tiated during the IEP process. Being found eligible by virtue of qualifying as LD entitles a child only to have an IEP drawn up, but it carries with it no particular programmatic or placement consequences. As a result, diagnosis into one of the disability categories is no longer a high-stakes venture.
As explained in the discussion of referral, public school personnel in many, if not most, states are reserving the label “mental retardation” for only patently disabled children (Gottlieb et al., 1994; MacMillan et al., 1996c) and are knowingly labeling low aptitude (i.e., those with IQ scores below the cutoff score for mental retardation) as learning disabled (MacMillan et al., 1998b). The rationale for doing so is that there is no advantage to labeling able-bodied children “mentally retarded” when an appropriate curriculum and placement can be designated in the IEP process in which the least restrictive environment is specifically considered.
Rational classification criteria have been developed to guide eligibility decisions for special education without using categories or traditional measures (Tilly et al., 1999). These schemes apply all of the due process requirements associated with IDEA as well as establish strong parental involvement programs. The two crucial features of these eligibility criteria are: (a) documented large differences in performance in relevant domains of behavior using peers as a comparison group and (b) documented insufficient response to well-designed, appropriately implemented interventions in general education. The student can then be designated as “eligible for special education,” assuming that all of the due process protections are implemented. This approach finds the “right” kids—that is, those who need additional supports in order to achieve—is legally defensible in due process hearings, and is politically acceptable in that it does not lead to excessive numbers of students qualifying for special education (Ikeda et al., 1996; Reschly et al., 1999). The “hit rate” using the less than perfect traditional system as a criterion is very high (Wilson et al., 1992).
A second and less desirable alternative to the current classification system is to redefine the criteria for the high-incidence disabilities of LD, MR, and ED. Changing the classification criteria for LD and ED is feasible; however, changes in MR are less feasible due to the perspective of several centuries that it involves very low intellectual ability. LD, MR, and ED could, however, be defined in terms of functional deficits in relevant domains using direct measures of academic skills and social behaviors. The changes in LD, MR, and ED classification criteria have the advantage of eliminating assessment procedures having little relevance to treatment, but also the large disadvantage of being associated with ideas of internal child deficits that are difficult if not impossible to change. Moreover, the negative connotations of traditional categories, especially MR, would not be avoided to the same extent as is possible with a noncategorical system.