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Math Learning Disabilities - Let's Learn About Math Learning Disabilities


An Introduction to Math Learning Disabilities - Anyone involved in the schools has heard the term specific learning disability (SLD) before.  That said, people often speak of SLD's in more general terms than the name warrants.  In other words, the 'specific' part of SLD is important and should not be glossed over.  The term refers to the actual area of achievement impacted by the learning problem.   One well known SLD is a math learning disability.  Those with math learning disabilities in schools, as defined by IDEA, require special education services due to weaknesses in math calculation, math reasoning, or both.


Of course, in order to understand math disabilities more fully, one needs to know the current diagnostic criteria that educators use to determine who has a math learning disability vs. who does not.  And that requires an understanding of SRBI and/or RTI procedures.


How Schools Used To Identify Math Learning Disabilities


First, a brief history lesson.  In the past, educators were required to use the discrepancy model for identifying learning disabilities, including math disabilities.  This model was based on the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).  The basics to this model are as follows:


1) An IQ test was given and a student's overall cognitive ability was determined.

2) An achievement test was given in order to determine a student's reading, math, written expression, oral expression, and/or further skills related to academic achievement as identified by IDEA.

3) A determination was made as to whether there was a significant difference between ability and achievement in an area identified by IDEA law.  For example, if the student's IQ or ability score was significantly higher than their math calculation skills, then a significant discrepancy or difference was noted in basic reading.  4) A determination was made as to whether a processing deficit or cognitive issue was impacting the area of academic need.

5) If a severe discrepancy was found along with a processing deficit to explain it, a student would have then qualified for special education services with a learning disability in the area of achievement identified.


Of course, it was a little bit more complicated than this.  Essentially though, those were the nuts and bolts of things.  What we didn't note earlier is that every so often IDEA law is reauthorized, or revised.  In 2004, very important changes were made to the definition of learning disabilities.  For more specific information and background on why this occurred and more, see this article: (Learning Disabilities).   For just the basics, keep reading here.

IDEA 2004 and Specific Learning Disabilities


The reauthorization of IDEA (IDEA 2004) did not change the definition of a specific learning disability, which math disabilities fall under.  See the definition below:


“A disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, that may manifest itself in the imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do mathematical calculations, including conditions such as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia. Specific learning disability does not include learning problems that are primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor disabilities, of mental retardation, of emotional disturbance, or of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage.” (34 CFR § 300.8(c)(10])


ThThat said, the process regarding how learning disabilities is diagnosed was modified.  Specifically, IDEA 2004 indicated that each state: 

1. Cannot require the former, commonly used severe discrepancy model;which was a discrepancy between intellectual ability and achievement for determining if a child qualifies under SLD;
2. Must permit the use of a process based on the child's response to scientific research-based intervention (SRBI); and
3. May permit the use of the other alternative research-based procedures for determining whether a child qualifies under SLD


From SRBI To Response To Intervention (RTI) For Math Disability Identification


Generally speaking, many schools, states, etc., are using a process called response to intervention (RTI) as their scientific research-based intervention model.  RTI utilizes research based practices and interventions in attempts to remedy academic weaknesses (in the case of this article, to remedy math weaknesses in reasoning, calculation, or both).  Since states must allow the use of a learning disability identification process based on the child's response to scientific research based intervention, RTI has gained prominence.


RTI procedures are generally tied to a 3-tiered approach to interventions.  Tier 1 is about the regular classroom instruction and the differentiation that may occur for students within that environment.  This is very important, in that appropriate classroom instruction and general education practices have been proven time and time again to make a difference in student achievement.  Things like flexible grouping in regular education math classes designed to target areas of identified math need as noted on formative assessments is one thing that might be done under the Tier 1 umbrella.


Tier 2 usually refers to more focused interventions for students that do not respond or show significant improvement with Tier 1 strategies.  These tend to be done in smaller groups, involve more time during the school day.  For example, a 10 student math lab for those who fell below goal on a state testing measure would be a Tier 2 intervention.


Tier 3 interventions are even more intense and individualized.  They are designed for those that do not respond to Tier 2 strategies.  In fact, these interventions typically involve a staff to student ratio of 1:1 or 1: 2.


Underpinning all of this in an RTI process are the following:

1. RTI and SRBI practices involve the use of universal screenings, so as to determine who in the regular population is not responding to everyday practice.

2. Research based strategies, which can be loosely defined as those that have been proven to work and/or are peer reviewed, should be utilized. Though there may be no perfect study to define all education practices that may/will be required depending on the nature of the problem,  school staff "Should certainly rely on such studies to the extent that they are available," (LD CT).

3. Frequent progress monitoring and data driven decision making are all hallmarks of RTI and SRBI. You can't make good decisions without good data!

Regular Education Math Practice And Appropriate Math Instruction


Whenever you're talking about math learning disabilities, or any learning disability for that matter, it's important to make sure that appropriate math instruction and general math practice was conducted with the student.  In other words, students with math problems are not math disabled if appropriate math instruction was not conducted with them prior to identification.  What's more, with new SRBI practices becoming more prominent, the definition of what constitutes good math instruction may be changing.


Areas of Math Disability


When discussing math disabilities, we're really talking about deficiencies in math calculation/numerical operations and/or math reasoning.  Math calculation/numerical operations refers to a student's ability to do math calculations of increasing difficulty (addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, adding decimals, dividing fractions, etc.).  Math reasoning refers to more higher level concepts, such as understanding how to work with tables, word problems, etc.


Norm Referenced Math Assessments


Norm referenced tests are one which were derived from a normative group that initially took the assessment.  In other words, a norm referenced evaluation offers an estimate of where a student's score falls in relation to that initial population regarding the trait being measured.  So a norm referenced math test would yield a score that compares a student's performance next to the initial population, or normative sample, that took the test. 


Several standardized math assessments are given by educators in order to determine where a student's math skills are.  In fact, there are way too many for us to attempt to name them all.  However, some of the more popular ones include the Woodcock Johnson Tests of Achievement (Third Edition), the Wechsler Individual Achievement Test (Second Edition), and the Kaufman Test of Education Achievement (Second Edition).


Speaking of Testing- How Do Schools Consider Eligibility for Special Education Services Under a Math Disability?


Generally, schools will not refer to an IEP or special education meeting, which are designed to determine eligibility for special education and/or to plan for students who are already receiving special education services, until a wealth of regular education interventions have been attempted and proven inadequate to remedy the problem.  That said, there are exceptions to these rules and parents can request an evaluation of their child, which will likely spur on an IEP team meeting.  At this meeting, the team will make decisions regarding eligibility and/or make recommendations regarding what may be needed in order to determine eligibility (a psycho-educational evaluation, for example, might be recommended).  Interestingly, these days it's not always necessary to conduct a full evaluation due to the change in eligibility guidelines.  Regardless, the IEP team is tasked with making such decisions.


Research Based Math Interventions


Below is a list of articles that delve into research based practices designed to improve math skills.  Given the rise in SRBI practices, this is important.  Each article links to studies supporting the use of that specific instructional technique.


Follow the links below for more detailed information on each.

1. Concrete-Representational-Abstract

2. Contextualized Math Instruction
3. Cover, Copy, and Compare



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