At first, advocates rejoiced under the assumption that the mere diagnosis of one of these types of disability would increase the ease with which a team can determine that a student is eligible for special education under IDEA. Twitter lit up with tweets thanking OSERS for its letter.
But will more students with dyslexia, dyscalculia, and/or dysgraphia receive services? Perhaps not.
I once attended an IEP meeting where a school representative literally rolled her eyes when the family stated that their daughter's dyslexia needed to be addressed through appropriate research-based intervention. "We don't believe in dyslexia," the woman said. However, we were well past the point of determining eligibility. The child was easily eligible, with or without a diagnosis, under both Specific Learning Disability and Other Health Impairment (ADHD). We were already to the point of writing annual goals and discussing services. Would this Dear Colleague letter have helped my client get better, more appropriate services? Probably. Our team could have reminded the eye-rolling school representative that, in fact, an IEP must address the child's needs resulting from her disability--in this case her dyslexia--to enable her to to be involved in, and make progress in, the general education system. As this Dear Colleague letter states, "there is nothing in the IDEA or our implementing regulations that would prohibit IEP Teams from referencing or using dyslexia...in a child's IEP." OSERS encourages state and local educational authorities to "consider situations where it would be appropriate to use the terms dyslexia, dyscalculia, or dysgraphia to describe and address the child's unique, identified needs through evaluation, eligibility, and IEP documents."
But what if we were earlier in the process? What if the team were trying to determine IEP eligibility? Would the OSERS Dear Colleague letter have helped?
For that answer, I look to the experiences I've had with clients whose children are earlier in the process.
Michigan uses the federal definition of specific learning disability as "a “disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, that may manifest itself in the imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do mathematical calculations, including conditions such as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia that adversely affects a student’s educational performance. A SLD does not include learning problems that are primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor disabilities; mental retardations; emotional disturbance; or of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage.” 34 CFR § 300.8(c)(10). Note that dyslexia and "the imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do mathematical calculations," were included in the definition before the publication of today's Dear Colleague letter.
However, each Michigan school district chooses its own evaluation process that it will use to determine SLD eligibility so long as it follows all of the regulatory requirements in the IDEA, the MARSE, and Michigan laws, policies, and procedures for special education. To determine SLD eligibility, the chosen process must collect student data that demonstrates inadequate achievement to meet age or State-approved grade-level standards and insufficient progress or a pattern of strengths and weaknesses.
In other words, the diagnosis of a disability listed in 34 CFR § 300.8(c)(10) alone is not sufficient for eligibility. The child must also suffer inadequate achievement. Districts set exclusionary thresholds for what is "inadequate enough" to qualify, usually requiring multiple test results below the 10th percentile, regardless of how high the child scores in areas not impacted by his or her disability. For example, a child may score near the 85th percentile in math and oral language, but score around the 12th percentile in areas affected by his or her dyslexia. Despite the discrepancy of more than two standard deviations between high and low scores and a diagnosis of dyslexia, the child will not be eligible under SLD in an ordinary Michigan school district.
The OSERS Dear Colleague letter does not affect a child's eligibility because it does not change the criteria by which students are measured. It is my guess that today's letter will not increase the numbers of children who receive special education services. There will continue to be a large portion of children who struggle to read, write, and/or do mathematics at levels commensurate with their cognitive abilities because of their dyslexia, dysgraphia, and/or dyscalculia who fall just beyond the threshold for eligibility under an SLD designation. Their academic achievement will be inadequate for their abilities, but not "inadequate enough" to trigger eligibility and services.
Is it time to rejoice that OSERS has encouraged districts to let go of the reluctance to reference or use the terms "dyslexia," "dyscalculia," and "dysgraphia?" For some families, yes. This may help them obtain more tailored services for their children.
However, for the many more families who continue to battle with districts to find their children eligible for help, this is but a tiny glimmer of hope that the many stakeholders, parents, advocates, and disability organizations are just beginning to be heard. Representatives Pete Stark and Bill Cassidy launched the U.S. Congressional Dyslexia Caucus in 2012. As Rep. Lamar Smith, the current co-chair of the caucus said, "I have realized the importance of continued dyslexia research as well as the need for early detection and intervention in our schools. My hope is that this caucus will continue to play a key role in educating our colleagues in Congress and the public about dyslexia. Changing the way we approach dyslexia as possibility rather than disability can enhance opportunities and brighten futures for millions.”