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Dear Mr. Cohen,

My second grade daughter was recently tested for a learning disability, and diagnosed as being a “slow learner.” This, as I understand, means that her below average IQ is commensurate with her learning; however, she is not mentally retarded. Not only am I at a loss for what to do, she does not qualify for the school’s special education services. I have asked that she still receive services – would it be legal for a school to place her in a special education classroom even though she is not a special education student if I allow it?

Thank you so much for your time.


Dear Julie,

Your question relates to the status of a so-called “slow learner” in relation to eligibility for services, as well as whether the student can receive special education services, although not technically eligible, if you consent. First, you should be aware that it is often the case that determinations are made with respect to whether a child qualifies as having a learning disability based on a comparison of full-scale IQ scores to the global achievement test scores. Often, when a qualified evaluator looks at the verbal and performance scores of the IQ test, the sub-test scores, and specific or discreet areas of the achievement tests, it turns out that there are significant variations in terms of the child’s abilities, including both strengths that place them above the full-scale IQ level, as well as weaknesses that place them at a statistically significant level below what the IQ scores indicate should be their expected performance. In order to make these determinations, it is important to have a qualified psychologist review the testing, and perhaps have additional testing conducted, if needed.

However, parents can make a preliminary assessment that there may be indicators of a possible learning disability simply by looking at the variability of sub-test scores to determine if there is a range of performance across skill areas suggesting that there are strengths and weaknesses that are not reflected in the over-all scores. In addition, further testing may utilize specific processing tests, which identify discreet areas of neurological difficulty with respect to learning that may not show up on the typical evaluation conducted by a school district. For example, there are specialized tests to assess decoding, tracking, word retrieval, memory, comprehension, and a variety of other processing tasks, which may not be completely covered by the typical school test battery.

In addition, you should be aware that the child may qualify based on other disabilities, depending on what other issues are present. As my answers to several of the prior questions indicate, there is also frequently a fudge factor built into the LD criteria, which allows the staff and parent to make a determination that the child qualifies based on functional difficulty, even if they don’t meet the technical criteria. As indicated above, the new IDEA going into effect in July not only changes the criteria for learning disability, but also expands the areas of impairment to include functional and developmental impairment as well as academic impairment. These will provide additional basis for potential services.

Finally, you asked whether a child could receive special education services even though the child is not a special education student, if you consent. This is somewhat complicated, but the federal law does allow schools to provide services which provide benefit to non-special ed students, as long as the dollars are focused on special education students. If the parent consents to the provision of support services by special ed staff, there should be no legal reason why a child could not qualify for such services. Historically, this has been known as the “incidental benefit rule,” which was designed to allow a situation such as a special education teacher coming into a regular education classroom teaching a small group of students, including both regular and special ed students.

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