Top 5 Tips for Reviewing School Evaluations, Tip 4

Published on July 27, 2009 by Jennifer Laviano

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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 4:  Become Familiar with Rating Scales

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In evaluating a child, school staff may recommend one or more “rating scales” as part of a triennial evaluation, or sometimes to screen for whether a disability exists at all.  Over the years, I have learned that these can produce results that are either incomplete or misleading, unless you have a working knowledge of them.  This can impact your legal case under the IDEA if you ultimately want to challenge the evaluation, identification or progress of your child’s special education program.

What is a rating scale?

According to the Encyclopedia Brittanica, a rating scale “is one of the oldest and most versatile of assessment techniques. Rating scales present users with an item and ask them to select from a number of choices.  The rating scale is similar in some respects to a multiple choice test, but its options represent degrees of a particular characteristic.”  I have seen a number of different types of rating scales that assess a wide variety of behaviors, feelings, skills, or traits in students, and the presence or absence of certain symptoms of a disability.  Most that I have seen have one form or checklist for the parent(s) to fill out, and one for the teacher(s) to fill out.  Some also have self-reports for the student to complete, where appropriate.

Rating Scales are often seen as a less “invasive” way of assessing or screening a student.

A lot of my clients are concerned about how much testing their children are put through, especially during triennial evaluations.  Therefore, it is a relief to many of them to know that part of the evaluation process can be completed by them and the teachers, rather than subjecting the student to another few hours of sometimes difficult testing.  This is especially true for kids who are prone to anxiety, or whose learning disabilities make writing and reading a struggle.  Believe me, I am all for making things easier for students with special education needs who are already frustrated in school. But you want to make sure that the results of any assessments are reliable.

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As a special education attorney, my red flags start waving when I see the following occur in the administration of Rating Scales:

  • Not administering the parent form:  often I will review an evaluation conducted by a school district that draws conclusions based on the results of the Rating Scales filled out by the student’s teachers, but the Parent version of the test was never given to the parents.  If this occurs, ask the IEP Team if there is a Parent form, and if so, why you were not asked to fill it out.
  • Not giving the right teachers the scales:  if the parents are asking that the child be evaluated for a reading disability, as an example, how useful is having the forms filled out by the music or physical education teacher?  Or, if the issue is whether the student’s ADHD interferes with his ability to stay on-task in a mainstream classroom, what information is gleaned from giving the rating scale to the Resource Room teacher only?
  • Drawing broad conclusions about differences between the parent and teacher reports:  it is very common, in my experience, that a student acts differently at home than at school, or that a kid who is feeling academically inadequate comes home upset after “holding it together” all day for the teachers.  Just because parents and school staff come up with different answers does not invalidate either report.  Yet, unfortunately I routinely read school evaluations which openly question the honesty of parent reports if they are discrepant from the teacher reports.

Research whatever tests your school wants to administer so that you are equipped to understand the results.

Just like all types of assessment tools, Rating Scales can be useful and informative, if they are properly administered.  But, just like everything else, they are always subject to both innocent human error, and intentional misrepresentation.

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