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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.”
- Aptitude – Achievement Discrepancy
- An agreed upon need for specialized instruction
- “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 (http://dyslexia.yale.edu/research-science/ycdc-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 (www.vermontfamilynetwork.org).
-Melissa M. King, M.Ed.
Licensed Special Educator & Learning Disabilities Specialist Ascent Learning Services, Inc.
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Is it time to demystify the learning challenges that you or your child are experiencing? Psycho-educational evaluations can accomplish this, and as part of the process offer evidence-based recommendations; however, a psycho-educational evaluation is only as good as the experience and knowledge of the individual who administers and interprets various forms of data and information. My goal at Ascent Learning Services, Inc. is to answer your questions and map a road to success. To do this, we must identify strengths, affinities, as well as areas of inefficiency, and thus intelligent recommendations for improved achievement and diminished stress can be offered.
As an experienced, knowledgeable, trusted, and compassionate learning specialist and licensed special educator, I will guide you through the process of learning to value your own, or your child’s, unique abilities and finding success in and out of school.
In addition to evaluations and diagnostic testing, services include one-on-one and small group academic coaching; record reviews and consultations for families and schools; evaluation and planning for gifted and twice-exceptional students; professional development for public and private schools, as well as for those teaching in higher education. I also offer Integrated Listening System (ILS) services. As a 500-hour Registered Yoga Teacher (RYT), mindful and meditation concepts and skills can be incorporated into the work I do with those who experience executive functioning (attention and concentration) challenges.
I look forward to working with you! Feel free to call or email me for more information.
Melissa M. King, M.Ed.
Ascent Learning Services, Inc.
No one plans to fail, rather one fails to plan, or so the saying goes. There is great truth in this statement, and so if you are excited to start your college path on the right foot, consider academic coaching for 6, 8, 10 or more weeks. Academic coaching is a relationships between me, as coach, and you the student. Together we identify your strengths and any areas that may benefit from strengthening. Areas of focus may include study skills, how to read a text book versus a literature selection, how to take notes, prepare for tests, write papers, organize time and/or materials, improve focus and concentration, diminish procrastination, and acquire techniques to have a balanced life in which there is time for socializing and work. Based on informal inquiry, students are encouraged to set short and long-term goals. My goal is to have every student be independently successful, utilizing efficient and effective strategies, as soon as they are able.
Assessing gifted children is not like assessing any other type of child. I am often asked whether or not it matters if a psychologist or specialist who routinely evaluates children necessarily needs to have a working understanding of the complexities of gifted children, and each time I say, “Yes!” Unlike other populations of children, the test performances of gifted children on measures of cognitive abilities vary tremendously. Without getting too complicated, let me list some of the major dilemmas facing parents who wish to better understand their gifted child:
First, and foremost, in most cases we are “trying to measure a six foot tall person with a five foot ruler,” (Silverman). Too often, our IQ tests don’t sufficiently measure the true nature and extent of a gifted child’s capabilities. Examiners need to be sensitive to the limitations of tests on which a child does not reach a ceiling (point at which the number of errors a child makes dictates that the test be discontinued).
Second, the normal curve, or bell shaped curve on which our tests are based, is reliable within three standard deviations. Children on the outer extremes of the bell curve, i.e., IQ’s below 70 and above 130, are not being adequately “measured”, and with tests that do not allow for children to obtain higher IQ’s, we are simply left to guess what their true potential for academic success really is.
Thirdly, and perhaps most important to this topic, is the understanding and appreciation that gifted children are emotionally different as well as intellectually different. As Anna Marie Roeper (1982) said, “Gifted potential refers to a greater awareness, a greater sensitivity, and a greater ability to understand and to transform perceptions into intellectual and emotional experiences.” Giftedness also implies an asynchronous pattern of development in which children may experience uneven development across cognitive, social, physical, and emotional domains, and these differences may accentuate feeling out of step socially. When evaluators do not understand heightened emotional responses, sensitivities, and over-excitabilities (Dabrowski), at best they will miss what essentially makes a gifted individual. At worst, they will pathologize behaviors that are, in reality, part of the package of a gifted child. This is not to say that twice-exceptional children do not exist, as indeed they do. (Twice exceptional refers to gifted children who are challenged by learning differences, such as dyslexia or ADHD, etc.).
Another important factor to consider when testing gifted children is that they are routinely penalized by speed and working memory components of IQ tests. This is not to say that these tasks do not have a place, as they can tell us important information about the child. We must remember that in validation studies of the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children-Third and Fourth Editions (WISC-III and WISC-IV), gifted students scored highest on measures of abstract verbal reasoning and knowledge, and poorest on measures of rote memory and processing speed. Experienced evaluators of the gifted will tease this out and help parents and teachers understand that to have slow processing speed in no way diminishes the fact that the child is gifted; he or she may simply need a word processor in their enrichment class!
When assessing a child for giftedness, the evaluator must be motivated to paint a portrait of the child as a learner while taking into consideration the unique cognitive, social and emotional traits of that child. The evaluator must be well-versed in many measurements and not take any Full Scale IQ score at face value. Of course, this is true for any child, but especially so for gifted children, who by their very nature are likely to present us with asynchronous profiles of development. And finally, any evaluator must be able to share the information obtained in a manner that is respectful, meaningful, and accurate so that the child can have his or her needs properly met through various forms of education, enrichment, differentiation, and accommodations.
Melissa M. King, M.Ed.
I often ponder this question and wonder why “gifted” causes teachers, parents and students (some, not all) to bristle at this word. In his address to the Iowa Association for the Gifted (2005) Michael C. Thompson said, “Somehow, in our egalitarian society, the fact of gifted intelligence puts us in a state of ethical dissonance. What we know about gifted children appears to clash with what we know about social equality and universal human value. But the clash is artificial; it is illusory. It is a mis-clash. We are mixing the apples of high intellectual ability with the oranges of human equality. We are all equal, but we are not all identical; these properties exist at different levels of meaning.” You can read the entire speech at http://www.iag-online.org/allchild.htm.
I first read Michael Thompson’s exerpt in the March 2005 Parenting for High Potential (p21). Parents of gifted children may wish to subscribe to this very enlightening journal.
Melissa M. King, M.Ed.
Educational Consultant and President of Learning Curve, LLC
Having a gifted child is a bewildering experience for a parent. Children differ, their stories differ. But you probably knew when he/she is young that you have an interesting and bright (if often difficult) child. The real problems usually start when the child hits the school system. Even then you can manage reasonably well until middle school, was our experience and that of others we know. It’s often middle school or ninth grade when things start to fall apart. Neither you nor your son/daughter can understand why someone so bright cannot stay organized or finish projects, and ends up with as many F’s as A’s while having mastered the class with the F just as well as that with the A. Both you and your child feel like and are labeled as failures, and you both feel helpless about how to make things better.
Here’s what helped us after many struggles and low moments. We have two gifted children, a son and a daughter, now in college and beyond.
- Realize that the gifted child’s focus, brain power, and unusual maturity can be coupled with deficiencies that are just as real, perfectionism for starters.
- Get over your own resistance to the term “gifted.” Learn about giftedness. There are plenty of books at the bookstore plus online resources galore, plus several parent groups in Vermont. Besides, browsing for books on Giftedness shelved between “Autism” or “Brain Damaged Children” and “Multiple Personality Disorder” gives you a certain perspective.
- Realize that this package of talent and difficulties comes from somewhere – you the parent(s). Think back to your own difficulties and people who accepted and encouraged you. Realize that your world of family and friends and coworkers may be such that you take talent for granted, while most of the world does not.
- Accept your child for who he/she is. Your child is even more frustrated than you. Much of the frustration on both sides evaporates when you express what really matters – that you accept and love the person for who he/she is, and are on their side. You may need to accept yourself first, casting off being labeled as a failure by your own parents and history. Get some counseling help if need be from a professional familiar with the issue, you’ll be amazed how quickly it helps.
- Consider having your child assessed, not by the school or a psychologist/psychiatrist or your pediatrician who is looking for problems, but by someone who understands giftedness. These days the health system wants to give medication for everything. We went through multiple wildly offbase assessments or sets of opinions from teachers, counselors and health professionals. Listen to your gut — this is your child, not theirs. Then, get the facts.
- You’re probably going through this with child #1. Child #2 is almost certainly has a similar level of intelligence or talent, perhaps in different flavors. Girls are often overlooked. Extend your learning and peripheral vision to your other children.
- Strongly consider alternatives to public schools as early as possible, even if you find this idea difficult to swallow. Public schools cannot cope with either the idea or reality of giftedness, do not believe in the special needs gifted kids present, and fiercely balk at tracking or making accommodations for talent, to the point of sabotage. They point to the bright kids who are doing well and say your child is lazy, depressed, a rebel, needs medication etc. Don’t think you can change the system much, especially at the high school level. The schools will just wear you down and your child even more as he/she experiences failure over and over. In our case we finally realized we should have abandoned our high school long since when our son who scored 800 on his English SAT was placed in remedial English his senior year (he walked out of the class).
Many of our friends partially bailed their kids out of the system early: you can weave together home schooling and/or local college courses and/or online courses and nonschool enrichment activities. Take advantage of the Johns Hopkins testing/identification of gifted students in 7th grade and beyond (Vermont is a state that participates). A high schooler can put together an independent approved education plan through state channels that the school must accept. There are lots of good summer programs. Find out about the senior year program at Vermont Technical College.
There is always private school.
Our daughter ended up in boarding school and she took full advantage of it despite the culture shock, and ended up with wonderful success and ready for big challenges.
Boarding schools have drawbacks and cost a great deal but your money (or scholarship) buys what public schools don’t offer. Good schools have small classrooms (6-20 in general, 1 for honors work) and their basic premise is individualized tracking as a matter of course. Often they offer 3 levels for any given class, and moving students among various levels up or down for any given class is standard practice. Teachers are mostly dedicated and disciplined, intrigued and sympathetic to, not threatened by, giftedness. Start thinking about it by 7th grade at the latest, you want to apply in 8th grade at the latest; 9th grade is too late because of the competition.
- Let go and believe. Your child will find his/her own way, just not necessarily through the usual paths for success. Steve Jobs dropped out of Reed. No one questions his success now (though he’s had his share of ups and downs). So, maybe your child will change the world and make a few million along the way. He or she is bound to be an unusual and interesting person.
Resident of Hinesburg, VT
For many, the notion of an individual being both gifted and learning disabled is a paradox that is not easily comprehended. These children and adults do exist however, and the identification and teaching of such individuals is a great and immediate challenge to those of us who are evaluators and educators. While the field of gifted/LD is one of potential controversy, research has shown us that these two conditions can, and do, exist simultaneously. Children defined as such display remarkable strengths and/or talents in some areas and disabling weaknesses in others (Baum, 1998). According to Susan Baum, the key to identifying this heterogeneous group is to understand three categories: 1) identified gifted students who have subtle learning disabilities, 2) unidentified students whose gifts and disabilities may be masked by average achievement, and 3) identified learning disabled students who are also gifted, although not recognized as such.
For students identified as gifted who possess a subtle learning disability, the gaps in their achievement often widen with age. A common mistake made by professionals is to consider average achievement in a child whose aptitude is superior or beyond to be sufficient. Somehow this type of under-achievement does not seem as insidious as the under-achievement seen in a child of average ability. Yet what we know is that such an aptitude-achievement discrepancy within a gifted person can have dire consequences in terms of self-esteem and being able to perform to one’s potential. A comprehensive evaluation that considers not only aptitude-achievement discrepancies, but more importantly, intra-cognitive and intra-achievement discrepancies (strengths and weaknesses within one’s own cognitive and achievement profile) can help determine the cause of the under-achievement. Identification of a disability would help the student understand why s/he is experiencing academic difficulty and help him/her and teachers use strategies to go beyond a mediocre level of achievement.
Students who are gifted/LD, but are not identified as either, use their cognitive prowess to maintain achievement at grade level. Their precocious abilities allow them to work overtime to compensate for one or more processing weakness which may be an undiagnosed learning disability. These students are often difficult to identify, and they may not recognize their disability until they are adults. These students, however, may display unusual talents in non-academic activities and settings and their creativity, leadership abilities, and/or problem solving abilities may be unmasked in an environment that nurtures such traits.
Identified learning disabled students who are also gifted often have significant problems in school and their talents may reside in a non-verbal capacity that is not fostered in a traditional academic environment. Their failures may overshadow any glimmer of talent and the great effort expended on remediation leaves little time to focus on any strengths. These students are often described as disruptive by teachers and may use their advanced abilities to avoid tasks. Yet these students too may excel outside of school. They might be the ones who create elaborate cartoon strips, build incredible structures, organize a community plan for recycling, etc. According to Renzulli (1978) “the creative abilities, intellectual strengths, and passions they bring to their hobbies are clear indicators of their potential for giftedness.”
What Can Be Done?
Evaluators and teachers of children have an obligation to educate themselves about this population. Vermont does not mandate identification or education of gifted and talented students. As such, many teachers do not obtain information about how to recognize or teach this population. Special education services will often address the learning disability, but not the gift. Advanced placement classes, which would serve the intellectual needs of many, are often out of reach of these students because their problems with reading, or writing, or spelling have not allowed them to obtain grades necessary for entrance. With time and information, however; we can begin to create humane educational practices for these individuals. First, we must recognize the seriousness of under-achievement in high ability students, even if that level of under-achievement is “average”. Second, we must investigate processing problems (there is usually a history of problems that began when the child entered school). Next, if a processing deficit, or learning disability, is discovered, we must not only remediate the weakness, we must also focus attention on the development of the student’s intellectual capabilities. Enrichment that bypasses processing deficits and allows students to thrive with their intellectual peers might include an advanced math class, computer class, technical class, drama club, debate team, etc. Furthermore, students need to have a nurturing environment where individual differences are honored and compensations strategies encouraged. Perhaps most importantly, students must have their learning differences demystified. When the intellectually precocious part of the intellect sets the standards, it is indeed frustrating when certain parts of the brain or body do not measure up. Helping students understand and accept both their strengths and weaknesses will make life much easier and in turn they will become better advocates for themselves.
In closing, I would like to share an excerpt from John Dixon’s, The Spatial Child, “We educators must attempt to recognize any childhood behavior that could be a precursor to adult accomplishment. Had Isaac Newton’s teachers recognized his construction of gadgets as an indication of his potential, he might have been seen as gifted rather than learning disabled. Had the childhood theatrical and journalistic activities of Winston Churchill been regarded as an indicators of potential, he might have been seen as gifted rather than hopeless…..Had his teachers appreciated his childhood speculations on the nature of magnetism, Albert Einstein might have been seen as a future scientist rather than a failure.”
Dyslexia is a language-based reading disorder for which the primary characteristic is poor
reading fluency (see Overcoming Dyslexia, by Dr. Sally Shaywitz, Yale Child Study Center).
In younger children learning to read may be slow and difficult. Handwriting, spelling, and
fluent recall of math facts may also be problematic. In preschool and kindergarten children,
difficulty may be seen with rhyming, articulating words, especially multisyllable words, naming
letters and colors, and there is often a family history of reading or spelling problems. For
some children, their orthographic memory (visual memory for conventional spelling patterns)
is primarily affected. Such students spell quite well phonetically, but not accurately, and their
reading fluency is affected. Dyslexia may be mild, moderate, or severe, and for some very
bright individuals, their Dyslexia may go undetected for many years. Such a phenomenon
is sometimes referred to as “Stealth Dyslexia.” Dyslexia can be identified at any age and a
combination of learning strategies, tools, and accommodations can eliminate the barrier that this
learning difference may impose.