Why Doesn't My Child Qualify for Help in the Schools

My child is clearly not achieving in school. Why doesn't he or she qualify for help?

I see many children and teens who evidence language or reading disorder, including dyslexia, and who are not deemed eligible for services in the public schools.

Parents are often baffled by this. Their son or daughter is clearly struggling to succeed academically due to problems with spoken language, reading, spelling, and/or writing, but yet these delays are not severe enough to warrant intervention in the schools. Why is this? Quite honestly, this may be the most frequently asked question and source of great frustration from parents that I hear.

Many times the parents are told that the schools do not diagnose dyslexia; that it is a medical diagnosis, not an educational one. In the State of Michigan where I live, dyslexia is listed in the Michigan Administrative Rules for Special Education (MARSE) under the category of specific learning disability (SLD). Rule 340.1713 states that SLD includes “...conditions such as...dyslexia...”

In order to be eligible for services as SLD, a student must qualify in one or more of the following areas:

  • oral expression
  • listening comprehension
  • written expression
  • basic reading skill
  • reading fluency skills
  • reading comprehension
  • mathematics calculation
  • mathematics problem solving

By definition, children with dyslexia can have problems in one or more of the following areas:

  • basic reading skills (i.e., decoding)
  • reading fluency
  • reading comprehension
  • written expression

In addition, oral expression may be challenged, although not as significantly as in a child with a language impairment.

When it gets down to it, the reason that our kids with dyslexia do not qualify in the schools is based on the criteria being used to determine eligibility. According to the Michigan Department of Education, schools can use the following parameters to determine a deficit. These are not set in stone, but are suggestions and the DoE points out that a “convergence of multiple sources of data needs to be considered by the evaluation team. The decision as to what constitutes an academic skill deficit...will require a degree of professional judgment...[and] must be based on valid and reliable data.”

Michigan Criteria for Determining the Existence of a Specific Learning Disability (October 2010, p. 6).

The parameters are (from the above source document):

  • “At least one measure needs to reflect a comparison to Michigan (or national) benchmarks or norms in order to provide some consistency across schools and districts in the interpretation of an academic skill deficit.
  • "Curriculum-Based Measurement (CBM) results that include at least 6 data points that are at or below the 9th percentile may be considered significant.
  • "Criterion Reference Measures (CRMs) compare a student’s performance to the goals of the curriculum. These may be provided within program materials or set by teachers. An academic skill deficit could be indicated by results that are at or below 50% of the grade level expectancy. Thus, grade-level criteria must be determined for CRMs.
  • "When a measure is utilized that provides a percentile rank, such as an individually administered norm referenced test, a score at or below the 9th percentile may represent an academic deficit.”

I was taught in graduate school that scores below the 10th percentile on standardized assessments fall in the range considered “clinically disordered” so I understand why the schools are using a cut-off for eligibility at the 9th percentile as the criteria. To help understand percentile ranks, simply stated: If a child scores at the 9th percentile, it means that 91% of his peers would have performed better than he did on that particular task. That’s a lot of kids doing better. The challenge for our kids with dyslexia, who by definition are smart kids (i.e., their reading difficulties are unexpected in light of other cognitive abilities), is that schooling in the US and the curriculum were designed for those kids who scored between the 25th-75th percentiles (i.e., the average range). So if a student performs below the 25th percentile, he will likely struggle to access (i.e., read and spell) and learn the curriculum.

The real challenge for the dyslexic student is that because, in part, he is indeed smart, he will not score poorly enough on assessments to fall below the 9th percentile in order to qualify for services; yet his performance will fall below the average range (i.e., under the 25th percentile). If a student falls between the 10-24th percentile—truly falls “between the cracks”—he will most likely not achieve commensurate with his peers nor will he qualify for intervention in the public schools. It is a real Catch-22. Furthermore, given that our dyslexic kids are smart, they know they are not achieving commensurate with their peers; and as a result all kinds of things start to fall apart, not the least of which is their concepts of themselves as learners.

When a student is deemed ineligible in the public schools, it is because the schools are usually following the guidelines for eligibility. In other words, the school’s hands are tied. That said, smart kids are failing. In private practices such as my own, we have the opportunity to look at a student based on his or her individual pattern of strengths and weaknesses and intervene if warranted. We look at the student’s:

  • receptive vocabulary (which has been shown to be correlated with IQ)
  • spoken language comprehension and use
  • phonological processing skills (including awareness, memory, and rapid naming)
  • decoding of real and nonsense words
  • reading fluency and comprehension
  • spelling
  • writing

In a dyslexic kid, those data will paint the classic “peaks and valleys” profile of strengths and weaknesses that have been a hallmark of learning disability. And while we all have areas of relative weakness, for the dyslexic student the valleys (i.e., weaknesses) in his profile are in the very areas and skills he needs to succeed in school (i.e., reading, spelling, and writing).

For the families who have the resources, some children are able to get private therapy or tutoring to remediate their learning challenges (although it can be exhausting at the end of a school day to have to go to therapy or tutoring). But, many families simply cannot afford that option. It behooves us to continue to work toward a solution to ensure that all kids receive the education they deserve. To do so, as a nation, we need to provide the resources to our schools such as early and intensive intervention, teachers and educational staff with training to teach reading, spelling, and writing to those students who fall below the 25th percentile, and smaller class sizes. The techniques and strategies that benefit the dyslexic child will benefit all children; and that will create a win-win situation.

Joanne Marttila Pierson, Ph.D., CCC-SLP
April 2015