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District takes care labeling learning disabled

The Tigard-Tualatin School District is sharing its expertise on the Response to Intervention program with 15 other districts

TIGARD - The Tigard-Tualatin School District is a pioneering force in a relatively new intervention method that focuses on identifying children with learning disabilities before they fail in school.

Identifying and labeling a child as 'learning disabled' was, according to past regulations, as simple as subtracting a reading test score from an IQ score.

A difference of 20 points could be deemed substantial enough for a student to be labeled 'learning disabled' - a description that references one or more of 13 learning disabilities that hinder a child's progress in school. The label does not include learning problems that are the result of visual, hearing or motor disabilities, mental retardation or environmental or economic disadvantages.

In the Lake Oswego School District, the point variance for the label is 30 points, and in Beaverton the point difference is about 22 points.

In Tigard and Tualatin, the points don't matter. In Tigard and Tualatin, the school district no longer uses what is termed as a 'wait to fail' and subjective approach in identifying learning disabled students.

'Saying a child has a (learning) disability is such a profound thing, and we want to be right,' said Petrea Hagen-Gilden, student services director.

The Tigard-Tualatin School District, says Hagen-Gilden, is a state and national leader in a relatively new method known as Response to Intervention used in identifying learning disabled students.

This year the district is sharing its expertise on the new RTI method with 15 other school districts throughout the state. The RTI method uses teams to review screening data, which ultimately helps to place a child in group intervention programs. A long flow chart detailing how a student's progress is tracked shows several attempts to institute intervention programs before ever labeling a student as 'learning disabled.'

In the three years that Tigard-Tualatin has used the new method, the percent of students identified as 'learning disabled' has not decreased, Hagen-Gilden said. However, the district's 10 percent learning-disabled statistic is still less than the state average of 13.5 percent.

In the United States, the number of students labeled as 'learning disabled' has more than doubled since 1975. From 1996 to 2001, federal funding for special education tripled to $6.3 billion.

'In the old days, if you were a first-grade teacher and you were frustrated with a child who couldn't learn, you would go to the special education teacher and ask for a label,' said Art Rutkin, vice chairman of the Tigard-Tualatin School Board. Rutkin's comment was made during a brief presentation on the RTI program and seemed to sum up the old view of how students were ultimately identified as 'learning disabled.'

'But this (program) is so sophisticated,' he added.

One problem with the discrepancy approach involving IQ scores, as outlined in the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Act, is that a child generally has to be at least 9 years old before he or she can be tested. Thus a child must reach the third grade before he or she can be identified as needing specialized instruction, which explains the 'wait to fail' label placed on the approach by critics.

Another problem is that school districts across the nation are not consistent with the point discrepancy in identifying what constitutes a learning disabled child.

Hagen-Gilden described the discrepancy approach as a paradigm which has the possibility of mislabeling students as 'learning disabled' and delaying when a child can receive correct academic instruction.

'We hope never to get stuck in the paradigm again,' she noted.