Top 5 Tips for Reviewing School Evaluations, Tip 5

Published on August 2, 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 5:  Make Sure You’re Using the Right Assessment Tool

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There is so much jargon in special education that conversations among educators can often be hard to follow.  In addition to the “alphabet soup” (e.g.:  “We need to make sure that the IEP reflects the LRE and that FAPE is offered under the IDEA”) which has become so commonplace, there are simply some aspects of evaluating and programming for students with disabilities which many in the community assume parents understand.  I will admit that even though I am a special education attorney who tries to be very sensitive to parents’ needs, even I will occasionally use special education terms which I forget my clients don’t necessary know.

Evaluation planning is one time where it is essential that you try to sort through the terminology and make sure your concerns are understood.

Getting proper evaluation results is crucial to appropriate special education programming.  And yet, many parents don’t understand the nuances between different tests, and therefore they will just make a general request that a particular skill area be assessed without knowing that they need to be more specific.  There is a real risk to this, since failing to outline what specifically you want to assess will result in incomplete information, which might require that yet another evaluations is undertaken.   All the while, the student’s needs are not being understood, or properly addressed through programming.

As an example, suppose that the child’s parents are worried about communication skills.  When the discussion about evaluations comes around, the conversation might go something like this:

School administrator:  Okay, those are the evaluations we’re proposing, are there any other areas you feel need assessment?

Parent:  Yes, we’re actually really concerned about how he talks to other kids.

School administrator:   What do you mean?  We are all able to understand him just fine here.

Parent:  Well, it’s not so much whether you can understand him, it’s more that he doesn’t seem to be having real discussions with kids.  Also, sometimes when he wants to say something it takes him a while to get it out, almost like he can’t get it out or something.

School administrator:  So, are you saying you want a speech and language evaluation?

Parent: Yes, I guess so, that makes sense I think.

School administrator: Well, Bonnie, you’re the speech pathologist, what do you think?

Bonnie:  I have only observed him in class a few times when I’ve been in the room to consult to other kids, but I’ve never noticed any difficulty in understanding him when I have seen him.

School administrator:  But do you think  you could evaluate him and see?

Bonnie: Well, sure, I guess,

School administrator:  Okay, then let me just make this clear, WE don’t see any concerns surrounding speech issues, but since you’ve requested it we’re going to have Bonnie take a look at it.

Parent:  Okay, great, thanks.

Bonnie: Well then, I guess I’ll do the Goldman Fristoe test of articulation, and then we’ll go from there…

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What’s wrong with this picture?

In this scenario, the parents weren’t concerned with articulation, they were concerned with language skills, but since both fall within the expertise of a speech and language pathologist, they just assumed a speech and language evaluation covered their concerns.  And yet, when that IEP meeting reconvenes, all that the Team, including the parents, will learn is how the student performed on tests of articulation.  The real concern, language, will not have been assessed at all.

Before walking into the meeting at which evaluations will be discussed, research which assessments would be the right ones to evaluate areas of concern.

You have to be careful not to micro-manage your school district’s proposed testing, but if you have a good handle on what instruments will and won’t “get at” what you feel needs testing, you will save yourself a tremendous amount of time and frustration.  And you might just spare your child the trouble of undergoing a useless evaluation, only to have to be tested again when the IEP Team realizes what the real worries actually were.

One Response to Top 5 Tips for Reviewing School Evaluations, Tip 5

  1. Howard Margolis
    August 3rd, 2009 | 1:53 pm

    I agree with your tips. I would add two points:
    1) Evaluations need to be driven by diagnostic questions, but rarely are. Parents (and teachers) need to ask the right questions to get the right answers. Here are a few sample questions:

    # What are my son’s strengths?
    # What are his weaknesses?
    # What services does he need to support and extend his strengths?
    # What services does he need to overcome his weaknesses?
    # If the recommended services are organized by sessions, how frequently should he get the services and how long should each session last?
    # What does he have to learn (academically, socially, emotionally, recreationally, vocationally, behaviorally) to succeed in general education classes, with the general education curriculum?
    # What services does he need to master the general education curriculum?
    # What services does he need to do well in general education classes?
    # What services does he need to do benefit from special education?
    # Specifically and explicitly, how should his progress be measured?
    # How frequently should his progress be measured so any difficulties can quickly be eradicated and his progress accelerated?
    # What annual goals and quarterly objectives would produce important progress without overwhelming or frustrating him?
    # How much repetition and novelty does he need in order to master what’s taught?
    # What has diagnostic teaching revealed about his learning and the kinds of lessons he needs?

    2) Testing is rarely enough to produce needed answers. Diagnostic teaching, observations of the child doing well and poorly, and ongoing monitoring of progress are critical parts of a valid evaluation.

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