Evaluations are a crucial first step in the special education process. Before a student can receive special education services, a complete assessment must be made to determine the child’s eligibility. These evaluations typically include tests, observations, and interviews to assess the strengths and weaknesses of a child as it relates to their academic performance.
For example, let’s say you suspect that your son, daughter, or a student in your classroom has dyslexia or a similar disorder. Before that child can begin special education, a formal evaluation needs to be made by a professional. The results of the assessment can help determine the types of special education services that would address the child’s needs.
Keep in mind, a student who has a disability doesn’t automatically need special services. Some students who may have a disability are able to be successful and access their education with success. We only become concerned when we believe the disability is interfering with the student accessing their education.
This guide is perfect for parents and teachers who have questions about the special education evaluation process. I’ll explain the purpose of these evaluations, the parent’s role in the process, and the timeline of assessments. You’ll also learn more about how special education eligibility is determined.
Everything You Need to Know About the Special Education Evaluation Process
Whether you’re the parent of a child who might have a disability or you’re the teacher of a student with a suspected disability, the following sections will answer all of your questions about special education evaluations:
- Purpose of Evaluations for Special Education
- Parental Consent for Assessments
- Timeline of Special Education Evaluations
- How is Eligibility Determined?
- Steps in the Special Education Evaluation Process
Purpose of Evaluations for Special Education
Let’s start with a bit of background information so you can understand why these evaluations are required. There are federal laws in place to protect students with disabilities. These laws are defined by the Individuals With Disabilities Education act—better known as IDEA.
The main purpose of these evaluations can be summarized by the following points:
- Determine if a student meets IDEA’s definition of “a child with a disability”
- Collect information that will help identify the student’s unique educational needs
- Start the decision-making process as it relates to an appropriate education program for the child
These evaluations are always conducted with the child’s best interest in mind.
A parent cannot simply walk into a school and say, “put my child into special education.” Teachers and educators cannot just place a student into special education based on their own discretion either. In both of these scenarios, the child would need to go through a formal evaluation and assessment.
Parental Consent for Assessments
Federal law requires the school district to notify parents if they want to evaluate a child for special education services.
A letter alone isn’t enough to say that a child should be evaluated. The formal notice must also contain:
- Reasons why they want to conduct an assessment
- A description of the process or report being used as a basis for the proposal
- How parents can get more information about the provisions outlined in IDEA
- If and what other options were considered by the school district
- Any additional notes or factors that are relevant to the evaluation proposal
The purpose behind this is to keep the parents fully informed about the evaluation and special education process. IDEA has safeguards in place to ensure that parents have an equal say in the decision-making related to their child’s education.
Before the school district can proceed with an assessment, formal written consent must be provided by the parent. This consent does not mean that the school has permission to place the child in special education services—there is separate consent required for that.
The initial consent form simply grants the school permission to evaluate the child.
Parents can also request an evaluation if they believe their child could benefit from special education services. This request is called a “referral for assessment.” It should be put in writing and addressed to your local educational agency. Typically, if a parent expresses concerns about their child’s performance in school the student is referred to a “guidance team” which is a team of staff at the school that will suggest various interventions to support the student. The student will then be monitored to determine if the implementation of interventions is helpful or if an evaluation should be conducted.
Timeline of Special Education Evaluations
When IDEA was amended in 2004, a specific timeline for evaluations was added by Congress.
Evaluations must be completed within 60 days of receiving parental consent to proceed. Some states have their own timelines for an initial evaluation. If so, the timeframes established by the state will take precedence over IDEA’s 60-day timeline.
For example, state law in Connecticut, Colorado, Maine, Nevada, and Rhode Island says that an initial evaluation must be completed within 45 school days after parental consent is obtained. States like Massachusetts, Michigan, and Minnesota require the evaluation to be completed within 30 school days.
So check your local state’s laws for the exact timeframe requirements. A simple Google search for “your state + special education evaluation timeline” should give you an answer. Look for search results with a state .gov or .edu URL to ensure accuracy.
How is Eligibility Determined?
There are a wide range of strategies and assessment tools used to gather data about the child. Specialists conducting the evaluation will be looking at developmental, academic, and functional information about the child and their needs.
These assessments do more than determine whether or not a child has a disability. They must also pinpoint whether or not the disability impacts the student’s education.
Evaluations may include health screenings, hearing and vision tests, general intelligence assessments, and motor ability testing. A child may also be evaluated based on social skills, emotions, communication abilities, and more.
There are 13 disabilities categories defined by IDEA that requires public school systems to provide special education services to students meeting the eligibility criteria:
- Specific learning disability (SLD)
- Autism spectrum disorder (ASD)
- Emotional disturbance
- Speech or language impairment
- Visual impairment
- Hearing impairment
- Orthopedic impairment
- Intellectual disability
- Traumatic brain injury
- Other health impairment
- Multiple disabilities
But just because a child falls into one of the categories listed above, it doesn’t automatically qualify them for special education. The evaluations will determine whether or not the disability actually has an impact on their education and ability to learn.
Steps in the Special Education Evaluation Process
Now let’s take a closer look at the exact steps in the special education evaluation process. A few of these steps may seem a bit repetitive to the information we covered above. But I want you to see everything explained in chronological order.
- A Child is Identified as a Potential Candidate for Special Education Services — A parent, teacher, school psychologist, educator, or doctor may suspect a child needs special education services. If the child is identified by a parent or someone outside of the school system, a referral for assessment must be sent to the school district. If the suspicion comes from the school, then prior written notice with a request for consent must be sent to the parents.
- Parental Consent is Obtained — Evaluations cannot begin until parents give their formal written consent to continue. This consent is only for the initial assessment, not for special education placement. If parents don’t respond or refuse consent, the school district must carefully document all attempts and communication, as this information may be needed during the state’s due process procedures if things escalate.
- Evaluations Begin — Once consent is received, the school must complete the initial evaluation within a specific timeline defined by IDEA or the local state’s law. In most cases, this happens within 60 days of receiving consent. Evaluations include a variety of tests, screenings, strategies, and assessment tools. Assessment teams must include a regular education teacher and at least one qualified specialist who can conduct diagnostic exams, like a speech-language pathologist or school psychologist. Depending on the school district, there may be a team of several people involved with the assessments.
- Eligibility is Determined — After the evaluations are completed, a team of qualified individuals will determine whether or not the student meets the definition of a “child with a disability” defined by IDEA. A meeting will then be held with all involved team members to discuss the results of the evaluation and what areas, if any, the student qualifies for specially designed instruction. If the parents disagree with the evaluation, they have the right to request an independent educational evaluation. This additional assessment from an independent party will come at the school district’s expense at no cost to the family.
- An IEP Meeting is Scheduled — If the student is found eligible for special education services, the next step involves the creation of an Individualized Education Program, better known as an IEP. In addition to educators and specialists, parents have the right to be part of this team. A group consensus will determine the best course of action, appropriate placement, and potential modifications or accommodations for the student.
According to IDEA, schools are required to reevaluate IEPs at least once every three years. The evaluation aims to determine if the student’s needs have changed and see whether or not they still qualify for special education.
The special education evaluation and assessment process may seem a bit overwhelming if you’ve never been through it before. But if you take a deep breath and look at the logic behind each step, you’ll realize that the process is designed to protect the students and ensure they get proper help if needed.
If you’re a parent and suspect your child might have a learning disorder, don’t be afraid to send a request for referral to the school district. For teachers who may notice a child struggling with disabilities in the classroom, go through the proper chain of command to ensure prior written notice is sent to the parents. Then the district can obtain parental consent before proceeding with an evaluation.
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