Cognitive referencing is the practice of using IQ scores to establish eligibility for special education services, specifically in areas of language and learning disabilities. It’s often called by it’s gentler label, the “discrepancy model.” Many others disapprovingly call it the “wait to fail” model. Cognitive referencing has been denounced by groups such as the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (link), the President’s Commission on Excellence in Special Education, 2002, and very explicitly, by the U.S. Department of Education (link, pg. 31). It has been eliminated in many states, but persists in many others. Even those who don’t come right out and denounce this practice (as they should), state that it should be only one component of a larger process used to determine eligibility (e.g. this CEC link). The problem is that wherever it is used, the IQ-Academic discrepancy becomes the sole method of determining eligibility in nearly all cases. In my state of Missouri, our state law very specifically mandates this discrepancy, unless a school district is willing to go through much expense and work to use other methods, such as RTI. My guess is that 99% of kids tested for LD and Language Impairment in our state use only IQ comparison to determine eligibility.
Despite its prevalence, cognitive referencing is wrong on many levels.
- It uses a single IQ score, ignoring standard deviation. A kid that scores 80, may actually have a “true” IQ of something like 85 or 90, but could have performed poorly on that one day, for various reasons. Tough luck for that kid. An IQ score of 80 usually means that your academic or language scores have to be 58 or lower, an extremely difficult thing to do.
- By even using IQ at all, the assumption is that this is as good as a kid can get. That was the initial rational for the discrepancy model way back before we knew better. Now we know that IQ can go up (or down) in relationship to environmental factors. (When IQ scores of large groups of children are studied, IQ scores do tend to remain stable, especially in older children. However, this skews the fact that a smaller percentage of children do show substantial IQ fluctuations over time. For more on this interesting topic, see Sigelman and Rider, 2008.)
- IQ and language are correlated. Vocabulary and IQ especially correlate well. This means that children with low language scores tend to have comparably low IQ scores. It is virtually impossible to obtain a low IQ score and say that language difficulties didn’t have something to do with that score.
- Kids with certain scores are especially difficult to qualify for special education under this model. Whenever a child scores in the 70s you can just about rest assured that the kid will not qualify, and you will be testing that kid again, perversely hoping that the academic and/or language scores have fallen enough to qualify the next time. In effect a child is punished for having an IQ score that just happens to be in that one certain range.
- IQ scores can set artificially low levels of expectation for kids, teachers, and parents. IQs describe obstacles, not limits. It may be harder for someone with a lower IQ to learn, but it is never impossible. Only comatose or dead people can’t learn, and IQ scores too often allow somebody to say, “Well he’s achieving close to his level.” IQs can provide a stimulus to somebody with a high IQ who is not motivated to learn, and can provide a bit of insight into why a particular student may be having trouble learning, but to withhold helping a child because of a lower then average IQ is at the least dishonest, and borders on unethical.
So how can this horrible practice persist? For starters, no states have been forced to abandon cognitive referencing. It is almost amazing that so many have, considering the financial implications of having to provide more help to kids. That nobody has come up with anything better seems to be the main excuse given for continuing the discrepancy model. I don’t really understand why this practice hasn’t been challenged in court. Perhaps someday, somebody such as these special ed lawyers with a great web site, will.
That cognitive referencing can continue to exist is a symptom of a larger problem in our society. We attempt to find labels and categories to justify providing (a good thing) or withholding (not so good) help to kids that could really benefit from extra help. In my opinion the most ethical method of providing special education services would be to establish a bare minimum of expected competence in various areas, and at least offer to help any child achieve the next step toward reaching that bare minimum. If this were to happen those of us in special education might then be able to spend more effort looking for ways to help, and less time looking for excuses not to.
Williams Syndrome is a rare genetic disorder, first identified in 1961, that is characterized by, among other things, outgoing personalities and deficits in processing and adaptive behavior skils. These individuals frequently have comparatively low IQs with comparatively high language skills. While initially the facts of the preceding sentence were eagerly seized by proponents of the separation of intelligence and language, the accumulation of research has (as it so often does) muddied the picture. Williams Syndrome and Specific Language Impairment (SLI) have frequently been used as converse examples of evidence to support the dissociation between cognition and language. The cognitive scientist, Steven Pinker, has made this argument in several popular books. In 1999 he wrote,
Overall, the genetic double dissociation is striking, suggesting that language is both a specialisation of the brain and that it depends on generative rules that are visible in the ability to compute regular forms. The genes of one group of children [SLI] impair their grammar while sparing their intelligence; the genes of another group of children [WS] impair their intelligence while sparing their grammar.
Subsequent assertions by Pinker leaning more toward an inextricable relationship between genes and environment seem not to have been as widely read as his earlier work.
Comparisons of SLI and Williams Syndrome hinge on the notion that SLI is inherited. While the research does suggest that at least a predisposition toward SLI is inherited, the complexity of its causes makes any comparisons like that of apples and oranges. The exact cause of Williams Syndrome is known: it is the result of missing genetic material on chromosome seven. SLI is likely the result of a stew of ingredients, with varied recipes, and varied results. Individuals with Williams Syndrome are gregarious. They enjoy talking. Is it any wonder that they may become relatively proficient at something they enjoy? As with other human behaviors and skills, language acquisition will likely never be reduced to one cause. Similarly, the fact that these individuals are poor puzzle solvers is more likely related to visual-spacial deficits than an impairment in some “puzzle solving” gene.
Anette Karmiloff-Smith has done a lot of great work on Williams Syndrome, much with a focus on accurately describing its characteristic language skills and deficits. Many of her publications are available for download on her personal web site. Language log has published an interesting post on the science and state of language research in Williams Syndrome, found here: Language Log link.
- distractibility and a short attention span
- semantic difficulties, with small, more concrete vocabularies
- comprehension superior to expression
- poor morphology
- telegraphic speech
- passive interaction, or physically aggressive interaction
- delays across multiple domains
Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI)
- comprehension problems, especially of sentences
- word-retrieval problems leading to reduced fluency
- syntactic problems, including limited MLU, fewer utterances, and difficulty expressing and understanding long, complex sentences
- reading and writing problems; poor academic performance
- pragmatic problems such as difficulty with turn taking and topic maintenance (often related to poor inhibition and lack of self-monitoring)
- difficulty with attention and focus
- memory problems
- inability to recognize one’s own difficulties
- reduced speed of information processing
- difficulties with reasoning and organization
(from An Advanced Review of Speech-Language Pathology, Celeste Roseberry-McKibben and M.N. Hedge; ProEd; 2000.)
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder
- often blurting out answers to questions before the questions have been completed
- difficulty following through on instructions; often do not seem to be listening
- talking excessively
- interrupting or intruding on others and poor turn-taking skills
- frequent false starts because they change their minds while structuring a response
- excessive number of fillers and pauses because verbal expression occurs with minimal preplanning
- difficulty describing things in an organized, coherent manner – general difficulty with expressive language organization
- do not tell stories or use narrative skills effectively
- difficulty with social entry into conversations
- use inappropriate register; for example, use the same interactive style with adults and peers
- do not perceive or act appropriately upon interlocutors’ nonverbal cues
- do not use comprehension monitoring strategies
- use of a limited variety of sentence types
- use of sentences of reduced length and complexity
- difficulty comprehending and producing compound, complex, and embedded sentences
- occasional irrelevance of speech, including non sequiturs
- limited oral communication, including lack of elaborated speech and reluctance to speak
- difficulty understanding proverbs, metaphors, and other abstract utterances
- slower acquisition of gramamtic morphemes
- omission or inconsistent use of many morphemes including past tense and plural inflections, third-person singular -s, indefinite pronouns, present progressive -ing, articles, prepositions, and conjunctions
- poor reading comprehension
- writing that reflects oral language problems (e.g., deviant syntax, limited variety of sentence types, omission of grammatic morphemes)
(from An Advanced Review of Speech-Language Pathology, Celeste Roseberry-McKibben and M.N. Hedge; ProEd; 2000.)
Pregnancy diabetes doubles the risk of language impairment in study
This research, gleaned from this link from COMD news was led by Professor Ginette Dionne of Canada’s Universite Laval. Details have been published in the journal Pediatrics. Their results showed that children born to mothers with gestational diabetes achieved lower scores on tests of grammar and vocabulary than individuals in control groups. This difference is not inevitable, however, as children from more educated mothers are much less affected. Risk factors of gestational diabetes include the mother’s age and weight.
- an independent problem of auditory processing deficits
- general awareness of speech problems
- problems in volitional or spontaneous sequencing of movements required for speech with relatively unaffected automatic speech
- compensatory strategy of reduced rate in some but not all patients
- significant articulatory problems, diagnostic of AOS, such as frequent sound substitutions
- more pronounced difficulty with consonants than vowels; more severe problems with affricates and fricatives and consonant clusters; more frequent errors on infrequently occurring sounds
- anticipatory substitutions, e.g. lelo for yellow
- metathic errors (e.g. tefalone for telephone)
- increased frequency of errors on longer words
- trial and error groping and struggling, associated with speech attempts
- greater difficulty on word-initial sounds in some cases
- easier automatic productions than volitional/purposive productions
- attempts at self-correction, not always successful
- errors in prosody, such as slow speech rate, silent pauses between words, and impaired intonation
- lack of interest in human voices and a better response to environmental noises; a fascination with mechanical noises
- slow acquisition of speech sound production and language in general
- disinterest in interaction with others
- use of language in a meaningless, stereotypic manner including echolalia
- perseveration on certain words or phrases
- faster learning of concrete than abstract words, including more ready learning of words that refer to objects as opposed to emotions
- lack of generalization of word meanings
- lack of understanding of the relationships between words
- pronoun reversal (use of you for I and I for you; referring to self as she, him, or her)
- use of short, simple sentences; occasional use of incorrect word order
- omission of grammatic features such as plural inflections, conjunctions
- pragmatic problems such as lack of eye contact and lack of topic maintenance; reduced initiation or lack of assertiveness
(from An Advanced Review of Speech-Language Pathology, Celeste
Roseberry-McKibben and M.N. Hedge; ProEd; 2000.)
A child with a deficit in a skill typically has not discovered the power of that skill. Thus remains the initial opening for novelty. I believe that children are often more open to suggestion than we often give them credit for. In other words, initially discussing the benefits of a skill can be an extremely effective introduction to the teaching of a skill. However, because complex language is not yet a favored method of input for children in language therapy, these explanations can be brief. Why are working on verbs? Because every sentence has them, and with them you can talk about what anything does. Why practice comparatives and superlatives? Because with them we can greatly increase our powers to describe. And it always helps to relate these introductions in personal ways. Statements such as, “With superlatives you can tell me that you are a faster runner than your brother.” tend to work well.
SLI, the common abbreviation of Specific Language Impairment, is usually defined as a language impairment of unknown etiology in the presence of normal cognition. In layman’s terms, these are kids with a language problem and no one knows why. Some (IMO) interesting tidbits are:
- SLI occurs in about 7% of the general population (Tomblin et al, 1997)
- It is more prevalent in males than in females (Flax et al, 2003)
- It is widely acknowledged that individuals with SLI commonly experience learning difficulties of a comparable magnitude across all domains, including mathematics (Arvedson, 2002; Donlan and Gourlay, 1999; Fazio, 1996)
- “ “… and literacy (Bishop and Adams, 1990; Catts, Fey, Tomblin, and Zhang; Flax et al 2003)
SLI seems to be a term more prevalant in the speech pathology community than elsewhere. Because I like to interject my opinion occasionally, I’ll do that here, at the end of this post. There are many possible causes of SLI, including environmental, motivational, and perhaps, genetic.