Traditional Referral and Evaluation Procedures

For many years, teachers have followed a fairly course of action for getting help for students struggling in their classrooms. In many schools, this course of action involves referring a student to a school-based team (often called an Instructional Support Team). This team can recommend strategies based on a student's individual needs to help the student succeed within the general classroom. When a disability is suspected, the student can be referred for an evaluation by a school psychologist. If, in this evaluation, the referred student demonstrates an educational need and is found to be eligible under one or more of the 13 disability categories (as defined by federal law), he may qualify to receive interventions in the form of special education. Just one of these 13 categories, Specific Learning Disability (or simply LD), accounts for about half of all students who become eligible for special ed.

The Discrepancy Model

In an evaluation under the traditional discrepancy model, the referred student is administered a series, or battery, of standardized tests. A typical testing battery is comprised of two key pieces: 1) the IQ test, intended to establish the student's mental ability, or learning potential; and 2) the Achievement Test, meant to show where the student is performing academically in relation to his ability.

This two-pronged approach might seem logical enough: Estimate the student's potential using an IQ test. Then compare that level of potential with how the student is achieving. See just how far below potential the student is actually performing. So how does this evaluation method present a problem?

Unfortunately, as traditionally practiced, what otherwise might seem like a sound approach actually presents a number of unintended consequences. And the discrepancy model has earned a nickname that seems at odds with the concept of early intervention--the 'wait to fail' model.

Dr. White's Ability-Achievement Discrepancy Analysis
Sara: A 'False Negative'      
'False Negatives' & 'False Positives'

It's actually quite common for students referred for an evaluation, especially in the primary grades, to fail to show the required discrepancy that would qualify them for intervention, even when they may be struggling in the classroom. Students with these results are sometimes referred to as the 'false negatives'--those who truly need extra help, but because they fail to show a discrepancy in the evaluation, can't qualify to receive it.
During her early years, when interventions have been demonstrated to be most effective in correcting deficiencies, Sara didn't qualify to receive interventions and continued to fall behind her peers.

On the other side of the discrepancy coin are the 'false positives'--those who are not truly disabled but who qualify for special ed anyway, because they do show a discrepancy during the evaluation.
An example of a 'false positive' may be a student who is not disabled, but whose low achievement results from other factors, such as instruction that is not well matched to her specific learning needs, or a teacher who hasn't received adequate training in providing differentiated instruction. The result? A large number of students are removed from their peers in general ed to receive special education services that they probably don't need in the first place. Traditional referral and evaluation procedures have resulted in significant overidentification of students as 'disabled' who do not truly possess inherent disabilities.                            
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