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In Doe v. Cape Elizabeth School District, the First Circuit Court of Appeals (which does not govern Illinois) weighed an important question of whether a student with a strong academic record may be found eligible for special education and related services as having a learning disability.

Jane Doe began receiving special education and related services in second grade due to her reading difficulties. By the time she got to 7th grade, her IEP team determined that she should be placed on consultative minutes because of her strong academic performance.  During her 8th grade year, the IEP team determined that Jane was no longer eligible for special education and related services because she was achieving appropriately in all areas and thus, did not have a learning disability.  The IEP, in making its eligibility determination, reviewed Jane’s straight A grades and high performance on standardized test scores including, among others, the NWEA.

Jane’s parents then had her tested by a third party evaluator, who found that Jane scored much lower in certain areas than when the District evaluated her.  Nonetheless, the IEP team reconvened to review the third party evaluation and still found that Jane was not eligible for special education and related services.

Her parents filed for due process, and the due process hearing officer agreed with the school’s determination that Jane was not eligible for special education based on Jane’s grades, standardized test scores, classroom performance, general school performance, and reading fluency skills.  The Hearing Officer also determined that Jane did not require special education services to receive an educational benefit.  The family then filed an appeal in the District Court, and the District Court affirmed the Hearing Officer’s decision after largely adopting the Hearing Officer’s findings with respect to Jane’s reading fluency.

The Does then appealed the District Court’s ruling arguing that the presence of a specific learning disability alone was sufficient to qualify Jane for services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and standardized tests alone, and not overall academic performance determined the presence of a specific learning disabilityThe First Circuit Court of Appeals found that despite Jane’s overall academic performance, the District Court made an error by relying on that evidence without considering how it reflects her reading fluency abilities, failed to provide adequate consideration to the family’s additional evidence, and gave the hearing officer’s determinations too much deference.

Most importantly from a practitioner perspective, however, is that the Court found that overall academic performance is a relevant factor in determining whether a student has a disability, but this academic performance must be reviewed in light the student’s specific academic deficits, in this case Jane’s reading fluency deficits.  Thus, the District Court failed to properly consider Jane’s academic performance as it specifically relates to her reading fluency deficit.  Schools must not only review academic performance but also consider how that performance specifically relates to a student’s deficits in determining the student’s eligibility for special education and related services.

While not binding in Illinois, the Doe ruling raises key issues regarding terminating a SLD student from special education services.  Contact Bennett Rodick  with your special education eligibility inquiries.