Should My School Test My Child for a Learning Disability?

Ok, you’ve now decided to get your child (or yourself) tested.  What should you look for in a specialist?  What type of testing should you get?  Where do you start?

Parents can choose to have their child tested through the school system or they can choose testing through an independent psychologist.  The learning specialist, special education coordinator, school nurse, or guidance counselor can usually help guide parents who want their child tested.  Since independent testing can be costly and often is not covered by insurance, many parents choose to have the school conduct the assessment.  If a child’s needs are “obvious”, a basic evaluation can usually identify the sources of the academic difficulties.

The next logical question is “Should I have the school test my child?”  My general answer to that is “no,” unless a family’s personal resources render the school the only choice for any testing.  Here’s why:

Please remember that the school systems are not really designed to offer comprehensive evaluations, but rather to identify students with learning problems, primarily when the students are older and the academic failures/difficulties are more noticeable and measurable.  The widely accepted definition that a learning disability is a “severe discrepancy between the child’s cognitive ability and his/her academic achievement” makes it difficult for a school evaluation to catch subtle learning problems, especially in bright kids who have compensated for their achievements or who are younger students.  A student with learning problems may get good grades because s/he works all afternoon, evening, and weekend to achieve the grades.  The student may have strong verbal communication skills that overshadow a deficiency in reading or writing.  It’s a lot more difficult to diagnose an 8-year-old, second-grade student with a reading disability than a 17-year-old high school senior who expresses reading problems that are “two years below grade-level”.

The school system usually does not include specific tests that could offer insights into the child’s learning.  Few, if any, parents know what specific tests to request from the school.  Based on my experience in helping families, the schools do not have the resources to conduct all the tests needed for a thorough diagnosis.  I have met scores of families whose children were evaluated by the school system only to be told that no problem existed, when in fact, the child actually did have a learning disability that appeared in more thorough, independent testing.  My motto, along with those of the evaluators whom I trust is “If a school-based evaluation shows a disability, it is probably there.  If it doesn’t show a learning issue, seek independent testing to tease out the core issues.”

Schools are so burdened and are doing the best they can with increasingly limited resources.  School psychologists are stretched to the max, sometimes serving ALL the schools in a district or region.  Despite the school’s best of intentions and the urgency of your personal situation, it may take many months to have your child evaluated by the school.  One recent family I know initiated the process in October, got on the schedule for February, and after many snow-days, staff illnesses, and schedule conflicts, had the testing completed in April, only to receive results in May.  That family lost essentially one school year of academic interventions.

Whether you choose school-based testing or independent testing, please ask the following questions of the evaluator:

1.  How is testing conducted?  What are the exact steps?  Testing usually takes 6-8 hours, and can be conducted in one looooong day, or broken into days—either consecutive or spread apart.   Find out.

2.  When will you receive the report?  Two weeks?  Two months?  Longer?  Find out.

3.  How will the results be provided?  Will there be an analysis of results or just a bunch of numbers/data for each test?  Find out.

4.  Will the evaluator offer recommendations and suggestions, or simply present the problem (which you probably already suspect since you’re getting your kid tested in the first place)?  Find out.

5.  Will the evaluator be available for follow-up questions and clarifications, or does s/he disappear at the end of the school cycle?  Find out. r

Know your evaluator before you commit the time and resources to the testing.  Knowledge is power!

(Some of the information presented in this post is adapted from an article written by Dr. Robyn Waxman in Baltimore, Maryland and was originally printed in a paper version of our newsletter.  It my professional opinion that independent testing is more thorough than school-based testing, however, I do not speak for other psychologists regarding this matter, and this opinion should be regarded as mine solely.)

Should I Get My Kid (or Myself) Tested?

Well, by now, everyone should know that my answer will always be “yes”, since it is important to know how your brain works and processes information.  But my families often express a lot of confusion over whether or not to test, not to mention what those test results mean.

Over the years, I’ve been amazed by the number of parents who have their kids undergo hours of testing, sometimes paying thousands of dollars out-of-pocket, only to shove the testing results into the kitchen drawer.  And even more amazing are the teachers and administrators who pull out a pristine copy–with no notes or markups in the margins–at a 504 or IEP meeting.

Is anybody reading these testing results?

What do the testing results mean?

Does anybody know how to take the testing results and implement practical, results-oriented interventions? (Ok, that’s my job)

Beyond a specific diagnosis, such as ADHD or depression, most families don’t understand what the psychoeducational evaluations communicate about the learner.  Some parents fear the “label” while others feel relief at the”label”.  But besides the “label”, test results often outline a child’s natural learning style, detailing the specific strengths and weaknesses, as well as the biological reasons for the learning challenges.  For example, the psychologist can use the results to explain that a child ” is smart but just has problems with memory.”  After so much frustration, possible self-blame, or self-loathing, it can be quite powerful to hear a specialist reinforce that he or she is smart and capable, and back it up with EVIDENCE.

Probably the most important point to remember about the psychoeducational evaluation is that the PROCESS of testing provides the results.  No single test can be used to diagnose.  No individual score can stand alone to indicate a specific strengths or weaknesses.  Specialists look for a PATTERN of strengths and weaknesses that emerges across several tests.

In future posts over the next few weeks, I’ll go through what to look for in an evaluator, how to read the results, what the most commonly-used tests assess, and how to implement and incorporate results into an action plan.