An adult friend is getting tested to see if she has a formal neurological problem that would account for her struggles with mathematics. She asked how it could be that she might make it all the way through public education without being tested for such a learning disability (LD). Here were my thoughts; keep in mind that I am a general education high school mathematics teacher and not an expert on either special education or elementary education. If you have any additional information, or want to suggest corrections, please do let me know.

Here are some reasons why LDs aren’t properly identified:

1. In general, students with learning disabilities need a champion, that is, a parent or a teacher who encourages testing. By middle school, students can be their own champions, but by the time students know to stand up for themselves like that, most of the damage has already been done, especially with problems with math. Bush’s NCLB (which you were too old for anyway) was supposed to create a process for testing all students in the early grades, but I’m not sure how well schools comply with that.

2. Even if a teacher does suggest that a student get tested for a LD, parents have to approve it, and many parents resist any sort of label. Meanwhile, other parents want labels that don’t apply so that their children get special treatment.

3. There are federal and state guidelines on how many students each special education teacher can have on their caseload. In exchange, schools get more funding for students with IEPs (including those with learning disabilities) than those without. So school administrators play a complicated game: They want just enough special education students to have a balanced student caseload for their special education teachers. If a school has one or two too many such students, there’s an urge to remove their IEP status; if there are too few students, there’s an urge to create an IEP where none is needed. By federal law, public and charter schools are not allowed to consider special education status when enrolling students, so schools can’t simply kick out or recruit students to make the numbers.

Those are the reasons that come to mind about why students may not be properly identified with LDs in general. As to math, specifically…

4. It’s culturally acceptable to be “bad at math”. Just as people with diagnosed depression often get told that they’re just sad and need to cheer up, people with dyscalculia often get told that everyone’s bad at math, it’s just a thing, don’t worry about it. I’ve had students who have poor self-concepts about math and who therefore underperform. I’ve had a student with dyscalculia. There’s a difference. And even in her case, where she was in a special school with much more attentive monitoring of learning disabilities, I wasn’t told she had a math LD: I picked up on it working with her and mentioned it to the special education caseworker, who confirmed it.

5. Even though IEPs are supposed to be individualized (“Individualized Education Plans”), they often come across as check boxes. “Needs calculator”. “Needs more time”. “Needs story problems read aloud”. And general education teachers might be told that a particular student needs more help with math, but we’re not usually told why. At my current school, all students with IEPs, whether or not they have any problem with mathematics at all (and one of my students has 100%+ in my class), are allowed to go to the Resource Room for tests if they want to. As a result, gen ed teachers, who are overworked as it is, aren’t actively supported in making a distinction between “genuinely disabled at mathematics” and “just very nervous about mathematics”.

6. Most elementary teachers apparently have poor self-concepts about mathematics, and as a result think it’s natural for students to struggle as well. The other day I was reading about a study that argued that many students, particularly girls, become more anxious about mathematics as a result of their teachers’ anxieties. The actual finding: Children acquire topic-specific anxieties most consistently from same-gender authority figures. Since most elementary school teachers are female, and since most elementary school teachers fear mathematics, girls get the message that math is to be feared more clearly than boys do.

Point being: Even if you test negatively for dyscalculia, a good portion of your problems with mathematics may well be because of cultural messages you received and then internalized about mathematics.