• Jennifer Cardinal

Special Education Eligibility Information

Jennifer Cardinal, Ph.D.

Licensed Psychologist


We’ve had parents ask our board members to explain more about Special Education eligibility determination for a Specific Learning Disability (SLD) based on the Response to Intervention (RTI) Model and the use of Patterns of Strengths and Weaknesses model. To get us acclimated, let’s first review the definition of an SLD:


….a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, that may manifest in the imperfect ability to listen, think , speak, read, write , spell or do mathematical calculations…  (* must rule out or consider learning problems that are the results of language issues).


We also need to look at the “Discrepancy Approach” model which is the traditional manner SLD’s have been determined. In its “pure” form it is a model that compares a student’s scores on an IQ measure with his or her academic achievement. If the discrepancy is “significant” usually defined a 1.5 standard deviations or more (at least 22 points) a team will consider an educational classification for a SLD (SLD) associated with the deficient academic domain (reading, writing or math). Some weaknesses seen in this model include:


  • Difficulties in early identification and intervention for children with emerging SLD’s (often to referred to as a “wait to fail “approach)

  • Many students who experience learning problems do not receive services due to below average intellectual ability (i.e., slow learning).


The RTI model is often seen as an improved approach that focuses on the kind of problems the child is demonstrating (using curriculum based measurements) and consideration of effective solutions (interventions). Many school teams have intervention teams that work from a multi-tier approach that focuses on early identification and support of students with learning needs. Students who do not make adequate progress with scientifically based instructions and increased targeted interventions in the general classroom receive more intensive interventions and comprehensive eligibility evaluation.


One preferred assessment process is the determination of patterns of strengths and weakness in determining a SLD. The PSW module requires a school team to compare academic and psychological processes.  Specifically, the team is looking for identification of possible academic weaknesses and the relationship (s) to psychological processes reflecting relative strengths and weaknesses. There are different PSW approaches but all are characterized by collecting data from multiple sources, analyzing data for patterns and relying on research based findings and empirical evidence to guide decisions. In practice, this process often includes the use of the discrepancy model.


The eligibility process is variable across and within school districts and even the “improved” methods have valid critiques. It appears however that most educational providers allow for the use of RTI in some form. In addition, many continue to allow for the use of discrepancy model.