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.


  • 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.


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


What is an evaluation?

An evaluation is the process used to determine if a student is eligible for special education services and in what areas services need to be provided.  Both the federal regulations implementing IDEA 2004 and the state’s Washington Administrative Code 392-172A (WAC), define how evaluations are conducted by the school district and who is involved in the process. A parent of the child, a state or local education agency, or other State agency can request the evaluation of a student, if there is concern about how the student learns.  The concern could be about academic areas – reading, math or written language. Other areas that can also be evaluated are health, vision, hearing, social and emotional status, general intelligence (I.Q.), communication and motor abilities. The school district must evaluate the student in all areas of suspected disability.

How can I refer my child for an evaluation?

Put the request for an evaluation in writing and send it by certified mail to the district or hand carry it and have your copy signed and dated by the district representative. This will give you a receipt showing who signed and the date it was received. It provides documentation for the starting date of the timelines the district must follow for the evaluation. Remember, asking for and giving written consent for an evaluation does not mean you are giving consent for your student to be placed in a special education program.  It means you and the team need more information to make good decisions about the student’s program, and special education may be part of it.

After the referral is made, then what?

The district must:

  • document the referral;
  • notify the parent(s) that the student has been referred, and that the team, including the parents, will decide whether or not to evaluate the student;
  • examine existing school, medical, and other records the parent(s) or other agencies might have;
  • provide “prior written notice” to the parent(s) regarding their decision to evaluate within 25 school days after receipt of the referral
  • complete the evaluation within an additional 35 school days.

How often can my child be re-evaluated?

A re-evaluation can occur at any of the following times:

  • The district decides that because of academic improvement the student warrants a re-evaluation.
  • The student’s parent(s) or teacher requests it.
  • At least every three years unless the parent(s) and district agree it is not necessary.
  • Must the district notify me and get my written consent before re-evaluations can occur?
  • Yes. The district must obtain the parent’s written consent before re-evaluating the student.
  • What exactly is the procedure used to evaluate my child?

The law is very clear about evaluating children with suspected disabilities. The district must:

  • use a variety of assessment tools to gather information about the functional, developmental and academic areas of a student’s school performance, including information provided by the parent;
  • draw upon information from a variety of sources, including aptitude and achievement tests, parent input, teacher recommendations, the student’s physical condition, social and cultural background and adaptive behavior;
  • use a variety of tests rather than one single measure or test to determine a student’s eligibility for special education services;
  • use tests that are selected and administered in ways that are not culturally or racially discriminatory;
  • administer the tests in the student’s native language or other form most likely to ensure accurate information about academic, functional and behavior needs of the child;
  • use trained and knowledgeable personnel to administer the tests;
  • insure the tests are valid and reliable for what they are measuring; and
  • evaluate in all areas of suspected disability.

Will the district pay for a medical evaluation?

If necessary, as part of the assessment, the district may obtain a medical statement or assessment to see if there may be other factors affecting the child’s educational performance.

Will the district consider an outside evaluation that we have paid for?

Yes. When the team is reviewing existing records the information you provide must be considered in the decision to do either an initial evaluation or a re-evaluation.

Does the district have to do a re-evaluation before removing my child from special education?

YES!!!!!!  Before a student can be removed from special education a complete re-evaluation must occur.  The only exceptions are when a child is graduating from high school with a regular education diploma or if the student has reached age 21 by August 31 and is no longer eligible for special education services.

What is an evaluation report and can I have a copy?

After the evaluation is completed, a written narrative (the evaluation report) must be given to parents.  It will explain whether or not the student has a disability that makes him/her eligible for special education.  It will also contain:

a statement about whether the student has a disability that meets the criteria for eligibility for special education and the supporting data for that conclusion;

information about how the student’s disability affects involvement and progress in the general education curriculum, or for preschool children, in appropriate activities;

recommended special education and related services needed by the student, including, if appropriate, positive behavioral supports and/or student management strategies;

other information determined through evaluation and parental input;

documentation by each professional (signature and date) certifying that the report represents his/her conclusion or, if disagreeing, a separate statement representing his/her conclusions; and

documentation of the results of the individual assessments or observations by individuals contributing to the report.

Remember, the evaluation report is the foundation for the Individualized Education Program (IEP).

What are the procedures for evaluating Specific Learning Disabilities (SLD)?

In addition to the requirements for determining whether a student qualifies for special education services, there are additional procedures for identifying Specific Learning Disabilities.

Each district may develop procedures for identifying students with SLD which may include the use of a severe discrepancy between intellectual ability and achievement; or a process based on the student’s response to scientific, research-based intervention; or a combination of both.

The decision of whether a student qualifies as having SLD is made by a specific group, including:

Student’s parent;

Student’s general education classroom teacher (if the student does not have a general education classroom teacher, a teacher who is qualified to teach a student of that age);

For a student of less than school age, an individual qualified to teach a student of that age; and

At least one individual qualified to conduct individual diagnostic examinations of students, such as school psychologist, speech language pathologist or remedial reading teacher.

The group described above may determine that a child has SLD if:

  • The student does not achieve adequately for the student’s age or meet the state’s grade level standards when provided with learning experiences and instruction appropriate for the student’s age in one or more of the following areas:
  • Oral expression
  • Listening comprehension
  • Written expression
  • Basic reading skill
  • Reading fluency skill
  • Reading comprehension
  • Mathematics calculation
  • Mathematics problem solving

What if I disagree with the results or recommendations of the evaluation?

Parents might disagree with the evaluation results for a variety of reasons.  The report might not accurately reflect a child’s disability, or it might not have been in-depth enough. A child might be seriously struggling in class with failing grades and yet the test scores do not reflect his/her need for social or organizational support.  Parents then have a right to request an independent educational evaluation (IEE) at district expense.  The request should be in writing and sent by certified mail.  The only way a district can refuse the request is to call for a due process hearing to prove their evaluation is appropriate. The district has to respond within fifteen calendar days to the IEE request. If the district calls for an IEE, and their evaluation is determined to be appropriate, parents still have the right to an independent educational evaluation; however it would be at their own expense. The results of the IEE, whether done at

public or private expense, must be considered by the district in making decisions about placement and/or provision of special education and related services.

What if my child does not qualify for special education services?

If your child is not eligible for special education services (does not need specially designed instruction), he/she may qualify for accommodations under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.  Section 504 is a non-discrimination law that applies to any district/agency receiving federal funds from the U.S. Department of Education. This law defines disability in more general terms than WAC or IDEA.  If, for instance, a child with a diagnosed disability does not qualify for services under IDEA but is still struggling in school, Section 504 could be used to provide accommodations, related services, and modifications for the child.

Questions To Ask Yourself:

How does my child go about solving problems at home and at school?

What has my child learned so far?

What are the things my child can do?

How and when does my child need assistance?

What kind of assistance is most effective for my child?

How does my child learn best?

What are my child’s strengths?

What are my child’s personality traits?

How does my child get along with adults/ peers?

How does my child feel about him/herself?

What causes my child anxiety?

Where is my child most comfortable

What makes my child comfortable?

What are my child’s interests?

Questions for Schools:

What tests were given?

Why were those specific tests chosen for my child?

What were they supposed to measure?

Do these tests evaluate strengths as well as weaknesses?

Are there any biases in the tests?

Who gave the tests?

How will the information be used?

Questions for a Re-evaluation:

What progress has my child made?

What are the areas in which my child made progress?

What are the areas in which my child has not made progress or has regressed?

On what is this information based (such as classroom observation, in-class testing, standardized testing, etc.)?

May I have a copy of the results of the evaluation, the records of observations, and other documentation?


Special Education Director or Program Coordinator
School District
Street Address
City, State, Zip

Dear (Name):

I am requesting a full and individual evaluation for my son/daughter (Name, Date of Birth) for assessment as a special education student as stipulated in IDEA 300.15 and WAC 392-172A-01070 and under Section 504.

I understand that the evaluation is to be in all areas of suspected disability, and that the school district is to provide this evaluation at no charge to me.  My reasons for requesting this procedure are: ____________________________________________________.

I understand that I am an equal member of the IEP team, and will be involved in any meetings regarding the identification, evaluation, provision of services, placement or decisions regarding a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). I would appreciate meeting with each person who will be doing the evaluation before he/she tests my child so that I might share information about  (child’s name) with him/her.  I will also expect a copy of the written report generated by each evaluator so that I might review it before the team meeting.

I understand you must have my written permission for these tests to be administered and I will be happy to provide that upon receipt of the proper forms.

I appreciate your help in this matter.  If you have any questions, please call me at (telephone number).



Typed Name
Phone Number

Send this letter by certified mail or hand carry into the district office and get a date/time receipt.  (Remember to keep a copy for your file and indicate to whom you are sending copies by “cc” at bottom of letter.)

The PAVE Parent Training and Information Program may include information on State or Federal laws regarding the rights of individuals with disabilities. While this is provided to inform or make one aware of these rights, legal definitions, or laws/regulations, it is not providing legal representation or legal advice. The recipient understands that this is information is to educate them not to provide them with legal representation.