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Learning Disorder

W e b   P a g e s

      What Are Learning Disabilities?
      Are Learning Disabilities Biological?
      Do You Suspect a Learning Disability?
      Testing and Assessment for Special Education -- a Testing Overview
      Tips for Test Taking Success
      Teach Test Taking Strategies
      Individualized Testing for Evaluation, Group Testing for Identification
      Testing to Assess Whole Districts or Populations
      Tools for Assessment, Diagnosis and Program Design
      CBA Evaluates Goals That Come Directly From the Curriculum
      Tests Designed to Evaluate Students' Life Skills
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What Are Learning Disabilities?


What are learning disabilities? Learning disabilities are neurological differences in processing information that severely limit a person's ability to learn in a specific skill area. That is, these disorders are the result of actual differences in the way the brain processes, understands, and uses information. Everyone has differences in learning abilities, but people with learning disabilities have severe problems that persist throughout their lives. There is no "cure" for learning disabilities. Special education programs can help people cope and compensate for these disorders, but the learning disability will last a lifetime. Learning disabled people may have difficulty in school or on the job. These disabilities may also impact independent living and social relationships.

Learning disabilities are usually first noticed when children begin to fail in school. Parents and preschool teachers are often the first to see early signs of learning disabilities. Children may have difficulty learning basic skills in reading or understanding reading. Difficulty writing, math, or language may also signal a problem. Some students may easily learn basic skills but have difficulty applying skills in problem solving or higher level school work.

Living with learning disabilities can be a painful struggle for both the parents and the child. In many cases, parents are relieved to find an answer when children are diagnosed. The diagnosis is reassuring because it leads to additional support in school through specially trained teachers and special education programs. Students with learning disabilities will also have individual education programs developed to address their needs.

Children who qualify as learning disabled are supported with specially designed instruction based on each child's unique strengths, weaknesses, and learning styles.

Learning disabilities are believed to be caused by neurological differences in the way the brain processes information. Simply put, a person has a learning disability when his ability to learn an academic area is much lower than expected for his level of intelligence. It is a common misconception about learning disabilities that people who have them cannot learn or are less intelligent than their peers. Actually, this is not the case. People with learning disabilities are actually as intelligent as their peers. In fact, it is even possible to have a learning disability and be gifted as well. The actual difference is that people with learning disabilities learn differently and may need a variety of instructional practices to learn effectively.

In the diagnosis of learning disabilities, the discrepancy is usually determined through assessment to determine the child's intelligence quotient, or IQ score, and his achievement test scores in specific academic areas of reading, math, and written language. Language processing, listening comprehension, and oral expression may also be assessed.

A complete review of the student's educational history is conducted to rule out other possible explanations for the difference in skill development and IQ before a learning disability is diagnosed.

Early detection and intervention for learning disabilities are critical. If you suspect your child has a learning problem, find out how to recognize common signs of or a potential disability.

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Are Learning Disabilities Biological?
  True learning disabilities (LDs) are believed to be an organic type of disability resulting from neurological processing problems that cause difficulty with learning and applying skills in one or more academic areas. Evidence suggests that a child's chances of having a learning disability increase when parents or other relatives also have learning disabilities. This suggests that heredity may play a role in some cases. However, there are other possible causes of LDs that can be prevented in some cases.
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Do You Suspect a Learning Disability?
  If you suspect your child may have a learning disability, learn how to make a referral for assessment for your child. These articles will walk you step by step through the referral process for an evaluation to determine if your child has a learning disability or other type of educational disability.
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Testing and Assessment for Special Education -- a Testing Overview
  Testing and assessment is ongoing with children in special education programs. Some are formal, normed and standardized. Formal tests are used to compare populations as well as evaluating individual children. Some are less formal and used for ongoing assessment of a students progress in meeting his or her IEP goals. These can include curriculum based assessment, using chapter tests from a text, or teacher made tests, created to measure specific goals on a child's IEP.

1. Intelligence Testing
Intelligence testing is usually done individually, although there are group tests used to identify students for further testing or for accelerated or gifted programs.  Group tests are not considered as reliable as individual tests, and Intelligence Quotient (IQ) scores generated by these tests are not included in confidential student documents, such as an Evaluation Report, because their purpose is screening. 

The Intelligence Tests considered the most reliable are the Stanford Binet and the Wechsler Individual Scale for Children.

High Stakes State Achievement Tests are administered in March. No Child Left Behind, the educational reform law passed in 2002 in the second year of the first George W. Bush administration, requires testing by states in order to provide for accountability. The law provided some flexibility for the states in terms of testing, but was clear about outcomes. First, a state would have to forego some federal funding if they chose not to participate. The legislation also expects school districts and schools to improve performance. The standard was “adequate yearly progress,” (AYP.) The states were given some leeway as to how they will measure AYP, but with the understanding that it is to move schools toward the ultimate goal. That goal is for all (95%) children to be proficient in math and literacy/reading/language arts by 2014.

States set goals for how much improvement a school will make from year to year. They also set goals for attendance and graduation.

All students (95%) are expected to participate in this testing. When initially written, NCLB only permitted 1% to take an alternate test. Two years ago that standard was changed to 3%, but it still means that at least 75% of special education students will be taking the same state test as their typical peers.

The pressure is on. In my state a part of meeting AYP is increasing the number of special education students who score proficient. I know that in at least one situation I was sent to help monitor another grade group’s high stakes tests so the building principal and the special education liaison could coach my students and improve their scores. The pressure is especially high in inner city school districts, where principals are hired or fired, moved or rewarded according to their scores.

So, how do we help our student do their best? How do we create testing situations that don’t stress them out? The question of how we improve NCLB is something for a blog, not for this venue—in the mean time we are forced to live with this law.

  Preparation Many districts have model tests and provide test preparation materials. For reading disabled students it is helpful to find test prep materials at or near their reading level. The real tests will be stressful because the items will be longer, and the vocabulary harder, but familiarity with the format of answering multiple choice questions and filling in bubbles will be helpful.
  Test taking strategies can also be helpful. Using the easier test prep materials can be really helpful to teach these strategies, as the students will be more comfortable with the content and the demands of the materials.
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Tips for Test Taking Success
  Time for state high stakes tests has rolled around and stress is building. Still, there are ways besides cheating to help your students perform their best. Create a relaxing environment, help them meet their sensory needs, and create a little fun to help them de-stress.
  Create a Relaxing Environment

Let's face it--you don't have to tell your kids their performance on these tests are important. The test prep classes, the daily practice, all the things your building or district may be doing to guarantee their best performance has undoubtedly transmitted the message that the state tests are a big deal. Your kids know. They may even believe that they will flunk their grade if they don't "pass" the test.

  • Change the environment. I had a friend who turned her classroom into "Mrs. C's Summer Camp," pitching a tent for a reading corner and replacing the desks with clipboards and a picnic table. Maybe you can try a theme? The Zoo?
  • Let Students Bring a Stuffed Animal of Favorite Item Make this fun. Suggest that your students bring a favorite stuffed animal to be their "coach" or their "test buddy." Trust me, a 3rd grade student with a specific learning disability may be excited rather than embarrassed.
  • Make Test Days "Special" Days. Some schools will have hat days or backwards days to raise morale. What better time than state testing days? You might even create testing T Shirts with iron-on designs, your students' pictures and a slogan.
  Elevate Alertness
  Crunchy Snacks. I'm not making this up. I got this from the Director of Occupational Therapy at my school. Crunchy foods raise alertness in children who have trouble with attention. Pretzels are a healthy choice, as are celery or carrots. Chewing gum also improves attention. In other words the expression "can't chew gum and walk" is a complete misnomer.
  • Chew and Test. This tip really comes off the previous one. Chewing raises alertness. Provide cups of ice, or chewing gum for chewing during testing.
  • Provide Movement Breaks. They could even be "boogy breaks" if your kids like to dance. Maybe try hula hoops and have contests to see who can go the longest. Or jump ropes and who can jump the longest. This will especially help students who struggle with ADHD refocus when it's time to get back to work.
  Make Test Days Fun Days.
  Hopefully your building principal will cut you some slack and make the rest of your testing days fun days. Crafts? You could tie dye shirts, string beads, do something fun and different. Movies? How about a Muppets Film Festival, or a Scooby Doo Marathon?
  Get comfortable: Test taking days are great days to relax dress standards. If your school has a uniform, you might try to convince the principal to relax the dress code and permit kids to wear their own clothing. You might even try a “pajama party” day so kids can come dressed really comfortably.
  Start comfortable: Familiarize your students with standardized testing formats. There are lots of test preparation books you can use to familiarize your students. Get material at your student’s average reading level, so they are comfortable with the format and can succeed at their reading level. There may even be a preparation book for your state.
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Teach Test Taking Strategies

Process of elimination. Show your students how to eliminate the answers that are clearly wrong, and go back and check for the correct answer.

Underlining important information. Check your state rules, but usually a child can underline important information in the reading selections. This does not come naturally to children with specific learning disabilities. You need to spend a lot of time teaching this ahead of time. What is important? Why?

SQ3R. A classic reading comprehension strategy, it works well for test taking.

  • S for Skim. Teach your students to look for underlined headings, for words in italics or bold face, to read the first sentences of paragraphs.
  • Q for Question: Model asking questions about the text. What was the selection about? Say it is about sailing. What makes the sailboat go? Who are famous sailors? Whatever . . .
  • First R – Read..
  • Second R - Review This is a good time to answer your questions.
  • Third R - Re-read.

Do the Easy Ones First. Teach your students to look through the items that they find easiest first. Do be sure they are filling the ovals correctly. This gives them more time to do the more difficult ones.

Mask the Test. Show the students how to cover one column with a paper so they are not overwhelmed by the amount of text, or so they can focus on the important stuff. You may also cut a window in a paper or file folder so the student can move the mask from question to question. A mask would also work well for students whose eyes wander and need help filling in the correct test bubbles.

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Individualized Testing for Evaluation, Group Testing for Identification

Individualized intelligence tests are usually part of the battery of tests a school psychologist will use to evaluate students when referred for evaluation. The two most commonly used are the WISC (Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children) and the Stanford Binet. For many years the WISC has been considered the most valid measure of intelligence, because it had both language and symbol based items and performance based items. The WISC also provided diagnostic information, because the verbal part of the test could be compared to the performance items, to show a disparity between language and spacial intelligence.

The Stanford Binet-Intelligence Scale, originally the Binet-Simon Test, was designed to identify students with cognitive disabilities. The scales focus on language narrowed the definition of intelligence, which has been to some extent broadened in the most recent form, the SB5. Both the Stanford-Binet and WISC are normed, comparing samples from each age group.

The Reynolds Intellectual Assessment Scales or RAIS takes 35 minutes to administer, and covers 2 verbal intelligence indexes, 2 non-verbal indexes and a comprehensive intelligence index, which measures reasoning ability and the ability to learn, among other cognitive skills.

The best known product of Intelligence testing is the IQ, or Intelligence Quotient. An IQ score of 100 is meant to reflect the average (mean) score for children the same age as the child being tested. A score over 100 implies better than average intelligence, and scores below 100 (actually, 90) implies some level of cognitive difference.

Group Tests prefer to bill themselves as "ability" rather than intelligence tests, and are usually used to identify children for gifted programs.

The CogAT or Cognitive Abilities Test consists of several sessions, from 30 minutes (kindergarten) to 60 minutes (higher levels.)

The MAB or Multidimensional Aptitude Battery, consists of 10 subtests scores, and can be grouped in verbal and performance areas. The MAB can be administered to individuals, groups, or on the computer. It yields standard scores, percentiles or IQ's.

With the emphasis on state assessments and achievement, few districts are regularly administering group tests. Psychologists usually prefer one of the individual tests of intelligence to identify children for special education services.

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Testing to Assess Whole Districts or Populations

Standardized testing is any testing which is given to large numbers of students under standard conditions and with standardized procedures. Usually they are multiple choice. Today many schools administer a standardized achievement test to prepare for their state's annual NCLB assessment. Examples of a standardized achievement tests include the California Achievement Test (CAT); Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills (CTBS), also known as the "Terra Nova"; Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS) and Tests of Academic Proficiency (TAP); Metropolitan Achievement Test (MAT); and Stanford Achievement Test (SAT.)

These tests are normed, which means the results are compared across ages and grades statistically, so that a mean (average) for each grade and age are created which are the Grade Equivalent and Age Equivalent scores that are assigned to individuals. A GE (Grade Equivalent) score of 3.2 represents how a typical third grade student in the second month performed on the previous year's test.

Although standardized achievement tests are meant to compare a district's or state's educational program to a national standard, the results are often part of a student's permanent educational record.

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Tools for Assessment, Diagnosis and Program Design

Individualized achievement tests are useful for assessing a student's academic abilities. They are designed to measure both pre-academic and academic behavior: from the ability to match pictures and letters, to more advanced literacy and mathematical skills. They can be helpful in assessing needs.

The Peabody Individual Achievement Test (PIAT) is an achievement test which is administered individually to students. Using a flip book and a record sheet, it is easily administered and requires little time. The results can be very helpful in identifying strengths and weaknesses. The PIAT is a criterion based test, which is also normed. It provides age equivalent and grade equivalent scores.

The Woodcock Johnson Test of Achievement is another individualized test which measures academic areas and is appropriate for children from the ages of 4 to young adults to 20 and a half. The tester finds a base of a designated number of consecutive correct answers and works to a ceiling of the same incorrect consecutive answers. The highest number correct, minus any incorrect responses, provide a standard score, which is quickly converted into a grade equivalent or age equivalent. The Woodcock Johnson also provides diagnostic information as well grade level performances on discrete literacy and mathematical skills, from letter recognition to mathematical fluency.

The Brigance Comprehensive Inventory of Basic Skills is another well known, well accepted criterion based and normed individual achievement test. The Brigance provides diagnostic information on reading, math and other academic skills. As well as being one of the least expensive assessment instruments, the publisher provides software to help write IEP goals based on the assessments, called Goals and Objective Writers Software, that they sell for $59.95.

KeyMath 3 Diagnostic Assessment is both a diagnostic and progress monitoring tool for math skills. Broken into three areas: Basic Concepts, Operations, and Applications, the instrument provides scores for each area as well as each of the 10 subtests. Along with the flip chart books and test booklets, KeyMath also provides scoring software, to generate scores and reports.

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CBA Evaluates Goals That Come Directly From the Curriculum

Curriculum based assessment (CBA) is assessment based on the curriculum that a child is mastering. It may be the curriculum materials for the grade level the child is in, or it may be adapted to the student's ability or IEP goals. For example, fourth grade children are mastering long division, but children with disabilities in the same classroom may be mastering single digit divisors into two or three digit dividends.

Most curriculum based assessment comes directly from the text book, in the form of tests provided by text books, often in the form of chapter tests. Some publishers offer adapted assessments for special education students, or the special educator can adapt the assessment him or herself. Some text based assessments can be read and scribed, especially if those accommodations are part of the students Specially Designed Instruction. Social studies tests are a good example: these are tests of a student's social studies knowledge, not reading ability.

  Web Based Resources for CBA Other curriculum based assessment can be taken from online resources. This is especially true for online worksheet resources. The following are especially helpful.

The Math Work Sheet Site The basic worksheet generator for this site is free, although it provides a variety of useful formats in its members section. You can choose to generate worksheets by the format (horizontal or vertical) the number of digits, whole numbers, the range of numbers use. It offers each of the basic operations, mixed problems, fractions, measurement, graphing and telling time. The worksheets have large numerals that are well spaced for the large digits made by most students in special education. Edhelper is a member only site, although access is provided to some items. The reading selections are not well adapted for children with reading disabilities: the text is often too close together for these readers, and the content is not particularly well written. My preference is always Reading A-Z, another member only site with excellent reading resources.

Edhelper's math resources are excellent, especially for functional math skills such as money counting, fractions, and telling time. It provides several ways to show evidence of competence in each skill area.

  Money Instructor Money Instructor has both paid and member only options. Many of the free options provide realistic (color) money for counting. These are excellent resources for children who have difficulty with generalization, such as children with Autistic Spectrum Disorders.
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Tests Designed to Evaluate Students' Life Skills
  Functional Tests
  There are several tests of life and functional skills. Rather than reading and writing, these skills are more like eating and talking. The best known is the ABLLS (pronounced A-bels) or Assessment of Basic Language and Learning Skills. Designed as an instrument for assessing students specifically for Applied Behavioral Analysis and discrete trial training, it is an observational instrument that can be completed through interview, indirect observation or direct observation. You can purchase a kit with many of the items required for certain items, such as "naming 3 of 4 letters on letter cards." A time consuming instrument, it is also meant to be cumulative, so a test book goes with a child from year to year as they acquire skills.
  Another well known and reputable assessment is the Vineland Adaptive Behavior Scales, Second Edition. The Vineland is normed against a large population across ages. It's weakness is that it is comprised of parents' and teachers' surveys. These are indirect observations, which are really susceptible to subjective judgement (Mommy's little boy can do no wrong.) Still, when comparing language, social interaction and function at home with typically developing same aged peers, the Vineland provides the special educator with a view of the student's social, functional and pre-academic needs.
  The Callier Asuza Scale was designed to assess the function of blind-deaf students, but is also a good tool for assessing the function of children with multiple handicaps, or children on the Autistic Spectrum with lower function. The G Scale is the best for this cohort, and is easy to use based on a teacher's observation of a child's function. A much quicker tool than the ABBLs or Vineland, it provides a quick snapshot of a child's function, but doesn't provide as much descriptive or diagnostic information.
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