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 1: Be Wary of Broad or Composite Scores: Pay Attention to the Subtests
Many instruments will have a number of subtests, which are then added up and averaged to provide a “broad” or “composite” score. That score can be informative, but it doesn’t always give the full picture. Many times I will attend an IEP meeting for a client at which evaluations are being reviewed, and the person responsible for reporting the results will “gloss over” subtest results that are of grave concern. They will call them a “relative weakness,” and sometimes, they won’t even list the subtest results in the written report.
If subtest results are not included in your child’s evaluation results, ask for them.
And even if they ARE included, inquire as to their meaning. I can’t assure you that the answers you’ll get will be as comprehensive as you might want, but at least you will begin to understand what the school is measuring. A good way of inquiring about subtest results that are particularly discrepant from other scores is to ask “how would this impact him in a classroom?” I know that the cynic in me, and maybe you, is thinking that the person who administered the test will say “it doesn’t” or “don’t worry about that one,” but when you ask open ended questions like that of professionals who administer these tests, you’d be surprised at how much information you can get.
All individuals have strengths and weaknesses, but be wary of attempts by your district to “average out” subtests that stand out from the rest.
The best example I can give on this, and one which I’ve seen far too often, is what I have seen happen a number of times in cases in which a reading disability is suspected. In these cases, the parents are expressing concerns that their child might have dyslexia, as an example, and the school is either taking the position that the student does not have the disorder, or that they do but that they are making great progress with the services being provided by the district.
To assess the situation, the student has been given an academic achievement test, like the Woodcock Johnson or the WIAT.
When a student with a high IQ and a reading disability is given such a test, often I see a profile where the reading comprehension score is high, but the decoding skill is low. So, let’s say you have a 4th grade student who has a Very Superior IQ, and on the decoding subtest they score at the 1st grade level, but on the comprehension subtest they score as an 8th grader. To get the average of these subtests you might add 8th grade level to 1st grade level, and divide by two, resulting in a “broad reading” score of 4.5 grade level. And yet, this is still a fourth grade child who decodes at the 1st grade level.
It might take this kid an hour to read a paragraph, but when he does so, he understands it.
Unfortunately, the way this “plays out” at an IEP meeting is that the person who administered the evaluation says: “his reading score is actually right on target, he’s solidly within the fourth grade level! Of course, his decoding is a relative weakness, but we’re working on that.” What parent would know enough to understand that, in fact, the key deficit of reading decoding remains 3 grade levels behind?
The Devil is in the Details.