The Basics of Special Education Assessments

Most people new to special education are quickly blindsided by the processes and procedures that have to be followed. Many parents new to the process don’t exactly understand that customizing school for their children with special needs is what special education is supposed to do. Often they will say that they don’t know what special education will be able to do for their children, in large part because they don’t understand what special education actually is or how it works.

There is a huge need to demystify the special education process for those who don’t fully understand it. The process starts at the very beginning with a referral for assessment, but before I launch into a discussion of special education assessments, I first want to map out the special education process in general so the role that assessments play in that process becomes clear.

Because special education can only be given to students who meet specific eligibility criteria, a process had to be developed to determine who meets those criteria. The basis for a referral for a special education assessment is “suspected disability.” If the parents, teachers, or other involved professionals have a reason to suspect that a disability might be responsible for why a student is struggling in school academically, communicatively, socially, physically, and/or behaviorally, it’s enough to trigger the assessment process.

Sometimes, special education assessments end up ruling out disabilities and identifying other challenges that are interfering with student learning that require solutions other than special education. It is never a bad thing when a child who is struggling in school gets help, regardless of what types of help may be needed.

Federal law mandates that public education agencies conduct a process called “child find” in which they actively seek out and identify those students who can be suspected of possibly needing special education (34 CFR Sec. 300.111). A great many special education lawsuits have been filed over the years on behalf of students who were never identified through “child find,” but should have been.

I have worked as a paralegal on several cases in which there was enough evidence to suspect a disability was responsible for a student’s struggles but it failed to trigger the “child find” process. When students who are eligible for special education are denied eligibility, including from a failure to conduct “child find” that denies them the chance to be found eligible in the first place, they are usually due compensatory education to make up for the education they should have gotten but didn’t. “Child find” failures are no small things, but they occur systematically everywhere.

Very often, children of color, children from households with low incomes, children in single-parent families, and children who have immigrated here from other countries are the ones most often missed by “child find.” In many instances, they are instead blamed for their challenges and end up funneled into the juvenile justice system, thereby greasing the wheels of the School-to-Prison Pipeline.

It often takes a parent referral to see a student properly identified for special education. Struggles over homework, tears shed over grades, disciplinary problems at school, and other obvious signs of trouble will prompt many parents to look into their options for help from their local schools and some will stumble upon some basic information about special education and the referral process. If it makes enough sense to them, they will write a letter requesting that their child be tested for learning problems that might require special education, which triggers the assessment process.

Depending on what State parents are in, the laws vary as to whether their local education agencies are legally obligated to act on their referrals for special education assessment. Some States give parent referrals equal weight to those made by school personnel and other States do not. The federal laws leave it up to the States to decide, by default making it such that education agencies can decline parent referrals for assessment with Prior Written Notice (PWN) explaining why the referral is being declined (34 CFR Sec. 300.503).

California law, however, gives parent referrals equal weight to those made by education agency personnel (EDC 56029) and mandates that an assessment plan be provided to parents for their consent within 15 calendar days of any referral for assessment being made (EDC 56043(a)). States can add protections to the IDEA, they just can’t reduce them to anything below the minimum standards of the IDEA. Not all States provide the same kind of protection of parent referrals that California provides.

Even when a parent referral is accepted, many school districts will still limit assessment in a way the parents don’t realize is happening in order to prevent students from being found eligible for special education and thereby prevent special education expenditures and a host of additional legal obligations. For far too many families, just getting that initial evaluation can become a legal battle, but then the question becomes whether the assessment they got was any good.

I want to focus on what happens once the assessment process actually gets going, though. Eventually, most families of eligible children who are pushing for appropriate services will get an initial assessment that is used by the IEP team to determine whether the student is eligible for special education or not. If the student is found eligible, re-assessments will then occur at least once every three years, or triennially, to update the data available to the IEP team for ongoing IEP development.

The purpose of special education assessment is to determine 1) if the student is eligible for special education and, if so, 2) what the content of the student’s IEP should be. Needless to say that if the data gathered by the assessment is inaccurate, incomplete, or incompetently interpreted, things can go horribly wrong. And, they do. A lot of special education litigation arises over education agency failures to competently assess in all areas of suspected disability.

For example, if a child is verbal but can’t read people’s facial expressions or tone of voice, there still needs to be a speech-language evaluation that looks at not only articulation, receptive language, and expressive language, but also at pragmatic (social) language. Pragmatic language includes the ability to read nonverbal body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice.

Children with autism tend to be very literal with words and miss the nuances that tone of voice, facial expression, and body language can contribute to conveying someone else’s communicative intent, so they may misunderstand sarcasm or idioms and cliches. They can similarly struggle to make their own faces match what they are trying to say in a way that makes sense to most other people. Students with other types of handicapping conditions can also have similar challenges for various reasons related to their disabilities.

This isn’t all people with autism, of course, but pragmatic language deficits are commonly occurring features of autism. It stands to reason that any child assessed for autism should also have a comprehensive speech-language evaluation that includes pragmatics. I’ve lost count of the number of students on the autism spectrum I’ve represented over the last 28+ years who have had huge problems with interpersonal communication but had never had their pragmatic language tested until I asked for it. It’s one of those obvious things that shouldn’t have to be specifically requested, but I often end up having to request it, anyway.

And, this example goes to why it’s important that parents understand the critical nature of assessments and getting them done correctly the first time around, if at all possible. What happens if assessments are bad is that whatever IEPs are produced from them will also be bad. This can include an inappropriate denial of special education eligibility altogether at the initial IEP, as well as students being found eligible but then given weak IEPs that don’t actually address their needs.

Simply giving a student a document that says “IEP” on it does not magically bestow educational benefits upon that student. The contents of the document matter and they should be informed by scientifically valid data in all areas of suspected disability and unique learning need. The IEP is supposed to be the blueprint by which the special education student’s education is delivered according to that student’s unique learning profile, which can only be ascertained through valid and sufficiently rigorous assessments that include teacher and parent input.

What tests should be administered to a given student depends on the student. Just as the special education program developed for each student must be individualized, so must the assessments conducted to inform that program. If a student doesn’t present with any evidence of hearing loss, it makes no sense to test in the area of hearing. However, if a student reports that the words swim on the page when the student attempts to read, an assessment of visual processing is entirely in order.

Similarly, if the primary areas of concern are social and classroom participation but the student’s grades are otherwise fine, you can conduct all the IQ and academic achievement tests in the world, but they will fail to give you relevant data about the actual source of the problem. At best, academic achievement testing may tell you the degree to which the social/behavioral challenges are interfering with classroom participation and work completion, but social/emotional and behavioral assessments are necessary to get to the bottom of social and classroom behavioral challenges, including lack of participation.

It is not uncommon for individuals with autism and/or anxiety disorders who are otherwise verbally and intellectually intact to do well in their academics, at least in the lower grades, but have a truly difficult time being a member of a classroom and/or being socially integrated with the rest of the students. School is supposed to teach more than academics; it’s also supposed to give students the opportunity to learn and rehearse social skills that will ultimately allow them to become gainfully employed and fully functional within society in adulthood.

The thing to understand, here, is that a student does not automatically have to be struggling academically to need special education. A student needs to be struggling in any aspect of school as a result of a disability to such a marked degree that individualizing the student’s educational experiences is necessary in order for the student to have opportunities to learn that are equal to the opportunities given to same-grade peers who do not have disabilities.

Our students with anxiety and depression will often miss a lot of school due to psychosomatic illnesses. This prevents them from accessing education altogether, but is not directly reflective of a specific challenge with academics. Very often, these kids can handle the academics okay, but they can’t handle all the other people at school. That’s a different special education problem to solve than accommodating dyslexia or an auditory processing disorder.

I can tell you that, as an educational psychologist and behavior analyst, there are student-specific lines of inquiry that an individualized assessment of each student should pursue. No two assessments should look exactly alike from one student to the next. The federally mandated requirement placed on schools is to assess in all areas of suspected disability and unique student need on an individualized basis (34 CFR Sec. 300.304).

That means social/emotional functioning, pragmatic language, and behavior are probably going to feature more prominently in an assessment of a student suspected of autism or certain types of social/emotional disorders. Measures of cognition and academic achievement, analysis of classroom work samples, parent and teacher interviews, and classroom observations are going to be more useful in troubleshooting a potential learning disability. Physical therapy, occupational therapy, and adaptive physical education evaluations are going to be important for a student with an orthopedic impairment that impacts how the student navigates the school campus.

There is no “one-size-fits-all” assessment procedure in special education. There should be no “one-size-fits-all” anything in special education. The whole point of it is individualized instruction, which can only be individualized to the student if the IEP is informed by individualized assessment data.

The importance of individualizing assessment cannot be overemphasized, and I have an example from my past to drive that point home: Many years ago, a couple of years or so after I first became a paralegal, I was working a due process case in which, between the testimony of the school psychologist and the district’s director of special education, it became clear that the only reason the school psychologist had used a particular verbal IQ test on our 7-year-old language delayed client with Down’s Syndrome was because the district kept those tests in bulk in the supply closet, and it would take longer than the 60-day assessment timeline to order a more appropriate test through the district’s purchase order process, as overseen by the special education director.

It is my recollection that the administrative law judge who tried the case had his own blistering line of questioning after those facts made it onto the record. He basically eviscerated the special education director for sneaky, underhanded abuses of the system to save a buck at the expense of assessment accuracy. The judge ended up ordering the school district to fund an outside assessment done by an expert who used the right kinds of tests.

The dad had already paid to have the outside expert assessment done, so we had it as evidence of how to do it right in hearing, plus the outside expert testified credibly as to his methods and findings. The district ended up having to reimburse the dad for the outside assessment and there was a huge training initiative throughout that district’s special education department shortly after that hearing decision was published. Heads rolled and policies changed for the better, but it took exposing what was really going on in a hearing to effect significant changes.

The function that assessments serve in the special education process is to set it all in motion and inform all the other steps that will follow. An IEP must include a statement of a student’s present levels of performance at the time the IEP was written, thereby establishing baselines. An IEP must also include annual, measurable goals that target learning outcomes to be achieved in one year’s time from the date the IEP is written that move the student forward from those baseline positions in each area of unique learning need.

There is no way to realistically identify the target outcomes to be met with one year’s worth of work in each area of unique student need without valid assessment data to inform that analysis. How much is realistic for an individual student to learn in a year’s time comes down to a combination of variables that should have all been measured and described by the assessment data.

Goals target the outcomes intended by a student’s IEP. What services are included in an IEP, including the frequency, duration, and location of those services, are determined on the basis of what will be necessary to meet the IEP goals. Placement is the last decision made by an IEP team and is determined by what is the least restrictive setting or combination of settings that allows the services to be delivered such that the goals are met without unnecessarily segregating the student away from the general education population.

You can’t decide where a special education student can be most appropriately educated until you first determine what you’re going to have to do in that setting or combination of settings. What needs to be done is determined by what you want to make happen. You don’t know what to make happen until you understand where things already stand and what you are still missing. You don’t know what is already intact and available, or what is missing, without first doing an assessment.

So, everything in the IEP process depends on the assessments being done right in the first place, or the entire IEP process falls apart from the outset. If an assessment is done badly, there aren’t adequate baseline data to inform an IEP’s present levels of performance or inform decisions about how aggressive each measurable annual goal should be in terms of its targeted outcomes. Further, if it’s done badly, there’s no guarantee there’s enough data to identify all the areas in which goals are actually needed.

“What can the student already do in a given area of need?” and “What is realistic to expect from this student after one year’s worth of work in this given area of need?” are the two key questions that have to be answered by special education assessment reports. That’s because those two very questions have to be answered when crafting a new IEP.

If you can’t get that far with the data from the assessments, you’re off to a really, really bad start. If you can’t lay a proper foundation, your whole construct will fall down. Competent, reasonably thorough assessment is the very foundation of a sound IEP, so it is important for parents to take this step of the IEP process very seriously and hold everyone else on the team to their respective professional standards.

Federal law mandates the application of the peer-reviewed research and the professional standards of any experts involved to the delivery of special education (34 CFR Sec. 300.320(a)(4)). That includes during the special education assessment process. Any standardized tests used must be administered and scored according to the instructions provided by the producers of each test, which must be scientifically valid for the purposes for which they are used (34 CFR Sec. 300.304(c)(1)). The enforceable law does not skirt the applicable science, and there is no legally justifiable reason why any publicly funded education agency and/or any of its contractors should be skirting it.

This can be difficult for many parents who have no background in science or law. However, an interesting phenomenon is starting to occur on a societal level that is worth noting.

Millennials are becoming an increasingly represented generational cohort among parents of children with special needs. They use their smartphones ubiquitously to call BS on a host of issues by looking up the truth, and collaborate with each other to address shared concerns. Special education advocacy today is becoming something entirely different than what it was when I started 28 years ago.

When I was a young, beginning advocate, I represented a number of housewives who could bake some mean cupcakes but would nearly faint at the presentation of a bell curve graph and deferred to their husbands on any big decisions. Now, I’ve got young moms and dads taking their own behavior data, charting it, and presenting it to their kids’ IEP teams with a written list of questions, concerns, and requests, all based on their own common sense with no formal prior exposure to the applicable sciences or law.

Where things get interesting is how school district administrations are currently configured. Many of the old-timers that I’ve been dealing with over the last two decades or more have retired and run off with their pension money before there isn’t any pension money to be had, anymore. Millennials are now starting to take the retired old-timers’ vacant job positions and, where that has happened, I’ve found that I don’t have such an uphill battle when making scientifically research-based requests in conformity with the regulations on behalf of my students and their families.

The biggest challenges I’m seeing now are Millennial parents armed with knowledge attempting to advocate for their children to public education agencies still run by the old-timers. The old-timers run things according to cronyistic politics, by and large, which has no scientific support whatsoever. In fact, cronyistic politics have been supported by a great deal of science as being impediments to the implementation of effective educational programming (Coco, G. & Lagravinese, R. “Cronyism and education performance,” Economic Modeling, Feb 2014, 38 443-450; Shaker, P. & Heilman, E. “The new common sense of education: Advocacy research versus academic authority,” Teachers College Record, Jul 2004, 106:7 1444-1470) and the impetus behind the mishandling of education dollars that take money out of the classroom that could otherwise fund effective instruction and undermine a community’s investments in education (Eicher, T., García-Peñalosa, C., & van Ypersele, T. “Education, corruption, and the distribution of income,” Journal of Economic Growth, Sep 2009 14:3 205-231).

When knowledgeable parents go up against cronyistic old-timers, the old-timers resort to their familiar bag of power-mongering tricks. But, trying to intimidate a mom who was educated under the Common Core to use math and science to solve real-life problems is a world apart from trying to intimidate a housewife whose science and math skills are limited to following recipes in a cookbook and balancing a checkbook.

I’m watching old-timers retire in droves nowadays because their weapons of choice against parents aren’t effective anymore and the courts are increasingly relying on the applicable science to inform how the law applies to each special education student on an individual basis. Law is supposed to be evidence-based, as is science. Education science allows special education law to be as black-and-white as possible. Everything else, particularly in a cronyistic system, is subjective opinion and hearsay. The environment no longer reinforces the old-timers’ behaviors like it used to, and their behaviors are starting to become extinct.

So, parents going forth into special education, especially those of you who know how to use your smartphones to look things up and fact-check, fall back on the science and lean on it hard, starting with the assessment process. When you are first given that assessment plan to sign, don’t sign anything until you understand what it means and the language of it is clear.

Very often, assessment plans will say vague things like “social/emotional evaluation by psychologist,” which can sound a whole lot like a mental health evaluation by a clinician to a lay person. In reality, what it usually means is rating scales filled out by parents, teachers, and sometimes the student that are scored and interpreted by a credentialed school psychologist, not a licensed clinician. Rating scales scored and interpreted by a school psychologist is not the same thing as a mental health evaluation by a licensed clinician.

But, how is a parent unfamiliar with the process supposed to know that? Would any reasonable layperson just assume this language meant a mental health evaluation by a clinician? I’ve seen this happen more than once involving youth with significant mental health issues for which consideration was being requested by the parent of the rest of the IEP team of residential placement via the student’s IEP. The parents would be given an assessment plan that said “social/emotional evaluation by psychologist,” think they were getting an evaluation to explore residential placement, and only find out 60 days later that they had been given the run-around while their child continued to fall apart. Residential placement is the most restrictive placement possible through the special education system, but it is possible for those students whose needs are that dire.

In these cases, the students’ needs were absolutely that dire and the responsible school districts attempted to delay the costs of residential placement by first doing rating scales by their school psychologist as part of a 60-day evaluation process, who then recommended a mental health evaluation, sometimes including a residential placement evaluation but sometimes not, thereby triggering a new 60-day assessment timeline. If a residential placement evaluation was not included with the mental health evaluation, the mental health evaluation could then conclude that the student should be considered for residential placement, triggering yet another new 60-day evaluation timeline.

Or, worse, the mental health evaluation could be silent on the issue of residential placement, leaving it to the parents to know to keep asking for such an evaluation; but, by this point, most parents erroneously conclude that residential placement isn’t an option so they drop it. There are youth in immediate crises who need instant mental health services, and their school districts are stalling the process by adding an unnecessary layer of assessment that gives it another 60 to 120 days before it has to act on the data (i.e., foot the tab for services).

Each of the students from my caseload who have shared this experience, in different school districts mind you, ended up either hospitalized and/or incarcerated at some point before finally getting the help that they needed. In most of those cases, the issue had to be forced with lawsuits that ultimately resulted in confidential settlement agreements. In each instance, the unnecessary delays in receiving immediate help contributed to self-injurious behavior, attempted suicide, and unlawful conduct that could have otherwise been avoided.

In my first case like this, I actually took it to due process myself back in the day when advocates could do that in California, and prevailed. In that case’ decision, the hearing officer made it clear that it defies the entire purpose of the IDEA, which requires that children with qualifying disabilities be identified and served via IEPs in all areas of need as quickly as possible, to subject our most vulnerable children to double or triple the amount of assessment time of a normal special education evaluation before getting the help they need.

I don’t know of any authority that has come out since then that contradicts this interpretation, though it was a long time ago and I’m not an attorney, but I think most people will agree, that it was not likely Congress’ intent to make our most severely impacted students suffer without appropriate supports and services for months longer than it takes other special education students to get what they need. These include, but are not exclusively, students with tendencies towards violence, running away, property destruction, self-injurious behaviors, and other non-social behaviors that require a great deal of expert intervention. These are not the students who should be waiting twice to triple the time to get the services they need to keep themselves and everyone else safe and focused on learning at school.

If it looks like a critical area of need is being excluded from your child’s assessment, don’t sign the assessment plan until the public education agency adds what is missing. If the agency refuses to add it, note on the assessment plan that you are consenting to what is offered, but you still think the assessment is deficient based on what they are excluding, which you should list in your note. That way, the record is clear that you aren’t delaying the other testing by withholding your consent, but you’re also not agreeing it was appropriate to leave out what you requested.

If the matter ever goes to hearing, the fact that you documented your disagreement with the exclusions on the actual assessment plan will become part of the evidence and the agency will have to explain its refusals of your requests to a judge or hearing officer. I’ve seen agencies change their minds after parents have written such feedback on assessment plans because the agencies don’t want to have to explain those documents to judges or hearing officers down the line.

Often, the best way to prevent litigation is to prepare for it. The parents who understand the value of making the record in the right way are the most successful self-advocates out there. But, there are still enough cronyistic old-timers still entrenched in the system who think they can still get away with intimidation tactics, lies, and subterfuge. It’s getting harder and harder for them to get away with these behaviors, and parents who push for the truth from the very beginning, starting with the assessment process, have a greater chance of getting appropriate services for their children than not.

Anne M. Zachry, M.A. Ed. Psych. on Linkedin
Anne M. Zachry, M.A. Ed. Psych.
Anne M. Zachry, M.A. Ed. Psych.
Anne has been a special education and disability resource lay advocate since 1991, a paralegal to attorneys working in special education and disability rights law since 2005, and an educational psychologist, behavior analyst, and curriculum developer since 2013.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.