology in the Schools, an APA 2005 Annual Convention pre-meeting workshop sponsored by APA's Practice Directorate.

One group argued for the response to intervention (RTI) model, a universal screening system that aims to identify low-performing children early and uses a three-stage academic intervention to aid low-performers before sending them to special education services.

The other team argued for the widespread use of a cognitive assessment approach that taps a battery of diverse psychological assessments and educational and behavioral evaluations to assess learning disabilities.

The dialogue comes at a time when the federal government is implementing changes to Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEIA) regulations, noted educational psychologist Tom Kubiszyn, PhD, of the University of Houston, who moderated the debate.

"These are very complex issues, they are controversial, they are emotion-laden in many cases," said Kubiszyn. "Yet at the same time they are critically important." Learning-disabilities assessment, he said, "is going to be a hot issue and a hot-button item for many, many years to come."

The intervention approach

Speaking in support of RTI was Daniel Reschly, PhD, chair of the department of special education at Vanderbilt University, and school psychology professor Mark Shinn, PhD, of National-Louis University. According to Reschly and Shinn, RTI--currently in place in schools in a handful of states including Iowa, Pennsylvania and Minnesota--focuses on identifying academic difficulties, bringing services to children early and boosting achievement. RTI places children in special education only when classroom or smaller group interventions aren't working.

"The best time to intervene for academic and behavior problems is early," said Reschly. "It's much easier to resolve those problems with children 5, 6 and 7 than when they are 10, 11 and older."

RTI's universal screening--given to children three times a year beginning in mid-kindergarten--can pinpoint academic difficulties early and catch more girls with learning disabilities, they noted. Often, girls with learning disabilities go unnoticed because they don't exhibit the same "disruptive" classroom behavior some boys with learning disabilities do, noted Shinn.

Moreover, they said, RTI offers swift results. "This model doesn't wait for kids to fail," said Shinn. "In four to six weeks, we can see if kids are responding" to intervention.

In addition, the RTI proponents said, the model accounts for state-to-state differences in achievement by establishing state benchmarks for reading and math achievement and an average class rate of success--rather than relying on national norms.

What's more, added Reschly, school psychologists' roles expand and improve under RTI.

"You see less time devoted to assessment...and more time devoted to direct interventions such as counseling and problem-solving consultation with teachers and parents," he said. "RTI problem-solving moves [school psychologists'] roles in the direction of the ideals endorsed throughout this profession for a very long time."

The cognitive approach

Advocating a different approach to learning disabilities was Jack Naglieri, PhD, director of the school psychology program at George Mason University, and educational psychology professor Cecil Reynolds, PhD, of Texas A&M University.

Naglieri and Reynolds support a "more comprehensive" model of psychological assessment and educational evaluation that includes measuring a child's cognitive strengths and weaknesses and a range of assessment techniques that can include achievement evaluation, behavior and emotional assessments. The cognitive component included in their model plays an essential role in pinpointing disability and what is hindering a child's learning, they argued. Futhermore, the cognitive approach falls in line with current IDEIA requirements that say that schools must measure basic psychological processes in assessing learning disabilities and should use a variety of assessment tools rather than "any single procedure," said Naglieri.

"We are not going to be able to help as many kids if we only use one particular tool in our toolbox," he said. "We have to look at the whole child."

He and Reynolds asserted that while RTI could be an effective piece of assessing learning disabilities in the pre-referral stage, it's not the whole pie.

For starters, Reynolds said, RTI "assumes everyone has the same ability to learn academic material" and doesn't account or assess for factors such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, emotional problems or ineffective teaching that might contribute to low performance.

Naglieri and Reynolds added that research on RTI's effectiveness--especially with diverse populations--is lacking, and that the model fails to spell out how long students should spend in each intervention stage before moving on to special education. Likewise, Reschly and Shinn argued that research on the cognitive approach is inconclusive.

Both teams agreed that finding the best way to serve children with disabilities should be foremost on the minds of school and educational psychologists and policy-makers. "Improving children's academic outcomes should be the No. 1 public health agenda in the U.S.," said Reynolds. "There is virtually no other single variable that we can find that has more impact on the rest of your life, both from physical health and mental health, than school success."

In the end, he added, "We are all on the same page. Our disagreement is on how we get there."