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! 

A Supreme Court Ruling Could Impact Your Child’s IEP

A Brief Overview

  • The parents of a child named Endrew F argued that their son with a disability deserved more from his public school. They appealed their case all the way to the Supreme Court, and the ruling in their favor could mean more robust rights for all children with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs).
  • The implications of this unanimous decision are reverberating through schools and agencies that oversee special education. Read on to learn how you can participate in important conversations about these uplifted standards.
  • Learn key phrases from this ruling to help you be a proactive member of your child’s IEP team. The U.S. Department of Education has an important guidance document that includes some of this language: For example, a school must offer an IEP “to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.” The court additionally emphasized the requirement that “every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives.”
  • This article and the included resource links can help you understand the Endrew F ruling and how you might use this information in advocating for your child’s rights.

Full Article

Endrew F (Drew) is a student with autism, ADHD and challenging behaviors. His disabilities impact his academic and functional skills, including his ability to effectively communicate about his emotions and needs. He attended a public elementary school in Douglas County, Colorado, and qualified for special education with an Individualized Education Program (IEP). His parents moved him to a private school in fourth grade, arguing that:

  1. Drew did not make measurable progress on the goals set in his past IEPs, and
  2. The IEP did not address Drew’s escalating behavior problems.

Drew had more success at the private school, and his parents filed a Due Process complaint with the Colorado Department of Education in 2012. They requested reimbursement for the private school tuition on the basis that the public school had failed to provide access to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), which is a cornerstone of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the federal law that governs special education.

The parents argued, and lost, at the state, district and circuit court levels. These lower courts ruled that because Drew had made at least some progress toward his IEP goals, then the school had met its obligation to provide FAPE. Wrightslaw is one source for more detail about the case and its history.

The family filed an appeal with the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS), and on March 22, 2017, the court ruled in their favor. The ruling, which took effect immediately, ended a discrepancy in circuit courts across the country by determining that a trivial amount of progress (“merely more than de minimis”) is insufficient to satisfy a student’s right to FAPE. In order to meet its “substantive obligation under the IDEA,” the court stated, “a school must offer an IEP that is reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.”

Since then, a variety of agencies have been analyzing the court’s unanimous ruling and creating guidance documents to help schools and families understand the implications of this case. On April 9, 2018, The Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) provided a two-hour webinar with speakers from various education fields to discuss the ruling and its broad-sweeping impact on schools and families. Parents need to understand this case, the experts agree, because family voices are critical to raising the level of expectation.

High expectations are a theme in discussions about the ruling. Some other emerging themes:

  • Parents/guardians are the first and most important lifelong teachers of their children. They, therefore, need to be fully welcomed and heard as key collaborators in the process.
  • IEP teams need to assure relevance when writing appropriately ambitious IEP goals for lifelong learning and success in varied environments. Goals toward narrowly defined academic “mastery” often miss this opportunity to create flexible learners.
  • State academic standards should be noted at the IEP table, but challenging objectives are to be individualized, not “one size fits all” or based in goals generated by computer data programs.
  • Educational benefit is determined on an individual basis, and standards for measurement must be varied and rigorous to ensure meaningful progress.
  • An IEP with the same goals year-after-year does not meet the standard of FAPE.

The Statewide Parent Advocacy Network (SPAN) issued a summary of the Endrew F ruling that includes a list of “Roles and Responsibilities” for professionals and families. “This new standard will require a prospective judgment by school officials that will be informed not only by the expertise of school officials, but also by the input of the child’s parents and guardians,” SPAN stated in this overview document.

Understood, a consortium of non-profit agencies committed to providing information on attention and learning problems in children ages 3-21, developed a free, downloadable Endrew F Advocacy Toolkit that provides a four-page handout of Talking Points and a four-page IEP Worksheet to assist parents in using principles from the Endrew F ruling in their own advocacy. For example, the court’s ruling included the words “appropriately ambitious” as a requirement for IEP goals. The worksheet offers a place where a parent can record a list of areas that they feel a child’s goals might not be ambitious enough. The worksheet then suggests a script for a parent to use at an IEP meeting:

“I know that my child’s goals should be appropriately ambitious. Even if my child is behind in academics, the IEP goals should aim to help my child catch up. When can we look at present level of performance and put services and supports in place, so we can set goals that allow my child to meet the same standards as his peers?”

The National Center for Parent Leadership, Advocacy, and Community Empowerment (National PLACE) offered a Webinar to explain how the ruling provides families with a new advocacy tool. PLACE, a membership organization whose website is named “Parents at the Table,” has made available some resource documents, including a Power Point with a set of slides titled: “What Parents Can Do.” For example, PLACE suggests that parents prepare questions for an IEP meeting using key phrases pulled directly from the Supreme Court’s ruling. Here are some sample questions:

  • Has the team carefully considered my child’s potential for growth?
  • Have we considered whether my child is on track to achieve or exceed grade-level proficiency?
  • Are the goals appropriately ambitious, with sufficiently challenging objectives?
  • How is the IEP reasonably calculated to enable my child to make progress appropriate in light of his circumstances?

PLACE emphasizes that parents should not accept an IEP with the same goals and objectives from year to year, indicators that a child has failed to make meaningful progress. And, using language directly from the SCOTUS ruling, PLACE encourages parents to hold schools accountable for a child’s progress by requesting a “cogent and responsive explanation” for decisions about goals and progress measurements.

Diana Autin, an attorney and executive director of National PLACE, uses the webinar platform to review foundational principles of the IDEA, re-authorized by Congress in 2004, to set a stage for understanding new guidelines related to the SCOTUS ruling. “It’s important to note that Endrew F can’t be understood or defined or used without it being within the context of the IEP requirements of IDEA,” she says.

Autin shares the PLACE webinar platform with Michael Yudin, former assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Education and a longtime national leader in disability rights. Yudin points to key language in the ruling that clarifies earlier Department of Education guidance documents that he helped develop. The heart of IDEA, he says, is specially designed instruction that helps students reach goals that are “ambitious but achievable” and in alignment with grade-level content standards. “Specially designed instruction is adapting as appropriate to the needs of the child,” Yudin says, “so that the content, methodology and the delivery of instruction are appropriate to ensure access to the general curriculum so that the child can meet the educational standards that apply to all children.”

Inclusion sometimes requires access to specially designed instruction in Social-Emotional Learning (SEL), and the Endrew F decision reinforces the IDEA’s requirement for necessary behavioral interventions and supports, Yudin says. “This guidance clearly states that failure to consider and provide those needed behavioral supports and interventions through the IEP is in fact likely to result in a denial of FAPE.”

The child at the heart of this landmark case, Drew, struggled with phobias and had behaviors that included screaming, climbing over furniture and occasionally running from school. According to the PLACE webinar: “His parents believed that his progress had stalled and that the strategies used to address his behaviors were insufficient to allow him to learn.” Behavior interventions at the private school chosen by Drew’s parents helped, and his access to learning improved. In considering all aspects of the case, including a lack of suitable behavior interventions, the Supreme Court ruled that the public school had denied Drew access to FAPE.

A child “must be afforded the opportunity for significant learning,” the court stated. And individualized supports and programming must provide for more than “de minimis,” or trivial, progress to meet the standard of FAPE. “For children with disabilities, receiving instruction that aims so low would be tantamount to sitting idly,” the court wrote, “…awaiting the time when they were old enough to drop out.”

The ruling in Endrew F has brought new emphasis to existing policy related to discipline and behavior. On August 1, 2016, the U.S. Department of Education issued a Dear Colleague guidance document to establish clarity about the IDEA’s requirements for behavioral assessments and interventions. “Recent data on short-term disciplinary removals from the current placement strongly suggest that many children with disabilities may not be receiving appropriate behavioral interventions and supports, and other strategies, in their IEPs,” the document states. “In light of research about the detrimental impacts of disciplinary removals… the Department is issuing this guidance to clarify that schools, charter schools, and educational programs in juvenile correctional facilities must provide appropriate behavioral supports to children with disabilities who require such supports in order to receive FAPE and placement in the least restrictive environment (LRE).”

The Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) offered a summary of policy that included this statement: “Parents may want to request an IEP Team meeting following disciplinary removal or changes in the child’s behavior that impede the child’s learning or that of others, as these likely indicate that the IEP may not be properly addressing the child’s behavioral needs or is not being properly implemented.”

For further information about the Endrew F decision and its implications, refer to the following resources:

The Center for Parent Information and Resources/Parent Center Hub

National PLACE/Parents at the Table

Wrightslaw

Understood Endrew F Advocacy Toolkit

SCOTUSblog

SPAN Parent Advocacy Network

OSEP IDEAs that Work