North Carolina Eliminates a Psychological Evaluation as part of a Comprehensive Evaluation for a Learning Disability

In February 2016 the State Board of Education voted to change the North Carolina special education rules (the NC Policies).

One part of these changes to the NC Policies removes a “psychological evaluation” (including an intellectual evaluation) from the list of assessments to be done as part of “comprehensive evaluation” for a Specific Learning Disability (SLD).  LDA-NC opposes this change because a psychological evaluation/cognitive assessment is a necessary part of a comprehensive evaluation for a learning disability.

In February 2016 NC DPI published a version of the approved changes that shows which sections of the NC Policies are changed.  The approved changes remove an “educational evaluation, including nationally normed and criterion-referenced assessments, as appropriate when using RtI; and  [a]  Psychological evaluation, to include an intellectual evaluation, as appropriate when using RtI,” from the list of assessments to be done as part of a comprehensive evaluation for SLD (see the bottom of page 75 and page 76 as internally numbered in the document).

When will this change take effect?

The changes to the NC Policies will take effect as local school districts implement the instructional method Response-to-Intervention, no later than July 1, 2020.

Why is a psychological evaluation/cognitive assessment a necessary part of a comprehensive evaluation for a learning disability?

A psychological evaluation performed within public school environments may involve several different types of assessment methods, foremost among them an evaluation of a student’s intellectual or cognitive functioning.  (The terms intellectual assessment and cognitive assessment are treated interchangeable in this article.) Sometimes school-based psychologists also evaluate a student’s behavioral, emotional, and social functioning through other means, and/or may be involved in the administration of achievement or academic assessments, depending on the particular school system or school within a given system. Intellectual assessment has traditionally been one of the essential elements of an assessment for the presence of a specific learning disability (SLD), along with standardized measures of academic achievement.

The most central reasons why intellectual assessments remain a crucial component of a thorough work-up for SLD are as follows:

1) the results from intelligence tests provide a benchmark for determining expectations as to the range in which a student’s academic performance should fall. This reason becomes particularly important in the context of students who are considered “twice exceptional” (i.e., academically gifted students who are achieving well below their intellectual potential but are perhaps still at grade level);

2) if direct assessment of academic achievement levels are suggestive of an SLD, assessment of intellectual functioning provides further information as to the underlying “cognitive processes” that may be related to or more directly associated with an academic problem, thereby influencing the nature of intervention planning and/or pointing up the need for other areas of assessment (e.g., a speech/language or occupational therapy evaluation); and

3) certain SLDs, particularly those that are not primarily language-based in nature, are only ascertained within the context of an intelligence test (e.g., a student whose intelligence scores indicate problems with visual-spatial or visual-motor functioning, which would not be revealed in academic assessment, and which may be the root cause of a SLD in the area of mathematics).

Under the new NC rules is a psychological evaluation/cognitive assessment ever permitted as part of a comprehensive evaluation for a learning disability?

Yes, but only when a cognitive impairment (that is a low IQ) is suspected as the reason for a student’s low academic achievement.  Otherwise, a psychological evaluation/cognitive assessment can never be part of a comprehensive evaluation for a learning disability.

But doesn’t the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (NC DPI) have an Information Sheet that states that cognitive assessments are still allowed?

NC DPI, in October 2016, issued an Information Sheet which may lead parents to believe that every child who has a comprehensive evaluation for a learning disability will have as part of that evaluation a cognitive assessment.  The Information Sheet states:

“The use of cognitive assessments as part of a full and individual evaluation of students suspected of a learning disability is not prohibited.”

The Information Sheet is correct but misleading: under the changes a cognitive assessment is not prohibited.  However, a cognitive assessment will only be permitted when an intellectual disability (that is a low IQ) is suspected as the cause of the child’s learning struggles.

NC DPI made this very clear in its April 2015 NC DPI White Paper on the changes to the NC Policies:

If information suggests an intellectual disability, then, and only then, are cognitive ability measures relevant to educational decision making administered.”  (Emphasis added.) See top of page 8.

So, as before the changes, parents can still request that their child have a “comprehensive evaluation” for a learning disability, but now a psychological evaluation, including a cognitive assessment, is only permitted when an intellectual disability (that is low-IQ) is suspected.

So what should a parent do?

If you suspect your child’s learning struggles are a result of a learning disability, then you should ask the school to do a comprehensive evaluation.  You should put this request in writing and specifically request that the comprehensive evaluation include a cognitive assessment/intellectual evaluation.  If the school will not include a cognitive assessment or intellectual evaluation as part of the comprehensive evaluation, then you should ask the school to put their reasons for denying a cognitive assessment and intellectual evaluation in writing.

Once the school has completed its comprehensive evaluation of your child, if you disagree with the findings of that evaluation then you have the right to ask for an Independent Educational Evaluation. Nearly every psychologist who assesses for learning disabilities outside of the public school system includes an assessment of intellectual assessment, consistent with recognized best practices in the fields of learning disability and psychoeducational assessment.

Can the school delay or deny evaluation of my child because my child is still in a Response-to-Intervention program?

No.  The US Department of Education has made it clear that the use of Response-to-Intervention cannot be used to delay or deny an evaluation.

If you believe the use of RTI has been used to delay or deny an evaluation, then LDA-NC wants to hear from you.  LDA-NC cannot advocate on behalf of individuals but can bring these practices to the attention of the U.S. Department of Education.

[The Learning Disabilities Association of North Carolina would like to thank Kenneth B. Benedict, Ph.D. for his assistance in the preparation of this article.]

Last Updated – April 2017