When a student is struggling in school and there is reason to suspect the challenges are disability related, anyone can refer the student for an educational evaluation. The final section of this article includes a sample letter for requesting a no-cost evaluation from the school district. PAVE provides an article with more detail: Evaluations Part 1: Where to Start When a Student Needs Special Help at School.
Rights are upheld during COVID pandemic
No rights are waived during the COVID-19 pandemic. Schools and families can collaborate to determine what data is needed and how to be creative about collecting data if person-to-person contact needs to be limited or avoided for health and safety reasons. An agency called Presence Learning is among those offering teletherapy training and support for special education teams during COVID-19.
The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction provides guidance to schools in Washington, where local districts establish and regulate policy. OSPI on July 10, 2020, issued an updated Question and Answer document about special education services delivery during the pandemic, including this statement (page 19):
“OSPI does not support unilateral district decisions to delay all meetings during COVID-19. IEPs and evaluations that were delayed due to COVID-19 should be prioritized for timely completion during summer and/or fall 2020 and follow those decisions with a prior written notice to the parent.”
Request evaluation formally, in writing
State-specific deadlines apply when a school district receives a formal request to evaluate a student. In Washington, evaluation deadlines are described in the Washington Administrative Codes (WAC 392-172A-03005). In short, a school district has 25 school days to respond to a request, 35 school days to complete an evaluation, and 30 calendar days to write and implement an Individualized Education Program (IEP) for an eligible student.
Family caregivers/guardians must sign consent for an evaluation to begin. How signatures are provided during the health emergency can be discussed to avoid slowing the process.
Make a special education referral in writing. This is important because:
- There will be no confusion about how/when/why request was made.
- The letter provides critical initial information about what is going on with the student.
- The letter supports a written record of family/school interactions.
The school district is required to collect and consider school, medical and other records provided by the district and/or the family. Families may choose to disclose all, a portion, or none of a student’s medical information. Schools may not require disclosure of medical records.
If the family wishes, letters about diagnoses, concerns, and recommendations from outside providers may be attached to the evaluation request. The district is responsible to review all documents and respond with written rationale about how the information is incorporated into recommendations.
Prior Written Notice (PWN), IDEA, FAPE, and Child Find
After receiving an evaluation request letter and supporting documents, the district is required to respond formally, through a Prior Written Notice (PWN), within 25 school days. A PWN is a legal requirement any time there is a proposal to initiate or change the identification, evaluation, or educational placement of a student through a special education process. These provisions are from the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). In Washington State, PWN requirements are described in WAC 392-172A-05010.
A PWN is required if the school district agrees or refuses to initiate or change the identification, evaluation, or educational placement of the student. A PWN is also required any time there is a change or a refusal to change any aspect of how the district provides Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) for a student with a disability.
The right to FAPE is federally protected by the IDEA. A non-discriminatory evaluation process is part of the protections for a student with a known or suspected disability that may significantly impact access to education (Child Find Mandate). Child Find protections apply whether there are academic and/or non-academic school impacts. Note that another foundational principle of the IDEA is parent/student participation in special education process. The IDEA protections cover the decision process about whether to evaluate.
Special Education is a service, not a location within the school
Please note that a request for special education evaluation is NOT a recommendation to remove a student from the regular classroom and move them into an exclusive learning environment. Federal and state laws require that students eligible for special education services receive their education in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) to the maximum extent appropriate.
Special Education is a service, while LRE refers to placement. PAVE’s article provides further information: Special Education is a Service, Not a Place.
General education classrooms and spaces are the least restrictive. A child may be placed in a more restrictive setting if an IEP team, which includes family participants, determines that because of the child’s circumstances and capacities, FAPE is not accessible even with specially designed instruction, accommodations, modifications, ancillary aids, and other documented attempts to support a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) within the general education environment.
Parents can appeal decisions and/or seek a 504 plan
If a student is evaluated and determined ineligible for IEP services, the family has a right to appeal the decisions and/or to seek an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE). The rights are similar if the district refuses to conduct an initial evaluation. See PAVE’s article: Evaluations Part 2: Next Steps if the School Says ‘No’ to Your Request.
Family caregivers also can work with the school to develop a Section 504 plan, which accommodates a person with a disability that impacts a major life activity (learning, walking, speaking, writing, socializing, etc.). Section 504 is an aspect of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which protects the civil rights of individuals with disabilities against discrimination throughout the lifespan. See PAVE’s article for more detail about Section 504 rights, which also protect students who qualify for an IEP: Section 504: A Plan for Equity, Access and Accommodations.
Sample letter for a special education referral
Below is a sample letter that family caregivers can use when writing a request for an educational evaluation:
City, State, Zip
Name (if known, otherwise use title)
Title/Director of Special Education/Special Services Program Coordinator
City, State, Zip
Dear Name (if known, otherwise use title):
I am requesting a full and individual evaluation for my (son/daughter), NAME, (BD: 00-00-0000), for assessment as a special education student as stipulated in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, (IDEA, Public Law 108-446), and in the Washington Administrative Code (WAC 392-172A).
I have concerns that (NAME) is not receiving full educational benefit from school because of [his/her] struggles with [brief sentence that summarizes the bullet points listed below].
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 evaluation are: (be as specific as you can).
- Use bullet points if the list is long.
- Use bullet points if the list is long.
- Use bullet points if the list is long.
My [son/daughter] has been medically diagnosed with [DIAGNOSIS, if available…Or, you might write: My son is awaiting a medical evaluation for … note that a medical diagnosis is not required for schools to conduct an educational evaluation].
I have attached documentation from [list any outside providers who provided letters or reports]. Please take note that [Dr. NAME] recommends [highlight any specific recommendations from those attached documents] because [reason].
I understand that I am an equal member of the team for development of an Individualized Education Program (IEP) and that I will be involved in any meetings related to evaluation, identification of disability, provision of services, placement, or other decisions regarding my child’s access to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). I would appreciate meeting with each person who will be doing an evaluation before [name of child] is tested so that I might share information and history. 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 behalf of [child’s name]. If you have any questions please call me at [telephone number] or email me at [email address, optional].
CC: (Names and titles of anyone else you give copies to)
You can email this letter or send it by certified mail (keep your receipt), or hand carry it to the district office and get a date/time receipt. Remember to keep a copy of this letter and all school-related correspondence for your records. Get organized with a binder or a filing system that will help you keep track of all letters, meetings, conversations, etc. These documents will be important for you and your child for many years to come, including when your child transitions out of school.
Please Note: PAVE is a nonprofit organization that provides information, training, individual assistance, and resources. PAVE is not a legal firm or legal service agency, and the information contained in this handout is provided for informing the reviewer and should not be considered as a means of taking the place of legal advice that must be obtained through an attorney. PAVE may be able to assist you in identifying an attorney in your area but cannot provide direct referrals. The contents of this handout were developed under a grant from the US Department of Education. The contents do not represent the policy of the US Department of Education and you should not assume endorsement by the Government.