Learning Differences and Educational Testing: The Importance of Understanding LD

When the Price Group meets with families, very early in our information gathering and intake process, we ask families if they have any recent or older psychological and educational testing for their adolescent or young adult. When we are able to review testing results, we often find that a student may have experienced difficultly in the academic environment or school environment and that these problems have escalated into severe emotional distress, leading to anxiety or depression. Sometimes these problems have not been addressed and/or misdiagnosed and go “under the radar” of the school and the family for many years.

A progression we often see is that a student struggles with focusing and staying on task in elementary school and the student’s first diagnosis is ADHD either combined hyperactivity and inattention, or one in isolation.  We now know that ADHD affects not only a student’s ability to be successful in a traditional classroom, but also that student’s ability to attend to social and nonverbal cues from peers and teachers. 

We also see students who have difficulty with what psychologist’s call fluency– or the speed of processing information. For instance, a teacher may be standing at the front of the classroom, asking students to get out their agenda books/planners. They may then be writing an assignment for the next day or week on the board. If a student has auditory processing fluency issues, or ADHD, they may have missed the instruction to get the agenda book out!  Alternatively, their book bags are so disorganized that they can’t find their agenda book!  By the time they either attend to the teacher’s request and/or find the book, the rest of the class has written down the assignment and is walking out of the class. Our student wants to talk to friends and socialize, so off they go and end up missing the assignments completely.

Other students struggle with dyslexia, which means an inability to read well or up to the level needed to successfully comprehend written information. We have discovered that learning to talk is a natural, organic process for humans, but learning a language is a far more complex and nuanced task. Some students struggle with letter/word identification and don’t know how to sound out words by using what are called Phonemes.  Others can sound out the words but cannot put them together in a way that they can comprehend the content of what they have read.  There are receptive language issues (getting the information into the brain) and expressive language issues (getting the information out of the brain).

Early in my educational consulting career, I worked with a student who had never had any educational testing by a school or clinical psychologist. I arranged for testing, and the psychologist suggested that after conducting a few broader tests, this student might benefit from a more extensive series of tests to diagnose a reading learning disorder.  When I placed the student in a therapeutic school, the school read the testing results, but then did not follow up on the recommendation for more extensive testing. When I asked why, they told me that the student was making great grades and participating well in all school subjects.  I pressed the issue, saying I still felt we should follow up on the recommendation made by the original testing psychologist.  When the student finally did get the more comprehensive reading assessment, she was now a junior in high school. The more prescriptive testing showed that she definitely had reading struggles and had been listening to Shakespeare being read aloud in class and was using the auditory information to do her work.  She could not read well enough to be able to comprehend the reading assignments directly! Had the lack of awareness by teachers and parents contributed to this student feeling defeated, and “less than” in a classroom? I think the answer is: absolutely yes. So, one of our jobs as educational consultants is to understand, at least at a moderate level, how to read and interpret test results and to follow up on issues related to classroom challenges.

We now have so many technically “assistive” supports for students with learning issues. These  include the ability to have “readers” that read text out loud as a pointer or finger is following along, or spell check devices and dictation devices that will correct and help a student who struggles with getting information on paper.  We all use cell phones now that are enabled with dictation and we have fun being “editors” of strangely auto-corrected texts.  These software advances on our devices are very helpful but cannot replace the caring teacher or special education expert who can help a student learn how to overcome a learning issue or learn how to better support the student with learning aids.  Most students are embarrassed about their differences, so it is important that they be allowed to have accommodations without others drawing attention to them. 

We know of schools that specialize in addressing and helping students with learning issues, and these schools can be placed on a continuum.  Some have “learning centers” and will have a student attend a special class during the week to support organization or support the student with one on one or group tutoring. Other schools are called LD (learning difference) schools and have a higher level of support as all the students at that school struggle with more significant learning issues. Our job as educational consultants is to help students and families find the right resource for diagnosing the learning issues, then find the right resources to correct and/or support the learning issues so that a student can begin to experience academic success and improve in self-confidence and self-esteem.

Louise Slater is a former Chair of the National Committee for Learning Differences for the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA).