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  • Hammill Institute on Disabilities

    Identifying Children with Learning Disabilities: A Comparison of Diagnostic Procedures acrossSchool DistrictsAuthor(s): Barry F. Perlmutter and Mildred V. ParusSource: Learning Disability Quarterly, Vol. 6, No. 3 (Summer, 1983), pp. 321-328Published by: Sage Publications, Inc.Stable URL: .Accessed: 10/06/2014 08:12

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    Barry F. Perlmutter and Mildred V. Parus

    Abstract. Diagnostic procedures used to identify children (grades K-6) with learning disabilities in 14 school districts were studied and compared. The degree of uniformity in procedures for initial referral, testing, and diagnostic criteria, as well as differences in the selection of testing instruments by various districts were examined. Information was gathered through individual interviews with school personnel involved in the assessment of learning disabled children within each district. Although some similarities existed between districts, uniformity was lack- ing in important areas such as test selection, extent of testing, and cutoff scores on intelligence and other tests. These findings are discussed in terms of their implica- tions for the reliability of diagnoses across districts, as well as their meaning for researchers in the field.

    Throughout its relatively short history the field of learning disabilities has been plagued with definition and identification problems. Various definitions have referred to children with learn- ing disabilities as brain injured (Chalfant & Scheffelin, 1969; Clements, 1966; Strauss & Lehtinen, 1947), others have stressed perfor- mance deficits (Kirk, 1972). While recognizing that the basis for a learning disability is "intrinsic to the individual and presumed to be due to cen- tral nervous system dysfunction," the new pro- fessional definition (Hammill, Leigh, McNutt, & Larsen, 1981) still focuses on difficulties in ac- quiring and using various academically related abilities. According to this definition, the em- phasis when classifying individuals is on par- ticular manifestations of the problem. Thus, rather than stressing the possible neurological causes of learning disabilities, the new definition focuses on symptoms and behaviors.

    Given this focus on symptoms and behaviors, the question arises as to which criteria educators use to identify learning disabled children.

    Presumably, a combination of achievement and ability test scores, and behavioral reports from teachers, social workers, and psychologists would yield sufficient information to allow for reliable diagnoses. Unfortunately, there appears to be little agreement on the exact meaning of specific combinations of test scores and behaviors.

    In a recent study (Epps, McGue, & Ysseldyke, 1982), 18 well-qualified judges were presented with information on 99 children, 50 of whom had been identified by their schools as learning disabled (LD). Judges were provided with 42 test or subtest scores for each child, and were

    BARRY F. PERLMUTTER, Ph.D., is Faculty Associate, Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center.

    MILDRED V. PARUS, B.A., is a graduate stu- dent in the Dept. of History, Wayne State University. At the time of the study, Ms. Parus was an undergraduate student in Psychology.

    Volume 6, Summer 1983 321

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  • asked to indicate whether or not they believed a given child was LD. The results indicated that in- dividual judges used different criteria when classifying children; generally, a lack of inter- judge agreement was found. Of the 99 children, all but five were classified as LD by at least one judge. Further, of the five children rated as non- disabled by all judges, three had been classified as LD by their individual schools.

    Several other studies by Ysseldyke, Algozzine, and their associates (Algozzine, Ysseldyke, & Hill, 1982; Ysseldyke & Algozzine, 1981; Ysseldyke, Algozzine, Richey, & Graden, 1982) have examined the relationship between types of information presented during assessment meetings and resultant diagnoses. Results show that data on individual children's performance seem to have little influence on the outcome of such meetings. These authors have also found that much of the information brought up during assessment meetings is irrelevant to the purpose of classifying the child, and that the ultimate diagnosis often depends more on referral infor- mation than on test scores. In one study these researchers concluded that: "The data provide little evidence to suggest that teams use specific, formal criteria when making eligibility decisions or that assessment results are used for purposes other than minimal professional credibility" (Ysseldyke, Algozzine, Richey, & Graden, 1982).

    Educators are experiencing severe problems reliably classifying possible LD children. One diagnostic problem relates to the lack of ex- clusivity of symptoms. Unfortunately, many behaviors present in LD children are also found in children with emotional or developmental disabilities, as well as in the mentally retarded, minorities, and the culturally deprived. The new professional LD definition specifies that a learn- ing disability, while it "may occur concomitantly with other handicapping conditions," is necessarily different from other such conditions. However, given the overlap among diagnostic categories plus the myriad of available assess- ment devices, it is not surprising to find a measure of confusion among diagnostic teams.

    The present study was undertaken to assess the degree of confusion that has likely been generated by the lack of a strict set of criteria for evaluating children suspected of learning disabilities. An attempt was made to determine

    the extent of agreement and disagreement among school diagnostic staff as to the proper procedures and diagnostic instruments involved in determining which students should be classified as LD.

    METHOD Subjects

    Fourteen school districts in lower Michigan participated in the study - one urban, one rural-suburban, and 11 suburban districts in the Detroit metropolitan area. One rural district out- side the Detroit metropolitan area was also in- cluded. The populations (K-12) of the districts ranged from 1,605 to 26,964 children. LD populations for which data are presented include primarily white 5- to 12-year-old students en- rolled in grades K-6. Procedure

    School psychologists, teacher consultants, and other professionals involved in identifying LD children were contacted and personally inter- viewed using a questionnaire developed specifically for this study. The instrument was administered orally to insure that identical areas were discussed with all school personnel in- volved in the study.

    RESULTS Frequency of Test Administration

    While information provided by all 14 districts is included in this section, data on how often specific tests were used are included for only 13 districts. (Data from one district were incomplete and, consequently, were not included in these tabulations.) All 14 school districts reported ad- ministering standardized achievement tests to all students in grades K-6 at regular intervals. Preliminary routine assessments of audio and visual acuity for students experiencing academic difficulty were also performed in all 14 districts. Half the districts reported performing preliminary neurological assessments of these students. Ad- ditionally, 11 districts reported that social workers, psychologists, or other professionals routinely collected developmental histories on such children. In all cases, the majority of initial referrals were reported to have come from teachers. Number of Tests Administered

    The average number of tests reportedly given to students suspected of learning disabilities

    322 Learning Disability Quarterly

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  • ranged from two in one district to 13 in another. The maximum number of tests administered by individual districts ranged from 3 to 16, with most giving a maximum of 6-10 tests. The mini- mum number administered ranged from 2 to 11, although only two districts reported a minimum greater than 5. Two districts, reporting that they had no maximum number of tests, maintained that they gave as many tests as were necessary according to


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