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Voices of the Global Community

Les Hemphill, Advising Students with Disabilities Commission Past Chair 

As advisors and students meet this fall, advisors may notice an increase in the number of students who have received learning disability services in high school. Ironically, these same students may not have the documentation necessary to receive accommodation at the college level. This is the result of the 2004 revisions to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). These revisions will also impact student accommodations for such professional tests as the Pre-Professional Skills Test (PPST), required for admission to some teacher education programs.

Psychological testing mandated by earlier versions of IDEA is no longer required under the 2004 revision, although college disability student support staff, with few exceptions, believe the testing is necessary at the college level. Students in many states will either have to forgo accommodations or pay providers in the private sector for the testing.

The primary reason for this problem is the decision to abandon the discrepancy model as an important component in the identification of learning disabilities. In its simplest form, the discrepancy model examines discrepancies between subscale scores on achievement tests and scores derived from IQ tests. If the deviation between one or more achievement subscales and the IQ score was great enough, and other conditions were met, this was taken as evidence of a learning disability.

A number of reasons were offered for discarding the discrepancy model. The most persuasive argument is that the testing necessary to determine if a discrepancy exists is difficult to conduct with preschool children, thus resulting in treatment delays at a time when the child might be most responsive (Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, 2001, 266; Fletcher, Coulter, Reschly, & Vaughn, 2004, 9). It is difficult to fault this argument, but it does little to alleviate the problems faced by disability support staff and advisors at the post secondary level. In place of the discrepancy model, elementary and secondary special education staff are encouraged to adopt a 'response to intervention' approach for both the identification and treatment of learning disabilities.

Typically, this involves a three tiered approach that begins when a child is first observed experiencing difficulties in reading, writing or mathematics. At the first tier, the child is exposed to a more intensive level of instruction. Failure to respond at this level results in efforts at the second tier that may include alterations in the curriculum and assistance by others besides the classroom instructor. At the third level, the student could be diagnosed as having a learning disability and exposed to the full array of special education services in an effort to guarantee the child's success. If the child responds positively to the intervention, it is assumed that a learning disability exists, eliminating the need for psychological testing.

This approach may well be warranted for providing services to children through the secondary level. However, it would generate very real problems at the post secondary level. Under IDEA, the goal of the public school system is success for the student with a disability. The mandate under ADA at the postsecondary level only requires that colleges and universities provide equal access. When advisors and Disability Support Service (DSS) personnel ask faculty to provide accommodations, it is with the understanding that the accommodations will provide equal access and that documentation is on file justifying the request. Students exposed to the 'response to intervention' model may demonstrate improvement, but was this improvement a response to the accommodations or a placebo effect? Did the student have a learning disability or was some other underlying problem addressed by methods used in the 'shotgun' approach encouraged by this model?

The 'response to intervention' model cannot demonstrate that intervention is still necessary at the postsecondary level, nor can it differentiate between which interventions were actually effective and which were not. Under the mandate to provide success, special education staff in the public school system often provide a laundry list of services, modifications and accommodations. In describing this process, Jane Jarrow, a leader in the disability field, made the following pertinent comments while discussing a specific accommodation ' THEN AGAIN, it could be that is one of those success-oriented strategies that IEP's are famous for suggesting, simply because it MIGHT help, and MIGHT make a difference, and in the K-12 system, that is enough to mandate its approval' (personal communication, May 31, 2006). DSS staff and advisors making similar requests at the college level would quickly lose credibility and respect from faculty and administration.

The issues that mitigate against IQ and achievement testing and the discrepancy model for young children do not create the same kinds of problems at the postsecondary level. Test results for young adults are more reliable than for young children, and since identification has already occurred there is no 'wait to fail' before providing services. In fact, at the postsecondary level elaborate procedures have evolved utilizing the discrepancy model as one component for determining both eligibility for services and the kind of services most appropriate for college students with learning disabilities (Brinckerhoff, McGuire, & Shaw, 2002).

This has already begun to surface as a problem at colleges and universities in the Midwest. It is hoped that those who are concerned about this issue will join the author in a Hot Topics session at the NACADA Conference in Indianapolis to share strategies for addressing the problem.

Les Hemphill
Cloud County Community College
[email protected]


Brinckerhoff, L. C., McGuire, J. M., & Shaw, S. F. (2002). Postsecondary education and transition for students with learning disabilities (2nd). Austin, TX: PRO-ED, Inc.

Fletcher, J. M., Coulter, W. A., Reschly, D. J., & Vaughn, S. (2004, December). Alternative approaches to the definition and identification of learning disabilities: Some questions and answers. Annals of Dyslexia, 54 (2) 304-331. Retrieved May 19, 2006, from http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qa3809/is_200412/ai_n9471603

Scruggs, T. E., & Mastropieri, M. A. (2002, summer). On babies and bathwater: Addressing the problems of identification of learning disabilities [Electronic Version]. Learning Disability Quarterly, 25, 155-168. Retrieved May 17, 2006 from http://www.advocacyinstitute.org/resources/Babies_and_Bathwater.pdf

Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. (2001, May). Rethinking learning disabilities. In Rethinking Special Education for a New Century (chap 12), Retrieved May 17, 2006 from http://www.edexcellence.net/library/special_ed/special_ed_ch12.pdf 

Cite this article using APA style as: Last, N. (Year, Month). Article title. Academic Advising Today, 29(3). Retrieved from [insert url here]

Cite this article using APA style as: Hemphill, L. (2006, September). IDEA and college accommodations. Academic Advising Today, 29(3). Retrieved from [insert url here]


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