Evaluations Part 1: Where to Start when a Student Needs Special Help at School

A Brief Overview

  • Special Education is provided through the Individualized Education Program (IEP) for a student with a qualifying disability. The first step is to determine eligibility through evaluation. This article describes that process.
  • An article about IEP essentials is also available on PAVE’s website.
  • Parents can request an evaluation by submitting a written letter to the school district. PAVE offers a template to help with letter writing.
  • An educational evaluation collects information in all areas of suspected disability, including non-academic areas such as Social-Emotional Learning (SEL). Read PAVE’s three-part series on SEL for more information.
  • See PAVE’s Part 2 article about what to do if the school says no to your request for a special education evaluation.

Full Article
If a student is having a hard time at school and has a known or suspected disability, the school evaluates to see if the student qualifies for special education. If eligible, the student receives an Individualized Education Program (IEP). Information collected during the evaluation is critical for building the IEP, which provides specialized instruction and other supports in a unique way for each student.

A parent/guardian, teacher or school administrator can request an evaluation. A variety of tests and questionnaires are included. The evaluation looks for strengths and difficulties in many different areas, so input from parents, teachers and providers is critical. 

Generally, the evaluation reviews developmental history and assesses cognition, academic achievement and “functional” skills. Functional skills are necessary for everyday living, and deficits might show up in unexpected behaviors, unskilled social interactions or struggles with emotional regulation. Strengths are measured alongside challenges and can provide important details for a robust program.  

Evaluation is part of special education law

Nondiscriminatory Evaluation is a key principle of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which is the federal law that governs special education. The IDEA includes a mandate called Child Find, which requires school districts to seek out, evaluate and serve students ages Birth-21 who may have disabilities that impact school success or access. The mandate applies to all children, including those who go to public or private schools. Children who are homeless or wards of the state are included, as are children who move a lot. Children who are “advancing from grade to grade” are included in the mandate, if they may have disabilities that impact learning in non-academic areas of school.

When a student is formally referred for an evaluation, the school follows a schedule of deadlines. Districts have 25 school days to respond to a written request for evaluation. Some schools will invite parents to a meeting to discuss concerns. Being prepared with a written statement can help. Parents can also share information from doctors, therapists or other outside providers. Parents can mark a calendar to track these timelines.

Before a school evaluates a student, the parent/guardian signs consent. If school staff recommend an evaluation and parents do not agree or sign consent, then the school does not conduct the evaluation. Please note that parents are consenting to the evaluation, so that parents and schools can make an informed decision about what to do next. Parents can choose at the next step whether to sign consent for a special education program to begin.

If a parent initiated the referral and the school doesn’t respond or denies the request for an evaluation, the parent can request an answer in writing. PAVE provides an article about what to do if the school says no to your evaluation request.

Considerations:

  • Child Find mandates evaluation if there is reason to suspect a disability. 
  • Students who are failing or behind their peers might have challenges related to language or access to school that don’t indicate a disability.
  • Parents who don’t understand the school’s reason can request a written explanation.
  • Schools cannot refuse to evaluate because of budgetary constraints. They also cannot refuse because they want to try different teaching strategies. School staff might use the term Response to Intervention (RTI). Although the school might benefit from a review of its methods, RTI is not a basis for refusing to evaluate a child for a suspected disability.

What happens next if the school agrees to evaluate?
If all agree that an evaluation is needed, and a parent/guardian signs a formal document giving permission, then the school completes the evaluation within 35 school days.

In compliance with the IDEA, an evaluation for special education is non-discriminatory. If the child cannot read, for example, the testing uses verbal instructions or pictures. The child’s native language is honored. Schools have a variety of tools available to eliminate bias. Parents can ask for clarification if they suspect that the testing missed its mark because of methodology.

The IDEA requires schools to use “technically sound” instruments in evaluation. Generally, that means that the tests are evidence-based as valid and reliable, and the school recruits qualified personnel to administer the tests properly. The IDEA is clear that a singular measure, such as an Intelligence Quotient (IQ) test, does not meet the standard for an appropriate evaluation.

Don’t be intimidated by fancy language!

The formal language of the IDEA and the evaluation process can feel intimidating, but parents need to remember that they have a critical role as the experts and long-term investors in their child. If the evaluation data is confusing, parents can ask the school to provide charts or graphs to make it clear. Parents have the right to ask questions until they understand the evaluation process and what the results mean.

If the evaluation indicates that a student has a qualifying disability, the impairment will meet criteria in one of 14 categories defined by the IDEA. A place to get more information about each of these categories is the Center for Parent Information and Resources (CPIR), which manages a website called the Parent Center Hub. These are the categories:

A primary goal of evaluation is to identify a child’s strengths and needs in the general education environment. Regular classrooms are the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) unless a student is unable to succeed there. The evaluation determines whether a student needs extra help in the general education setting, and the IEP team uses information gathered through evaluation to recommend an initial program.

The IEP isn’t a one-and-done project

The IEP shifts and changes with the needs of the student, so the initial evaluation is only the beginning. A new evaluation is required by the IDEA at least every 3 years, but a new evaluation can be initiated earlier if there’s a question about whether the program is working. The school and family are always collecting new information and insights, and the IEP adapts in real time with new information.

For example, the school might document that a student is failing to access learning in general education despite help that was carefully designed to make the setting accessible. Then the IEP team, which includes a parent or guardian, might discuss placement in a more restrictive setting.

What if I don’t agree with the school?

Parents can always ask school staff to describe their decisions in writing, and parents have rights guaranteed by the IDEA to informally or formally dispute any decision made by the school. The Center for Appropriate Dispute Resolution in Special Education (CADRE) offers a variety of guidebooks that describe these options. In Washington State, the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) provides state-specific guidelines for dispute resolution

Evaluation is a 3-part process

Not every student who has a disability and receives an evaluation will qualify for an IEP. The evaluation asks 3 primary questions: 

  1. Does the student have a qualifying disability?
  2. Does the disability adversely impact education?
  3. Do the student’s unique needs require specially designed instruction?

If the answer to all three questions is Yes, the student qualifies for an IEP and the protections of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Eligible students are entitled to an education designed just for them. That entitlement is for a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). Every student in the United States has access to a public education for free. An educational evaluation determines whether a student is also entitled to an education that is “appropriate,” with unique help so the individual can make meaningful progress toward goals despite the circumstances of disability.

Recommended guidelines for requesting an evaluation

  • Make your request in writing.
  • Address your letter to the district’s special education director or program coordinator.
  • You can deliver your request by email, certified mail, or in person. If you hand-deliver the letter, make sure to have your copy date/time stamped so you have a receipt.
  • You can track the days the district takes to respond. The district has 25 school days (weekends and holidays excluded) to respond.

Items that can be included in your letter:

  • The student’s full name and birthdate.
  • A clear statement of request, such as “I am requesting a full and individual evaluation for my son/daughter.”
  • A statement that “all areas of suspected disability”  be evaluated.
  • A complete description of your concerns, which can include details about homework struggles, meltdowns, grades, failed or incomplete assignments, and any other mitigating factors.
  • Attached letters from doctors, therapists, or any other providers who have relevant information, insights, or diagnoses.
  • Your complete contact information and a statement that you will provide consent for the evaluation upon notification.

You can follow up if you don’t hear back from the district within 25 school days. When you provide consent for the evaluation, please note that you are not giving consent for your student to be placed in a special education program. You are consenting to the evaluation so that you and the school can make an informed decision about how to help your child succeed.

After receiving a letter of request for evaluation the school district has the responsibility to:

  • Document the referral.
  • Notify you, in writing, that the student has been referred for evaluation.
  • Examine relevant documents from you, the school, medical providers, and other involved agencies.
  • Tell parents/guardians in writing about the decision to evaluate or not. This formal letter is called “prior written notice” and is provided within 25 school days of the evaluation request.
  • Request your formal written consent for the evaluation.
  • Complete the evaluation within 35 school days after you sign consent.
  • Schedule a meeting to share the evaluation results with you and determine next steps.
  • Initiate development of an IEP, if the student qualifies.

Evaluation for Behavior Supports

Sometimes a Functional Behavior Analysis (FBA) is conducted alongside an educational evaluation when behavior is a primary feature of a child’s difficulty at school. The FBA uses tools and observation to identify triggers and unskilled coping strategies that can help explain areas of need for learning. The FBA provides the foundation for a Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP), which supports positive choices. BIP goals and strategies prioritize social skill development and emotional regulation tools. The BIP can be a stand-alone document or can be used with an IEP or a Section 504 Plan (see below).

A student may qualify for a Section 504 Plan, if not an IEP

Section 504 is part of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and provides for accommodations for individuals with disabilities that severely impact their ability to access a public building or a service, such as school. Sometimes students who don’t qualify for an IEP will qualify for special supports through a 504 Plan. Disability is more broadly defined under this Civil Rights law, and a disability that impacts a “major life activity,” such as learning, can qualify a student for accommodations and modifications in school.

Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE)

If you disagree with the evaluation and/or the school declines to offer any support services, parents can pursue a request for an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE). While a request for an IEE is not required to be in writing, a written request is encouraged because it documents the request (see letter guidelines above). When granting a request for an IEE, the school district provides a list of possible examiners and covers the cost. If the school district denies an IEE request, the district initiates a due process hearing within 15 calendar days to show that its initial evaluation was appropriate.

Here are some additional resources:

Washington laws regarding evaluation are in sections 392-172A of the Washington Administrative Code (WAC)

Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI): k12.wa.us

Center for Parent Information and Resources (English and Spanish): Parentcenterhub.org

Smart Kids with Learning Disabilities: smartkidswithld.org

PAVE’s Parent Training and Information (PTI) team can provide you with 1:1 support and additional resources. Here are two ways to Get Help:

Call 1-800-5PARENT (572-7368) and select extension 115, English or Spanish available, to leave a dedicated message.

OR

Go online to fill out a form to Get Help! Use the Google translate to make it to the language you use the best!