I am by no means a psychiatrist, psychologist, school psychologist, special education teacher, or related service provider. I am not licensed or trained in administering any of the test typically given to students with disabilities in our public schools. However, over the many years I have been representing children with special education needs in my Connecticut law office, I have learned that there are a lot of ways in which a student’s needs and progress can be misunderstood if evaluations are not properly interpreted.
When it comes to reviewing school evaluations, question authority!
The most common times for students with special needs to be evaluated by school districts are 1) when determining initial eligibility under the IDEA, and 2) for “triennial” testing under the IDEA, which is required at least every 3 years for students who have been identified as requiring an IEP. For parents of those children, reviewing the results of the school district testing can be overwhelming, especially if they do not have any background or experience in reviewing such evaluation results.
In my experience, schools are able to take advantage of a parents’ ignorance on how to interpret evaluation results.
It is therefore essential that you become as familiar as possible with the different types of evaluation instruments that your school district might use to assess your child, and to be prepared for the ways in which your school district might interpret them differently than you might. There are thousands of different tests out there that could be used to test a child with disabilities, and no, I don’t expect you to become an expert on all of them. As a reminder, if you feel that your child’s needs are being dramatically misunderstood by the school staff who are testing your child, it might be time to consider an Independent Educational Evaluation.
In the interim, here are some important things to pay attention to when attending your child’s IEP at which evaluation results are being reviewed:
Tip 3: Be Suspicious of Hard and Fast Rules on Eligibility
This tip is something to consider at all times, but especially when an IEP Team is deciding whether or not a student is eligible for special education and related services under the IDEA. Far too often, I will review a file or talk to a parent, only to learn that a number of issues have presented themselves over the years in a child’s educational performance or behavior, many of which should have triggered an IEP Meeting to ascertain eligibility. Sometimes, such meetings have even been held, but eligibility has been ruled out because the child did not get a certain score on a test chosen by the school district.
Remember, there is no “litmus test” for any of the eligibility categories under the IDEA.
Believe me, life would be much easier for most of my clients if all that was necessary to figure out whether or not their child had one disability versus another was as simple as peeing on a stick, but that isn’t the world we live in. There is no blood test for dyslexia; no urinalysis for autism. Yes, some cases present themselves clearly as to what the disability is, but more often than not, a student is presenting with a number of strengths and weaknesses (and sometimes different ones at school than at home) and the adults are all just trying to figure it out.
The law prohibits the use of a “one test” rule when evaluating a child with a disability.
In the description of how to conduct evaluations, the IDEA requires that school districts use “a variety of assessment tools and strategies to gather relevant functional, developmental, and academic information, including information provided by the parent,” and that in so doing, the school can not “use any single measurement or assessment as the sole criterion for determining whether a child is a child with a disability or determining an appropriate educational program for the child.” 20 USC 1414(b) (emphasis supplied)
This means that schools are not supposed to be using arbitrary numbers and cut-offs to determine eligibility or to design programs.
Despite this prohibition, I routinely hear from parents that these “rules” are cited as the reason to deny services, though candidly it doesn’t often happen in my presence. Usually, school district lawyers are smart enough not to allow their clients to sit in a meeting with me and say “oh, yes, it’s true that he’s really struggling with reading and that his teacher and parents both referred him for an IEP, but he was 3 points off on the Woodcock Johnson to qualify!” But not always; I have heard many similar comments.
Is is essential to consider the totality of the circumstances when determining whether a child is entitled to special education and related services.
Some kids do not fit “neatly” into one eligibility category or another, and that’s one of the reasons we consider the individual child’s strengths and weaknesses. And often, if such a child falls short of qualifying under another category, many IEP Teams will consider finding the child eligible as “Other Health Impaired” (OHI), which many consider the “catchall” category under the IDEA for those students who clearly need the special education instruction but may not have a full blown diagnosis in one of the more common categories.
If your school district is basing major decisions on one test, your red flags should start going up.
When you attend your child’s IEP meeting, whether to consider eligibility, review eligibility as a triennial, or decide how to provide services, make sure you understand what the basis is for the decision-making, and that it includes a variety of assessment tools as required by law.
Oh, and PS: this tip goes ten-fold if you’re being told that the school won’t even convene an IEP Meeting or conduct an evaluation based on the results of one test!