March 11, 2008
Dawn Flanagan, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology, has been
appointed to the American
Psychological Association’s Committee on Psychological Tests and
Assessment. This nine-person committee sets standards for the
design and use of psychological tests in addition to monitoring and
making recommendations to government and other organizations
concerning changes in assessment regulations. Professor and Chair
of the Department of Psychology Raymond Di Giuseppe, Ph.D., says,
“This appointment will place Dr. Flanagan in a position to guide
the field of psychological assessment, a task for which she is well
Dr. Flanagan has published numerous books and articles and is a
renowned speaker on topics such as the use of cognitive assessment
tests in the evaluation of learning disabilities. This
August, Flanagan will present her most recent findings with St.
Samuel O. Ortiz, Ph.D., at the 116th
Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association.
Psychology graduate students Marlene Sotelo-Dynega and Frances
Aguera Verderosa, and doctoral studentAgnieszka Dynda will be
presenting as well.
Since 1992, Flanagan has been teaching courses in cognitive and
psycho-educational assessment and diagnosis of learning
disabilities at St. John’s University. In her assessment courses,
she teaches students the strengths and weaknesses of the most
currently used cognitive tests, the purposes for which they were
created and how to use them most effectively.
In her class on learning disabilities, Flanagan discusses
specific kinds of learning disabilities, taking special care to
outline the latest changes in the federal definition of specific
learning disability (SLD), which has lead to controversy in the
field of school psychology. “I talk primary about where we are in
the field, where the controversies lie and what has fueled them. I
think that’s important knowledge. And, I ask what do both sides
have to offer this whole new movement toward a different way of
understanding and diagnosing learning disabilities.”
A House DividedCongress reauthorized the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in
2004, with the specific regulations issued in August 2006.
Essentially, IDEA 2004 legally changed the stipulations for the
ways schools evaluate and identify children with learning
disabilities. Yet, the definition of a learning disability has
remained the same for the past 30 years.
There is a general movement in School Psychology away from the
use of cognitive assessment tests, such as an intelligence test,
for identifying learning disabilities. Despite the fact that
cognitive tests are at their peak in terms of development and
quality, they are now being criticized more harshly than ever
before. Herein lies the cleft: what is the best way to determine
whether a child has a learning disability—with cognitive assessment
tests or without?
Two schools of thought in the field of psychology are in
opposition. Both sides agree children with academic difficulties
must be identified early. They should be given good
scientific-based interventions to help them achieve. If those
children do not respond to interventions, one school believes the
children should be identified as having learning disabilities and
placed in special education.
The other school, of which Flanagan has been a prominent leader
and voice, believes those children who do not respond to
interventions need a comprehensive evaluation that includes
cognitive testing. Flanagan says that schools can not
conclude a child is deficient in basic psychological processing,
meaning he or she has a learning disability, based only on the
child’s lack of response to interventions. She says, “We need our
tests to tell us that. We need tests to identify those basic
psychological processes in which the child may have
Rather than participate in this escalating conflict, Flanagan is
forming a new position. She and her colleagues are responding to
the changes, transcending the polarization, and acting as mediators
with the perspective that both sides have much to offer.
They’re trying to systematically integrate the valuable data
from both camps to create a consensus model of specific learning
disability diagnosis for schools. In an article she just published
titled, “Response to Intervention (RTI) and Cognitive Testing
Approaches Provide Different but Complementary Data Sources That
Inform SLD Identification,” Flanagan advocates for this integration
of both sides.
“When you polarize the field and force people to take sides, in
the end you’re hurting kids. And this is all about helping
children.” Better integration will lead to better strategies for
ensuring that all children are given the best opportunities for
growth, development, and learning.