Can you be eligible for special education if you have straight A’s?

I don’t think “Jane Doe” is the girl’s real name, but that’s how it reads in the court case.  When she was in the 2nd grade, the school district in Maine identified Jane as having a learning disability and started providing special education.  But the court tells us that “as a bright, hard-working student with dedicated parents, Jane improved her reading skills over the years, and she continued to perform well in school, as well as on standardized tests.”

She did so well that the district dismissed her from the special education program. This was 7th grade.  One year later, the parents asked the district to put her back in special education.

This dispute was over one of the fine points of special education eligibility.  Can you be “learning disabled” if you have deficits in “reading fluency” but your overall academic performance is very strong?  We know that students can get very good grades and still be eligible for special education due to a sensory disability, such as being blind or deaf. But can you be classified as “learning disabled” when you are achieving quite well?

The 1st Circuit Court of Appeals says that you can be.  The court held that a deficit in “reading fluency” alone can be enough for the ARD Committee to determine that you have a “learning disability,” even when that reading fluency problem is masked by straight A’s and good scores on statewide tests.

However, the court cautioned that there still must be evidence that the child “needs” special education services.  The remaining question is: “needs” special education services for what?  Obviously, Jane Doe does not need special education services to improve overall academic performance.  But if the purpose of special education services is to help the student improve in the more specific area of concern—here, reading fluency—then Jane might “need” special education.  This case does not categorically answer that question.

So where does that leave us?  The main point of today’s entry is to encourage districts not to automatically disregard eligibility just because the student is doing well in school. Can you have a high IQ and still be eligible for special education?  Yes.  Can you be in the gifted program and also eligible for special education?  Yes.

Like everything else involving special education….oh, wait….what I’m about to say should go in today’s Dawg Bone!

This case is Doe v. Cape Elizabeth School District, decided by the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals on August 5, 2016.  We found it at 68 IDELR 61 and 832 F.3d 69.


 File this one under: SPECIAL EDUCATION

Tomorrow: Toolbox Tuesday tackles Section 504.