A Better Way to Determine Eligibility for Special Education Services: The PSW Model

The current criteria for determining eligibility in the New Jersey Administrative Code for Special Education is flawed, outdated, and incongruent both with federal law and the best practices in the professional literature. In addition, it perpetuates the disconnect between the findings of child study team evaluations and their potential use in generating instructional strategies by failing to include the “third option” contained in federal law.

According to the 2006 IDEA regulations (§300.307) concerning SLD, each state must adopt criteria for determining whether a child has a specific learning disability as defined by §300.8 (c)(10) that:

(1) Must not require the use of severe discrepancy between intellectual ability and achievement for determining whether a child has a specific learning disability as defined in §300.8 (c)(10);

(2) Must permit the use of a process based on the child’s response to scientific, research-based intervention; and

(3) May permit the use of other alternative research-based procedures for determining whether a child has a specific learning disability as defined in §300.8 (c)(10); (IDEA, 20 U.S.C. §1414 (b)(6)(A).


The shift away from the requirement of a severe discrepancy in #1 above acknowledges the erroneous assumption that IQ is near-perfect predictor of achievement and is synonymous with individual’s potential. The current model fails to: (1) differentiate between students with LD from those who are low achievers; (2) identify the area of processing deficit; and (3) inform intervention (Flanagan et. al., 2013).

Sanctioning Response to Intervention (RTI) (#2 above) as a stand-alone model is also problematical because RTI does not: (1) address the statutory requirement for a deficit in a basic psychological process; (2) clearly delineate why a child did not benefit from SLD, simply defaulting to diagnosing those who did not benefit from RTI as SLD; and (3) possess the scientific rigor called for in the 2004 amendment as there were no uniform ways to measure success or to determine if a lack of success were due to teacher training or other factors.

The third option emphasizes the importance of determining the presence of a cognitive processing weakness which is a requirement in every definition of SLD. It is based upon the well-validated Cattell-Horn-Carroll theory (CHC) which describes the structure of cognitive abilities and, by extension, delineates the connections between the cognitive and neuropsychological processes (Including executive functions) that underlie academic subjects. It also encompasses ecological data to validate test findings, and, in this way, includes the best of what RTI has to offer. Moreover, the findings of a pattern of strengths and weaknesses analysis may be directly translated into instructional strategies for teachers and parents that address deficiencies in these processing abilities, correcting the disconnect that currently exists between test findings and instructional strategies. The model also is quite specific in defining weaknesses (i.e., 85-89), deficits (i.e., below 85), and average scores (i.e., 90-=109) so that low ability students who are performing congruent with that ability are not classified as SLD.

The PSW model expands evaluators’ roles beyond simply determining eligibility and generates pragmatic recommendations for teachers. It does this by also expanding the evaluators’ scope of instruments to be used to assess the various components of CHC theory. In doing so, it allows for a more complete and accurate picture of students’ abilities. It moves away from using one set battery or test for all students, and, utilizing the idea of cross battery assessment, makes the choice of which tests to use dependent on the presenting questions garnered from teacher, parent, and student reports. That is, the assessment battery is based upon the question to be answered rather than a one-size-fits all type of evaluation.