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Why is an Aptitude-Achievement Discrepancy Not Synonymous with Disability?

“We can only be kept in the cages we refuse to see.”
– Stefan Molyneux

I have evaluated and taught children, teens, and young adults with language-based learning disabilities (primarily problems in reading and writing) since 1991. When I began graduate school in 1989, Keith E. Stanovich, Ph.D. wrote the following, “The LD [learning disability] field seems addicted to living dangerously. Even in the context of such a history, the decision to base the definition of a reading disability on a discrepancy with measured IQ is still nothing short of astounding” (487).

In 1989 I had a dot-matrix printer, and if I could have afforded a cell phone, it would have been the size of a small suitcase kept in the trunk of my car. Needless to say, the world has changed a great deal since 1989, except in this one area: identifying a learning disability and determining – based on this identification – who gets services in public schools and who does not. Though schools have tweaked the formulae, for better or worse, most primarily rely upon an aptitude-achievement discrepancy to measure whether or not one has an LD.

Here in VT, the state uses the euphemism, the “three gates.”

  1.  Aptitude – Achievement Discrepancy
  2. An agreed upon need for specialized instruction
  3. “Adverse Effect”

Adverse effect means that the disability (as determined by the level of under-achievement, or aptitude-achievement discrepancy) negatively affects grades, performance on standardized tests, curriculum based tests, and/or performance on an individualized measure of achievement, such as the Woodcock-Johnson. “Adverse effect” is determined when a child is performing at or below the 15% in his/her class. To the unknowing (and that’s most parents who aren’t trained in the field of learning disabilities), this might seem sophisticated and sound. It is not.

There has never been a correlation between IQ (that’s considered “aptitude” in the parlance of special education eligibility) and achievement in reading. What distinguishes children with reading disabilities from those without? There is a plethora of research ( identifying the problems that distinguish poor readers, which include under-developed phonological coding, word recognition, pseudo-word reading, rapid automatic naming, and a family history of LD. Nowhere does the research indicate that an aptitude-achievement discrepancy is indicative of a learning, or specifically, a reading disability. There is, however, reason to be optimistic. This year, the Senate and the House passed First Step Act to make alterations to our federal criminal justice system. Significant to our topic, the bill also makes changes in federal dyslexia policy. From the work of Dr. Sally Shaywitz and others at the Yale Center on Dyslexia & Creativity, dyslexia is being recognized as “an unexpected difficulty in reading;” therefore, even a bright or gifted person can still struggle to read. I would add that the bright or gifted individual’s experiences with reading difficulty are no less valid than the individual whose struggles are more visible or obvious. For those whose disability is “invisible” because they are leveraging their intellectual strengths and possess a Herculean work ethic, the stress they experience is harmful and not sustainable, which is why so many of the students I see with such a profile do not hit the proverbial wall until they enter college.

I must express that I respectfully acknowledge that this system of determining who gets “identified” and thus served is what we have to live with at this time. I have worked in public schools as a special educator, and therefore I have the utmost respect for those “in the trenches.” I have been there. Professionally, I strive to provide not just the data that schools need to make informed decisions based upon this model. I strive to provide additional insights into those children who truly do manifest the characteristics of a specific learning disability, yet who simultaneously may or may not meet the “three gates.”

As Dr. Shaywitz says, behind every successful child with dyslexia there is one or more parent devoted to helping that child succeed. Parents can advocate, question testing and eligibility outcomes, and by all means, educate themselves using resources such as the Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity, the International Dyslexia Association, and more locally, The Vermont Family Network (

-Melissa M. King, M.Ed.

Licensed Special Educator & Learning Disabilities Specialist Ascent Learning Services, Inc.

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