Guidelines for documenting learning and cognitive disabilities
General documentation information
Learning disabilities is a general term which refers to a heterogeneous group of disorders manifested by significant difficulties in the acquisition and use of listening, speaking, reading, writing, reasoning or mathematical ability (National Joint Council on Learning Disabilities, definition 1998). Included in this disability group may be individuals identified as having a specific learning disability, cognitive impairment, autism spectrum disorder or acquired brain injury.
Student Disability Services utilizes the DSM-IV framework for the diagnosis of a learning disability as outlined below:
- A learning disability may be diagnosed when the individual’s achievement on an administered standardized test in reading, mathematics or written expression is substantially below that expected for age, schooling and level of intelligence.
- Learning difficulties significantly interfere with academic achievement or activities of daily living that require reading, mathematical or writing skills.
- Substantially below is usually defined as a discrepancy of two or more standard deviations between achievement and IQ.
- In some situations a smaller discrepancy may be used.
- The diagnosis of a LD may also include discrepancies within specific achievement areas, an intra-cognitive pattern of discrepancy, and information-processing discrepancies.
- A discrepancy alone is not sufficient to justify the diagnosis of a learning disability. Data must demonstrate that a student has one or more functional limitations in the academic setting and appropriate accommodations would allow the student equal access.
Student Disability Services requires documentation of a learning disability based on a psychoeducational assessment report. Essential information when identifying a learning disability at the post-secondary level includes the following:
- Recent psychometric data (within the last 3 years for a high-school student and the last 5 years for an adult) that support the presence of impairment in one or more of the following areas:
- Mathematical abilities
- Evidence of a history of learning difficulties documented through information such as developmental and educational histories, background information from prior educational assessments, and Summary of Performance (SOP) records from high school support teachers.
- Summary of current functional limitations impacting current academic performance.
A qualified evaluator
Professionals conducting assessments, diagnosing learning disabilities and making recommendations for appropriate academic accommodations must be qualified to administer the required comprehensive test battery and diagnose learning disorders following the guidelines of the DSM-IV. Qualified evaluators should have experience with adolescents and/or adults with learning disabilities, as well as with culturally or linguistically diverse backgrounds. Documentation should include the following criteria:
- Include evaluator’s name, title and professional credentials.
- Be typed, dated and signed on the professional’s letterhead.
- Evaluator may not be a family member.
Must be current: The impact of a learning disability on an individual changes over time. To determine the most appropriate accommodations, it is important for documentation to be current — no more than three years old for a high school student and no more than five years for an adult.
Must be comprehensive: Documentation for a learning disability must include documentation of ability and achievement functioning through widely recognized tests that have been standardized for the age of the student at the time of testing. This should include:
- An individually administered aptitude test battery with all subtests included.
- The WAIS-IV is preferred.
- A comprehensive academic achievement battery.
- The Wide Range Achievement Test (WRAT) is not considered comprehensive and is not acceptable as the sole measure of achievement.
- An information processing battery assessing visual-spatial abilities, all memory functions, and executive functions (i.e. processing speed, attention and auditory processing).
- A description of information processes should include strengths, weaknesses, and deficit areas.
- A clear, unequivocal diagnosis of a learning disability based on the DSM-IV criteria.
- An interpretation of test scores validating the diagnosis.
- A description of any current treatments employed to alleviate the impact of the LD.
- A description of the current functional limitations of the individual in an academic setting.
- A summary of the appropriate accommodations for an academic environment.
- A summary of all test scores, including raw scores, standard scores and percentile ranks.
May include supporting information: The report of the qualified evaluator is not the only documentation we can use to better understand and accommodate the student with a LD. Other useful documents include:
- Records of accommodations on standardized tests such as the SAT and ACT
- High school 504 plans or IEPs
- Previous psychoeducational evaluations.
- Summary of performance reports and other teacher reports.