The Referral and Evaluation Process for Special Education in 5 Easy Steps

Although the special education process can feel daunting for parents, it’s important to know that the process is strict for a reason. 

Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), schools are required to follow a set of steps to determine whether a child has a disability and, therefore, is eligible for special education services. These steps are in place to ensure that no child falls through the cracks — including yours.

Before an evaluation can begin a school must follow all required steps including getting your consent and taking other measures to screen a child before moving on to an evaluation.

If you believe your child may qualify for special education services but aren’t sure what to expect of the process, this guide is perfect for you. I’ll explain the five primary steps of referrals and evaluations and how they factor into the determination process.

Typical Steps of the Special Education Referral and Evaluation Process

The IDEA offers guidelines for identifying, referring, and evaluating children who may need special education services. The process includes:  

  • 1. Identification and Pre-Referral
  • 2. Parental Notification and Consent for Evaluation Referral
  • 3. The Evaluation
  • 4. Special Education Determination
  • 5. Reevaluation
  • Feeling Comfortable With the Referral and Evaluation Process

1. Identification and Pre-Referral

As many as 76% of students who repeated a grade in the 2014-2015 school year had not been identified as having a disability through their schools. This is why it’s crucial for schools to be diligent about identifying students who could be eligible for special services. 

Before suggesting that a child should have an evaluation to determine their eligibility for special education services, a school must identify if there are other factors at play   that could be interfering with their academic ability. 

The process usually starts with the child’s teacher, who is often the first to spot problems requiring intervention.

For instance, a teacher might notice that a new student in the class has trouble attending to tasks at hand more often than not. The teacher continues to monitor the student for a couple of weeks to take note of the issue’s consistency and believes that it’s something that should be addressed. 

During this time, the teacher will also attempt to modify the behavior by working with the student one-on-one and adapting lesson plans to meet the child’s needs. If modifications aren’t successful in helping the child, the teacher will typically contact a parent to see whether they’ve noticed any similar behaviors at home. 

If the parent also has concerns, the teacher can set up a meeting with the principal, the child’s parents, and the district’s special education coordinator to discuss the next steps. 

The next steps usually involve a pre-referral; many schools refer to this process as guidance team. The pre-referral is like a step before a special education referral is used to get more information about a problem and test different strategies that might help the child. During the meeting, parties will discuss what interventions to try and will set a date for another meeting to go over the results of those interventions.

Unsuccessful interventions during the pre-referral process will likely lead to a special education evaluation. The school principal needs to put through a referral to the special education coordinator to start the formal process of an evaluation.

2. Parental Notification and Consent for Evaluation Referral

Before schools can begin an evaluation for special education services on a student, they need to notify and get consent from the child’s parent or legal guardian. Under IDEA, schools are not allowed to perform these evaluations on students without permission from a parent or guardian unless they go through a legal process to do so, which I’ll get to in a moment.

A school that’s decided an evaluation is the best course of action for a student must notify the parent in writing and ask for their consent via a signature. Parents do not have to give consent if they believe an evaluation is unwarranted.

However, schools may still be able to move forward with an evaluation through due process. If the school has reason to believe that special education services can help your child and an evaluation can assist in getting those services, due process can allow an evaluation without your consent. 

This process takes time. The school will only be able to move ahead with an evaluation if the hearing lands in the school’s favor. 

Similarly, parents who believe the school should evaluate their child, but the school disagrees, can file a due process complaint. To request a due process hearing, send a written letter to the school district administrator and a copy of that letter to your state’s Department of Education. 

Once both parties approve the evaluation, the school or special education coordinator will contact you to advise you on the evaluation process.

3. The Evaluation

In most cases, IDEA specifies that a school has 60 days from the date of the referral to complete an evaluation. This seems like a long time for a parent awaiting a determination for their child, but the wait is actually a good thing. During the evaluation, a lot happens to make sure that a child doesn’t slip through the cracks of the special education system.

Your child’s evaluation is more than just a couple of assessments or a few hours of monitoring in class. Instead, it’s a comprehensive look at your child’s strengths and weaknesses. The evaluation considers the parent or guardian’s concerns, data from teachers and specialists who work with the child, and the child’s schoolwork, grades, and assessment results.

The school psychologist and other specialists, like occupational or physical therapists, may also work with the child to better understand their behaviors, learning needs, and physical needs. Your child’s doctor can also send medical history documentation that could relate to a special education determination.

Schools are required to consider the full child rather than just one specific aspect of the child that could affect their learning. Each person involved in the evaluation process will detail their observations and results. This data gets pooled together for the school to decide, according to IDEA guidelines, whether the child qualifies as having an eligible disability for special education services.

4. Special Education Determination

Schools are required to consider the full child rather than just one specific aspect of the child that could affect their learning. Each teacher and specialist will detail their observations and results. This data gets pooled together for the school to decide, according to IDEA guidelines, whether the child qualifies as having an eligible disability for special education services.

To have a disability that aligns with IDEA, the student may have a physical impairment, like a hearing or vision impairment, an intellectual disability, or an emotional disability. Other types of qualifying disabilities can include but are not limited to autism, traumatic brain injury, or the loss or impairment of a limb. 

However, the evaluation might determine that a child has a qualifying disability but that a relevant service may help the child succeed without the addition of special education services. In this case, the child will not qualify for special education services. If any child’s disability is considered not to impact their education, they also may not be eligible for services.

All specialists and educators involved in the evaluation discuss their results with one another before making a determination. Then, a meeting is scheduled with the student’s parent or guardian to discuss the results and next steps. A determination for special education services will lead to the creation of an IEP

Again, if a parent believes that the determination is incorrect, they can file a due process complaint to ask for a different decision. 

5. Reevaluation

After a child is determined to have a disability that warrants special education services under IDEA, the school must discuss whether a reevaluation is necessary at least every three years. The reevaluation process decides whether the child continues to qualify for the services they receive and whether the IEP team should make any modifications to the educational plan. 

A school may decide that a child still qualifies at the three-year mark based on observations and results from teachers, assessments, parents, and specialists. In this case, a reevaluation won’t need to take place until the next reevaluation period. Still, the IEP team must meet annually to renew and update the child’s IEP. 

An IEP team can also request that reevaluations happen more frequently than every three years if it believes that a child’s circumstances may change. 

Feeling Comfortable With the Referral and Evaluation Process

While each school differs in its policies and procedures, the referral and evaluation process for special education remains relatively consistent in each district. That’s because schools must follow IDEA regulations when qualifying students for these services. Each step in the process ensures fair and consistent results for each student.

Parents can seek help from their school’s special education coordinator or principal if they have questions or concerns about the process. I also have lots of resources here to guide you through special education services, from the initial determination to the IEP meeting and beyond.

Is your child preparing for the referral and evaluation process? If so, what questions or concerns do you have about it? Leave a comment below or shoot me an email — I’d be happy to help!

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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