Most Australian State education systems provide limited funding to students who have been diagnosed with Intellectual Impairment (II), Speech Language Impairment (SLI), autism, and physical disabilities. Funding is also provided for students who have vision and hearing impairments. The funding is allocated to the school rather than to the child so the principal or special needs committee are able to decide how the funding is used.
The diagnosis of SLI is made on the basis of a score <70 on a standardised language instrument; usually the CELF4. The child also has to have “non-verbal” IQ within normal limits. A standard score of 70 represents performance worse than at least 98% of age peers. In at least some States the child’s score has to be <70 on both expressive and receptive scales to obtain funding.
The <70 criterion is used in an incredibly inflexible manner. There is no practical difference between a student who scores 69 and a student who scores 71, yet the first child receives funding and the second doesn’t. There is no recognition of measurement error and confidence intervals play no part in interpreting test scores.
The most important point for this blog is that most States require that a re-assessment and funding review take place every 3-5 years. I have no problem with re-assessment; however, the current system requires the student to score <70 (i.e., <2nd percentile) on the CELF4 or other standardised instrument at each re-assessment or they will lose their funding. In most schools, no funding equals even more limited support.
The problem with this practice is that all students diagnosed as SLI receive some form of support. The support varies from weekly contact with a speech-language pathologist (SLP), to group work with a teacher assistant using a ‘program’ designed by a SLP, to in-class support from a teacher assistant. We could argue about the quality of different types of assistance but that is not the point. The point is that almost anything you do with a child will improve their performance (see Hattie, 2008). Even putting that aside, regression to the mean makes it likely that the student’s score will fall closer to the mean on repeat testing. Therefore, it is highly likely that a student’s scores will have improved 3-5 years after the initial assessment (which usually occurs around 6-7 years of age).
So what does this mean for students with SLI? It often means that they lose their funding, and therefore at least some of their support. We know that children whose language problems have not resolved by 5.5 years do not get better. In fact, they are subject to a Matthew Effect with the gap between them and other children widening as time goes by. If longitudinal research shows that students who language problems at 5.5 years remain impaired and in many cases get worse, why do the Australian State education systems remove their funding when they manage to drag themselves over an arbitrary funding cut-off? In effect we are discriminating against students who manage to make some improvement. Should we not be recognising the chronic nature of SLIs and rewarding improvement rather than punishing it?
This point was brought home to me this week when I saw a boy that I had seen 5 years ago when he was in his Prep (Kindy year). He was 5 years old at the time. He had been identified by the school SLP as having low scores (Core Language Score of 65 on the CELF 4) and I had to perform an IQ test. The test duly performed the boy qualified for SLI funding. What was done with that funding and the appropriateness of the intervention he has received is for another day and another blog. The main thing is that his mother returned to me in a very distressed state. She informed me that the school SLP had re-tested her son and that he no longer qualifies for SLI funding. His scores on the CELF 4 were in the 70-80 bracket. Still very low, but not low enough to continue to meet the <70 funding criteria.
The mother was desperate because our boy continued to have significant functional language and literacy problems. She reported that he struggles to follow simple functional instructions and that his reading remains poor despite quite a bit of help. She has now been told that the in-class support he was receiving will now disappear and that he may also lose at least some of the literacy support.
Surely a child like this should continue to receive financial and educational support? His language problems have not resolved; even if he did score slightly better on the CELF4. Again, we could argue about how funding is often used in schools and how effective the “treatments” are but if we get past that and just consider the child, surely he deserves continued support?
I recognise that funding criteria are developed by bean counters who have to come up with arbitrary rules to allow them to allocate a limited pot of money. I also recognise that they look for ways of justifying taking the funding from a child who has improved slightly and giving it to another child. However, the system as it stands seems to be discriminatory and inequitable. It should change but I know it won’t.