Aptitude – Achievement Discrepancy

Aptitude – Achievement Discrepancy

G. Emerson Dickman, J.D.

Aptitude Achievement Discrepancy
A discussion of an “immoral” formula for identifying students with a learning disability.

There is one issue undermining special education service delivery that is particularly insidious due to the fact that, although its impact is negative and pervasive, it hides in the shadows.

In the United States we have a need to quantify our success. We are not a success unless we can prove it, here and now. Thus we require baselines for every project we start, especially in special education. These baselines help us to measure the child’s growth and our success. On the surface, this approach seems rational, even scientifically valid. However, the fundamental flaw in this approach is that thebaseline we detect must be at a level of failure in order for us to mobilize efforts to address the need.

We are a society that rewards those who cure and overlooks those who prevent, because success at prevention is often not immediately quantifiable. As a result, our schools de-emphasize efforts to promote skills that are not readily quantifiable, such as social competence, ethics, problem solving, decision making, and nonverbal literacy. Our child study teams look at pupils as they appear at a single point in time. Prognosis is rarely considered. If a child is not failing, but merely destined to fail, that child gets no services until he is seen at a point in time when he is failing.

This need our society has for quantifiable success is manifest in the Attitude-Achievement Discrepancy Formulas used to identify children for special education services. Such formulas are the single greatest weakness in the system of special education service delivery in the United States. Ben Franklin said that: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” In an era of reactionary fiscal conservatism, it is a paradox that our schools are often precluded from intervening to prevent the developmental course experienced when disabilities go unremediated. “The only thing that such a formula prevents is prevention” (Jack Fletcher, University of Texas).

Central to an Aptitude-Achievement Discrepancy Formula is a reliance on evaluation of achievement or potential with a comparison to other children. Any formula that determines the existence of a disability based upon a student’s performance or achievement as compared to a group norm is fatally flawed. Any such formula requires that the student cross a “threshold of severe failure” (Nancy Mather, University of Arizona) before the student can receive service delivery. It is also clear that the student must remain on the wrong side of this threshold to justify continued service delivery.

The concept of “unexpectedness,” however, does provide a valid indication of a learning disability. For instance, this concept, is reflected in the definition of Dyslexia adopted by the Research Committee of the International Dyslexia Association:

“These difficulties… are often unexpected in relation to age and other cognitive and academic abilities…”

“Unexpectedness”, in this definition, is based on intraindividual comparisons. By way of example, if a student, who exhibits abilities in a variety of skill areas within the range of the 80th to the 90th percentile, is found to have an ability level in the area of phonological processing in the 23rd percentile; the immediate reaction should be to look further to rule out the possibility of a language-based learning disability involving a phonological processing deficit. In fact, such a person may be achieving consistent with grade level or age expectations as the result of having received appropriate remediation or having acquired compensating strategies – the student is no less learning disabled. Dr. Sally Shaywitz, Professor of Pediatrics and Child Study at Yale University School of Medicine, has vividly described the phenomenon of unexpectedness as “a weakness within a sea of strengths.”

Any formula that identifies a student with learning disabilities based upon a comparison of performance or achievement to a standardized norm is unacceptable. Such a formula overlooks young, remediated and compensated students with disabilities. In kindergarten, where no one reads, the dyslexic often gets no help. I have had clients who have withdrawn private remediation because their child, as a consequence, was doing to well to get support in school. After a year of failure, the school provides support, the parent provides remediation and the child tries to recover from a year of failure and humiliation. Other children, who are bright enough to bluff or cover-up, often do not experience failure in terms of norms until their unique gifts and potential have been permanently compromised. A prime example of the cost this shortsightedness has to society is the Nonverbal Learning Disabled child. Such a child usually has strong phonological awareness, memory skills, and expressive language that carry him successfully through the fourth grade. In the fifth grade weak visual motor integration and poor concept formation, inferential thinking and problem solving skills, taken together with an inability to deal with nonverbal language, such as body language, facial expression and tone of voice, cause his academic and social world to collapse like a ton of bricks. This would just be an unfortunate circumstance if it weren’t for the fact that such a child can be easily diagnosed years before any problem develops. Without intervention and early remediation, such children suffer a very high risk of exhibiting self destructive and antisocial behavior. If we wait until they fail to help them, we do so at a devastating cost both to the child and society. Such a formula also overlooks the child whose learning disabilities are obscured by the fact that both aptitude and achievement scores are affected resulting in a consistency that is misleading. Eligibility for service delivery for a student with disabilities should be based on intraindividual criteriaalone.

The Aptitude-Achievement Discrepancy formula flies in the face of all the clichés intended to describe the path to success of human endeavors.

“A Stitch in time…”

“An ounce of prevention…”

“You reap what you sow.”

We must evaluate children as individuals and not as failures.

Note: Since this article was written leading researchers, educators, and the Federal Government have taken strong positions against the use of aptitude/achievement formulas.