Determining if a Student Is Eligible for Special Education Services

Services like speech therapy, physical therapy, and counseling can even the playing field for students who need extra support in school. But getting those services isn’t as simple as telling the school your child needs them. Instead, the process entails evaluations, data, and team meetings that determine whether a child qualifies for services. 

This guide is for parents looking to understand and prepare themselves for the special education services determination process. I’ll cover everything from special education law to how, exactly, schools determine which students qualify for services. After reading through, I hope that you’ll feel more confident in each step so that you can be your child’s best advocate.

Determining a Student’s Eligibility for Special Education Services

The special education services determination process can look different for each child. Still, each school must adhere to a set of standards, laws, and rights governing special education. In the following sections, I’ll detail the most crucial information parents should know about the process:

  • Laws and Rights for Special Education
  • Who Is Involved In Determining Eligibility for Special Education Services
  • The Student Evaluation
  • Your Child’s Eligibility for Special Education Services

Special Education Laws and Rights

As a parent, you should know what the law says about special education and your child’s right to a fair appropriate public education (FAPE). Here, I’ve broken down the key factors in determining whether a child is eligible for services based on the law. 

Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)

First, take some time to familiarize yourself with IDEA. The law oversees special education in states and public agencies, ensuring that they provide appropriate early intervention and special education services to students who need them. 

Under IDEA, all students with disabilities have the right to a free education that’s suitable for their needs by allowing them to access the special services they require. Parents and educators also have the right to necessary resources that help them support the child.

Eligibility Criteria

IDEA also sets the eligibility criteria for determining whether a student can receive special education services. The child’s parent and qualified professionals work together to show that a child does or does not meet the criteria. 

According to IDEA regulations, a school must conduct an initial evaluation on the child after receiving parental consent. The evaluation should present a well-rounded picture of the child’s abilities using various assessment tools tailored to specific educational needs, which I’ll dive into deeper in this guide. The child’s parent, school, and professionals involved in the evaluation process can then discuss the evaluation and determine if further assessments should occur.

Schools also consider parent and teacher input, medical history, adaptive behavior, and other factors that could help determine eligibility.

IDEA specifies that a disability includes, but is not limited to, hearing loss or deafness, blindness, emotional disturbance, or intellectual disability. Autism, traumatic brain injury, and orthopedic impairments can also qualify a child for special services.

Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE)

An eligibility determination will not always work out in a child’s favor. If you believe your child’s initial evaluation results are flawed, you have the right to seek an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE). You can request one through a qualified professional outside of your child’s school system. The school can also help you locate a professional who can conduct an IEE. Keep in mind going this route is going to be costly and the wait time can be lengthy. 

In some cases, the school district will pay for the IEE. Sometimes, the school district may file a due process complaint if it stands by its evaluation. In this situation, the case will move to a hearing. The hearing officer considers whether the school’s evaluation is fair; if so, the IEE cost falls on the parent.

Who Is Involved in Determining Eligibility for Special Education Services

I’ve mentioned that “qualified professionals” will ultimately evaluate a child for special education services to determine if they meet IDEA’s criteria of having a disability. But who are these professionals? That depends on the services requested by you or your child’s teacher or school.

For instance, if your child is experiencing some signs of dyslexia, the school might contract a licensed psychologist to evaluate them. For a child with potential hearing issues, the school audiologist can perform an evaluation. In other words, your child’s evaluation comes from specialists who are explicitly trained to assess and diagnose the specific problem your child faces.

These specialists may perform the bulk of the assessment, but your child’s evaluation incorporates many results and tools to indicate their educational needs. The school may consider factors like test results, classroom behavior and performance, and motor abilities to complete a comprehensive IDEA-focused evaluation.

The Student Evaluation

The student evaluation is the crux of the determination process. Schools use this evaluation to decide whether a student fits the criteria of having a disability as IDEA defines it. This evaluation will also help you and your child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) team form a plan for special education services. Here’s what to expect from the evaluation:

Parental Notice

Schools typically alert to a potential learning problem with a student based on a teacher recommendation, test results, or student performance. However, they may not evaluate a student without permission from their parents. Schools must notify a parent in writing, including why it believes the evaluation is necessary and what assessments and tools it will use.

If a parent refuses to consent, the school can still attempt to request permission. In some cases, the school may choose to file a due process complaint following a parental non-consent if it believes the evaluation is in the child’s best educational interest. 

It’s worth noting that parents absolutely have the right to request an evaluation of their child if they suspect a problem that could be interfering with their education. There’s no need to wait for the school to make the first move if you have concerns. 

You may do this by contacting your child’s teacher or principal to request an evaluation. If the school agrees that an assessment could be helpful in your child’s case, it will notify you and get consent before completing the evaluation.

What To Expect From the Evaluation

Some parts of an evaluation may occur during school, while others consist of reviewing data from parents, teachers, and specialists. The school will consider any existing data from you or your child’s teacher that can assist in determining your child’s eligibility for special education services. Specialists may monitor your child in class or pull them from class for one-on-one assessments if needed. 

The school may use any combination of the following evaluation methods to inform its decision:

  • Standardized-based: Compares your child’s results to a set of standards for other children in their age group
  • Curriculum-based: Assesses whether your child understands the curriculum material their teacher presents, based on classwork, tests, and other measurements
  • Criterion-based: Compares your child’s abilities to a standard set of criteria, such as how many times they can recognize a letter sound in ten words
  • Norm-based: Considers where your child’s performance in a given area falls compared to their peers

Parents have the right to ask what evaluation methods and tools the school will use to determine their child’s eligibility. It’s important to ensure that the school uses a mix of sources to gather data, including your own reports, medical reports, grades, teacher input, and reports from private therapists. 

A student will not be considered eligible for special education services if evaluations suggest that the child’s performance is based on limited English proficiency or a lack of appropriate reading or math instruction.

The Results Meeting

It may take a few weeks for a student’s evaluation results to be ready before the school can schedule a meeting with you. IDEA suggests having results ready within 60 days, but some states allow for as much as 90 days after receiving parental consent.

Once ready, you can attend the meeting that explains your child’s determination. People who worked with your child will explain results to you, and you can ask questions or respond if desired.

During this meeting, you or the school may recommend more evaluation before coming to a final decision. In this case, the school will likely request your consent at the meeting. If the school does determine that your child has a disability and requires services, it will discuss possible services with you at this time.

Your Child’s Eligibility for Special Education Services

Now that you know the determination process for special education services, I hope you feel more prepared to navigate it with your child. Most importantly, don’t feel like it’s you against the school. Working together is the best way to ensure that your child gets the services they need. If you believe that the school is being uncooperative during the process, reach out to the district’s special education administrator for help.

If your child does qualify for special education services, the next step is the IEP. I include several IEP resources available on this website to guide you through meetings, setting goals, and updates. Here’s a more in-depth look at the special education evaluation and assessment process for services.

Of course, always feel free to reach out to me via email or comment below with questions you have or to share your personal experiences with others.

About the author

Emily Cummings

I am a mom of two crazy, amazing, independent, little feminists. They bring so much light to my life and a lot less sleep. Since becoming a mother and increasingly in the last year, I have witnessed parents struggling to connect with their child's special education team with no success. I have become more aware of the gaps in our public school system and how parents may benefit from empowerment and advocacy tools.

My work experiences range from a juvenile detention center to an autism specialist in the Issaquah School District and a special education teacher in a self-contained program in the Lake Washington School District. My master's in teaching focused on special education and behavioral disorders from Seattle Pacific University. I completed my BCBA coursework from Montana State University.

Want to get in touch?

I'm happy to help however I can. Email me at hello at behaviorist .com.

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