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Navigating the Special Ed Evaluation Process

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Going through the special education evaluation process can be an overwhelming time, full of questions and concerns. Who can initiate an evaluation? What does the process look like? How is eligibility determined?  Does my child qualify for special education services? And what if I disagree with the school’s evaluation of my child? Getting the answers to these questions and understanding your parental rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) will clarify the process and help you be the best advocate for your child.

By Carla Wyrsch and Erin Mahaffey, M.Ed., Ed.S., NCSP

Table of Contents

    What is the purpose of an evaluation? 

    An evaluation to determine eligibility is required by the IDEA before any special education and related services can be provided to your child. The purpose of the evaluation is:

    • To conduct evaluations to see if your child meets the criteria for a child with a disability as defined by the IDEA.
    • To gather information about your child’s strengths and needs.
    • To guide the team in decision making about appropriate educational programming and services for your child. 

    Who can initiate an evaluation? 

    The Parent

    As a parent, you are the expert on your child and will often be the first to notice an academic or behavioral concern.  If you have a concern, as a parent, you have the legal right to request that your local school conduct an evaluation for the eligibility of special education services. The evaluation must be thorough and should be a complete, individual, comprehensive, multi-disciplinary evaluation. To request an evaluation, you should put your concerns/request in writing and provide a copy of the letter at a minimum to your child’s teacher(s). 

    You may also provide copies of your request to the school principal and the Director of Special Education. Be sure to place a copy of the letter in your child’s IEP binder for your records. Once the letter is submitted, the school must respond to your request in the form of a Prior Written Notice (PWN) which explains whether or not the district will move forward with the evaluation, how they came to a decision, what other options were considered, and what’s next.

    The School

    If school personnel are concerned about a child’s behavior and/or academic progress, several steps are typically taken before initiating the evaluation process. This is called pre-referral. During pre-referral, the teacher monitors student progress by collecting data. If the student struggles with general education classroom instruction, the next step is to provide evidence-based interventions

    This process is referred to as Response to Intervention (RTI), Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS), or Child Study, depending on your state. Data is collected throughout the intervention process to monitor the child’s progress or their “response to intervention.” Typically, teachers expect a student with academic gaps, absences, missing instruction, multiple moves, or just needs a little extra help will respond positively to these interventions. However, if the intervention data shows the child has not made the expected progress after multiple attempts with various interventions, the next step is to initiate the evaluation process to determine if the student has a disability. If this occurs, the school will again provide a PWN to explain the next steps.

    What does the evaluation process look like?

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    The Referral

    After the referral, the school will hold a meeting will to discuss the areas of concern, current levels of functioning, intervention data, and proposed areas of evaluation. Your child’s educational “team” should include you, at least one general education teacher, a special education teacher, a school administrator, someone to interpret evaluation results, and other specialists including a speech-language pathologist, occupational therapist, etc.. You have the right to invite an advocate or anyone familiar with your child to the meeting.

    If the team agrees an evaluation is the appropriate next step, the district will provide parents with a consent form that outlines the evaluations that will be conducted. Once informed, written parental consent is obtained, most states have a 60-day timeline to complete evaluations. Being knowledgeable about the process, including timelines, is key to advocating for your child. If you are unsure about your state’s/school’s regulations do a quick search or reach out to Partners in PROMISE.

    Lastly, at this meeting, you will receive a PWN outlining the next steps, along with a packet of Parental Safeguards. The Parental Safeguards outline your rights as a parent throughout the special education process. If a copy is not offered to you by the team, request a copy. File them along with the PWN in a safe place, like your child’s IEP Binder. It is important to read the packet even though it may feel intimidating at first. Knowing and understanding your rights will lay the foundation for your special education journey. If you are unsure or have questions about anything you read, contact a member of your child’s team.

    The 13 Eligibility Categories

    Disability and Evaluation Information: There are 13 eligibility categories defined by the IDEA. To qualify for special education, a child has to meet criteria for at least one of the following categories: 

    • Autism
    • Deafness
    • Deaf-Blindness
    • Emotional Disability
    • Hearing Impaired
    • Intellectual Disability
    • Multiple Disabilities
    • Orthopedic Impairment
    • Other Health Impairment
    • Specific Learning Disability
    • Speech-Language Impairment
    • Traumatic Brain Injury
    • Visual Impairment
    • Some states include Developmental Delay

    It is important to understand that these categories are umbrella terms and can include more specific disabilities within them. For example, a student may qualify for Special Education services in the category of Other Health Impairment due to Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), diabetes, or any other medically identified health impairment. Another example, a student can be identified as a student with a Specific Learning Disability for dyslexia. 

    As part of the evaluation process, there are several different assessment areas required by the state that are conducted to determine if a disability is present (Research your department of education for regulations specific to your state!). Be sure to explicitly ask what is being tested and ensure that all areas of concern are included.

    The Evaluation

    The team has agreed to an evaluation, but what exactly does that mean? The evaluation process is more than just administering a series of tests to your child. It is a comprehensive picture of who your child is. The IDEA mandates that the school evaluate your child in ALL areas of a suspected disability by conducting an individualized and comprehensive evaluation. The team may decide to include (but are not limited to) assessments that evaluate your child’s overall health, sensory processing, gross and/or fine motor skills, adaptive behavior, social and emotional functioning, general intelligence, communication skills, and educational achievement. In addition to these tests, the team will review all existing data and information regarding your child and their academic/behavioral strengths and deficits, as well as your input.

    During the evaluation process, all of the specialists working with your child are reviewing records, consulting with each other about results, and ensuring all of their individual evaluations will combine to be a comprehensive evaluation of your child. Once evaluations are complete, evaluation reports are written. Some school districts require each specialist to submit an individual report, while others combine all evaluation components into one comprehensive report. Once reports are completed, within the states’ required timeline, you will be invited to an “eligibility” meeting to review all of the reports. At this meeting, the team will determine if the student meets the criteria for special education services.

    How is eligibility determined?

    To qualify for special education services, the child must be identified as having a disability (one of the 13 IDEA eligibility categories) AND the team MUST answer YES to the following two questions: 

    • Does the disability have an adverse impact on education? 
    • AND does the child require specially designed instruction? 

    My child met the criteria – What’s next? 

    If the team agrees that the child has a disability that is adversely impacting their education and needs specially designed instruction, the next step is to write an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). In some states, the IEP is written during the eligibility meeting, while others allow up to 30 days for the team to reconvene. It is important to note, if you are feeling overwhelmed at the eligibility meeting, you can request a separate meeting to write the IEP. This may allow you to process the information and prepare for your child’s IEP meeting. 

    What if I disagree with the school’s decision?

    If you disagree with the results of the school’s evaluation of your child or if you are concerned it was not thorough enough, there are a few routes you can take. You have the right to an independent educational evaluation (IEE) at public expense. If you choose to request an IEE, do so in writing and keep a copy of the request for your records. The district can either honor your request or deny it. If the district chooses not to provide an IEE, they must request a Due Process Hearing. Another option is to pay out of pocket for a private evaluation. In either case, the school must consider the results, review them, and make them part of your child’s educational record. The reports must also be considered in any educational decision-making (i.e. eligibility, IEP goals, 504 Plans, accommodations/modifications, etc.). 

    Navigating and Advocating 

    We’ve covered a lot of information! Here is your quick reference guide to how the special education evaluation process will look:

    1. A referral or request for an evaluation is made.
    2. A meeting is held to discuss the evaluation process and informed, written parental consent is obtained.
    3. The team evaluates your child.  
    4. A meeting is held to review the evaluation data and determine if your child meets the eligibility criteria for special education and related services under the IDEA.
      1. If your child is determined eligible for special education services, the next step is to hold a meeting to write an IEP.
      2. If your child is determined not eligible for services under the IDEA you can request an IEE, or discuss the option of a 504 plan with the team. 

    Navigating the evaluation process can be overwhelming. However, being familiar with the process and your parental rights will provide you with the information you need to navigate the process more smoothly and be the best advocate for your child. If you have questions about the process, reach out to your child’s teacher, your district’s special education department, an advocate, or a special education attorney. Remember, knowledge is power!

    About the Authors

    Erin Mahaffey

    Erin Mahaffey, M.Ed., Ed.S., NCSP, is a mother, current parent advocate at ‘Education with Erin’, trained school psychologist, and USMC spouse. She has experience advocating for parents and students through the special education process, has completed hundreds of psychological and educational assessments for special education eligibility, and has previously worked in two different states as a school psychologist. In addition to her work with parents, she enjoys providing coaching sessions to students with IEPs so they can better understand their strengths and weaknesses to promote strong self-advocacy skills. 

    PiP’s EFMP Expert & Guest Blogger

    Carla Wyrsch is a Marine Corps spouse, mother, special educator, and Master IEP Coach®. She has devoted her career to educating and advocating for children with disABILITIES. Her experience spans a variety of settings, including residential treatment facilities, military bases, public schools, and the Cleveland Clinic Children’s Learner School for Autism. In addition to her work with children, she enjoys providing coaching sessions to both professionals and parents and volunteering with the Organization for Autism Research. 



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