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Assessments In the Driver’s Seat

The most important thing to remember about assessments is that they not only determine eligibility — they also drive placement and services.

A good and appropriate initial assessment can be used by the IEP team to determine whether a child is eligible for special education. My prior articles have described the requirements for eligibility, in short: a qualifying disability and a showing that the disability interferes with a student’s ability to access his or her education. However, that initial assessment will also set the stage for the placement and services offered by the district. While the eligibility category (such as autism, specific learning disability, or a speech/language impairment) will signal the main interventions to be provided, an IEP should include services necessary to address all of your child’s areas of need.

For example, if a child is eligible for special education as a student with Other Health Impairment because of a diagnosis of ADHD, he should receive services designed specifically to address the challenges arising from attention deficit. However, it is possible that in the scope of the assessment, the evaluator also identifies some problems with social/emotional functioning, such as withdrawal, anxiety or depression. These issues should be addressed as well, usually by an initial offer of school-based counseling, or a social skills groups for students.

When Assessments Steer You Wrong

Clearly, when an assessment is used to conclude that a child is not eligible for special education or not eligible under a certain category that you may be seeking, this can be a frustrating setback in your advocacy efforts. However, the worst assessments are the ones that provide absolutely no useful information about a child. Even if you disagree with a particular recommendation or conclusion that the district may have drawn from an assessment, the data itself can still be very helpful in understanding your child’s educational strengths and deficits.

Some of the more common issues that that arise with assessments are when the district fails to use an appropriate testing instrument, fails to properly score a test, or fails to administer or conduct any testing in an area that is a known issue with the child. To expand upon the example above with the child who suffers from ADHD, if that child’s teachers have noted troubling behaviors in the classroom that they believe could be emotionally-based, or if his parents are raising concerns about his mental health status, this would be considered an additional area of suspected disability. When his triennial re-evaluation rolls around, the district should absolutely include some kind of assessment to address these concerns.

Federal law sets forth several requirements for evaluations, including that they be conducted at least every three years, but not more than once per year unless agreed upon by the IEP team. A full assessment should include a variety of testing instruments and tools, so as not to rely on a single measurement of a child’s ability. In addition, standardized tests should be administered in accordance with the publisher’s instructions by knowledgeable and qualified personnel, should be given in the language of the student and should not be racially or culturally discriminatory. One key requirement is that the child must be assessed in all areas of suspected disability.

Getting Back on Track

A major part of my practice involves helping parents navigate a situation in which their child has not been appropriately assessed. The law allows parents to obtain an independent educational evaluation (IEE) at public expense when they disagree with a district assessment. A key point to note: there generally must be an assessment with which to disagree. While there are exceptions to every rule, if the district simply fails to assess and you take them to court, they will likely be given an opportunity to conduct an evaluation before having to pay for a private one.

If you request an independent educational evaluation, federal regulations provide the district with two choices: they can either agree to your request or they can file for due process to establish that their assessment was appropriate. In most cases, the district will determine that it is more cost-effective to pay for an independent assessment than to incur the expense of a due process hearing against the parents. However, it is important to know that the district may file for due process in response to a request for an IEE.

Many times, a district will deny the parents the requested IEE, but fail to bring due process. In this situation, parents often seek out a private assessment themselves and then request that the district reimburse them. They may have to file for due process against the district in order to obtain this reimbursement.

If the district agrees to fund an IEE, parents should be given the opportunity to negotiate with them regarding the independent professional who will conduct the evaluation. It is important to go with an assessor who is truly independent of both the parents and the district so that all sides feel they are getting an objective opinion. Ask other parents in your community for references in order to identify the good assessors in your area.

Once an independent assessment has been conducted, the district should convene an IEP meeting to consider the results of that assessment. If the independent assessor draws different conclusions than the district, this may strengthen the parents’ argument for a particular category of eligibility, a particular placement or additional or different services. Parents may use the independent assessment in a due process hearing against the district to establish that the district’s assessment was inappropriate or that the child has been denied services because of the district’s failure to identify his or her needs.

While trying to obtain an appropriate assessment of your child can be a frustrating experience, the law has built in a mechanism for a second opinion, which in most cases I recommend pursuing. Having more information about the student’s strengths and deficits leads to better team decision-making, better educational planning and better outcomes for the child.

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