Family Voices Indiana is a family-led organization that provides information, education, training, outreach, and peer support to families of children and youth with special health care needs and the professionals who serve them.
Saturday, March 4, 2017
Understanding the Full Evaluation Process for Special Education Services
Understanding the comprehensive evaluation process is easier if you don’t think of “evaluation” as meaning a single “test.” There’s a reason it’s called an evaluation process. A series of steps are needed to look at (or evaluate) your child’s strengths, weaknesses and school performance.
The process aims to get a better understanding of the whole child. That can’t happen with just one assessment or test. Here’s a breakdown of the evaluation process to help you understand it.
What’s the purpose of an evaluation?
An important purpose of the evaluation is to gather information to determine if your child is eligible for special education. IDEA has a legal standard for eligibility. It has two parts.
First, your child’s learning or attention issue must fall in one of the 13 disability categories in IDEA. Second, because of your child’s issue, she must need services to progress in school and benefit from general education.
The evaluation will gather data to answer these two questions. But the actual decision happens after the evaluation, usually at an eligibility meeting.
Another purpose of the evaluation is to gather information about your child’s needs. The evaluation will look at your child’s educational needs and what services are right for her. Again, this information is used after the evaluation.
If your child is eligible, the school will use the evaluation results to create an Individualized Education Program (IEP) for her. The IEP is a plan for your child’s special education experience.
The most common way to start an evaluation is for you to ask for one. If your child is struggling in school and you think she may need special services, you can request an evaluation. A good way is do this is to write a letter to the school.
Sometimes the school starts the process by asking you if they can evaluate your child. Either way, you’ll be asked to give permission to have your child evaluated. Once you give permission, the school usually has 60 calendar days to finish the evaluation.
During this time, it must complete testing, write an evaluation report and hold an eligibility or initial IEP meeting. (Note that some states may have different time limits, so check with your child’s school.)
Once the school agrees to conduct an evaluation, it will do so at no cost to you. As a parent, you’re part of the evaluation process. But the school decides many of the details of how the evaluation happens.
There’s typically a case manager who coordinates everything. In many schools, this person is known as the special education or IEP coordinator. There will also be a group of people on the evaluation team at your child’s school.
You may choose to have your child tested privately. The school generally isn’t required to pay for a private evaluation. The school has to consider the results of the private testing when evaluating your child. However, it’s not obligated to follow recommendations from a private evaluation.
Before the actual evaluation starts, your child’s school will create an evaluation plan. This is a written plan of all the tests, observations and records they’re going to use. The plan also lists the names and roles of the evaluators who will be performing each test.
Read the evaluation plan carefully. It’s important that you understand the methods the school proposes in the plan. If you don’t understand the plan, ask questions. It’s the school’s responsibility to explain it to you.
Once there’s an evaluation plan in place for your child, you’ll know what type of testing will be done and by whom. You may not always know when the testing will happen. But you can ask the school’s IEP coordinator to tell you so you can help prepare your child.
You may also want to take some time to speak with the evaluator. This gives you a chance to talk about what you think your child needs and express your concerns. You can discuss what testing involves, what it will show and what happens once it’s done. If an evaluator can’t meet with you in person, you can set up a phone call.
Under IDEA, an evaluation must be comprehensive. According to the law, the evaluation must be “full and individual.” This means the school must focus on your child as a unique individual. The school must look at all her needs, including:
Social and emotional development
A comprehensive evaluation must include a variety of tools and approaches to evaluate your child. Here’s what might be part of the process:
A psychological evaluation. This gathers information about how your child learns best. It may also look at social skills and emotional health.
Interviews. The evaluator will speak with you and your child’s teacher about your child’s social and academic history. You may also be asked to fill out questionnaires.
Physical exam. If needed, tests are done to measure vision, hearing and general health.
Observations. Your child will be observed in the classroom.
Educational testing. This may include new tests to measure your child’s skills and needs. It may also include information collected from schoolwide testing.
Functional behavioral assessment. This information, gathered from teachers and others, aims to get a better understanding of how your child behaves in a variety of settings and situations. A functional assessment includes rating scales, checklists, questionnaires and observations.
Related services for more specific areas of concern. Testing may look at speech and language, fine motor or gross motor skills.
An evaluation may also include gathering information that’s already part of your child’s school records. Scores on state tests, report cards and data from response to intervention (RTI) programs all have important information about how your child is doing in school.
What are some special protections during an evaluation?
When your child has her first comprehensive evaluation, there are several things that IDEA requires. These legal requirements ensure your child is evaluated fairly. They also ensure the evaluation results are as accurate as possible.
Tests must be given in the language or form of communication your child understands best.
Professionals must be trained in giving the specific tests and be knowledgeable in the skill area they are testing.
An evaluation has to gather information about all of the “areas of suspected disability.” (In other words, the school has to look at all skills your child may struggle with.)
The results need to give useful and relevant information that can be used to make decisions about your child’s educational needs.
Once all the information is gathered through testing, observations and other methods, the next step is to report the results. Each evaluator who tested your child will give their results. The school will create an evaluation report that details all the information gathered. Usually, the report will include:
A statement about why your child was referred for evaluation
Background information about your child’s social and academic history
A list of the tests performed and the records reviewed
A summary of test results or scores
An explanation of what the test results mean
Most reports have a summary or conclusion section. It’s usually a few paragraphs at the end that sum up what was learned and what it all means. An evaluation report can be a lot of information to wade through. It may help to flip to the end and read the summary first.
Generally, evaluations by schools don’t include a diagnosis or recommendations. Recommendations usually are discussed after the evaluation, at the eligibility meeting.
However, an evaluation by an outside professional not employed by the school may include a diagnosis. It may also include a section of recommendations. If included, the recommendations section discusses what types of educational accommodations, programs and related services could benefit your child.
It may also suggest other tests that might be helpful to get more information about your child. If the evaluator didn’t find any signs of an issue, the recommendations section may just say, “No services recommended.”
Many schools will not provide you with a copy of the evaluation report before your child’s eligibility or initial IEP meeting. But generally you do have right to see the report before the meeting. The exact timing depends on your state.
This may mean you’ll have to read the report while sitting in a conference room at the school a few days before the meeting. Looking over information and recommendations ahead of time gives you a chance to have questions answered before the meeting.
Once you’re at the eligibility or initial IEP meeting, you’ll get your own copy of the report. The law says you must get all of the information used to decide whether your child is eligible for special education services.
Once you see the evaluation report, you may be concerned about the test results or other aspects of the evaluation. If so, make an appointment to speak with the IEP coordinator. You can go over the evaluation results together to make sure you understand what each test was measuring.
If you still think the results are wrong, send a letter outlining your concerns. Include a copy of the report and highlight the information with which you disagree.
You also have the right to request an independent educational evaluation. When you make this request, the school may, in some cases, be required to pay for the evaluation.
After an evaluation is complete, it’s time to decide if your child is eligible for services. This decision will happen during the eligibility meeting, sometimes called the initial IEP meeting. During this meeting, you and a team from the school (the IEP team) will sit down to talk about the evaluation results. You’ll work together to decide whether your child needs special education services and what those services should be.
Sometimes you may not agree with the recommendations of the IEP team or the report. If that’s the case, it’s important to talk about it with the school. Be clear about what it is you don’t agree with.
If the school agrees that other services are needed or the recommendations aren’t appropriate, it has the power to make different decisions.
For example, the evaluator may have recommended that your child’s classroom teacher consult with a speech therapist to find ways to help your child with language in the classroom. If the IEP team agrees that your child needs to have direct speech therapyservices, too, they can choose to add that to the plan.
If you’re in the process of an evaluation right now, you may want to think about your next steps. If the school found your child eligible for services, learn about how those services will be provided in an IEP.
Or, the school may decide your child is not eligible. In that case, you still have options. One of the most important to know about is a 504 plan, which is another type of education program.
Parents are an important part of the evaluation process. All the information you provide and your thoughts are important to the team’s understanding of your child. Here are some ways you can play an active role.
Recognize strengths and weaknesses.Your observations are key when communicating your child’s needs to the rest of the team.
Communicate with your child.Talking to your child about what happens during an evaluation and what it means can make her feel more at ease with the process.