IEPs & 504 Plans

The School Evaluation Process: How to Get Formal Assessments and Appropriate Services

Is your child eligible for a school evaluation for ADHD or a learning disability? If they are struggling with learning, behavior, or academic skills, the answer is probably Yes. Here, understand how to get your child a meaningful evaluation, the important first step to securing the school services and supports your child requires.

IEP test as part of a school evaluation for ADHD

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and Section 504 (of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973), the primary federal laws that apply to K-12 students with disabilities, recognize that no learning problem can be effectively addressed until it is fully understood. In their efforts to guarantee “free appropriate education” to all students, these laws require that — before any steps are taken to provide services or accommodations to a student — a thorough evaluation must be conducted to fully understand how and why that student is struggling.

What Does a School Evaluation Look Like?

A formal school evaluation critically analyzes many aspects of a student’s functioning in the school environment, such as memory, cognitive functioning, executive functioning, reasoning, verbal and non-verbal communication, behavior, and math, reading, and/or writing skills. The testing’s breadth often hinges on the parent concerns shared with the school, as well as areas of concern or weakness identified by teachers and other school staff.

Here, we’ll take an in-depth look at the evaluation process and help you understand how to get your child a meaningful evaluation, the important first step to securing the school services and supports your child requires.

School Evaluation Step 1: Give Written Consent

Perhaps you have already spoken to your child’s teacher about the problems he or she is having with attention or learning. Maybe your child’s teacher or school has reached out to you to share their concerns. The teacher has tried classroom strategies and you have ruled out a problem with hearing or vision or some other medical basis for what is going on.

If your child’s learning and/or behavior problems haven’t improved, you likely will want to pursue an evaluation to better understand why your child is struggling. While both the IDEA and Section 504 outline procedures for obtaining an evaluation, there is no single form that is used nationwide to begin the evaluation process. To get started, speak with the classroom teacher, guidance counselor, or principal in your child’s school to determine the contact person for obtaining an evaluation. But know that just asking for an evaluation is not enough.

Regardless of whom you contact, you must first give your written consent for the evaluation to take place. This is done by signing a form the school will provide, often called “Consent for Initial Evaluation.” There is no specific wording this form must include, but you should make sure it is dated and that you have evidence the school has received it; this can be a stamped, dated receipt or a letter confirming receipt on a specific date, or even a dated email. The date is important because the IDEA sets a deadline for completing the evaluation of not more than 60 days after consent is received, less if your state has set more restrictive guidelines.

Note that your school will not evaluate your child without your consent. On the other hand, consenting to an evaluation is not the same as consenting to whatever services or setting may be the result of an evaluation. At this point, you are agreeing that the school has the right to evaluate your child — that is all.

School Evaluation Step 2: Gather Information

Once you have consented to a school evaluation, you will be asked to fill out a number of forms. Usually, a school will want information on how the student is doing at home and what the parents are seeing that relates to academic or attention issues. Schools will want to know about the child’s family, something generally called a social history. Usually, a medical form will be provided to be filled out by your child’s doctor. This is especially important in the case of attention or medical issues.

The school will seek input from your child’s teacher about what they are seeing in the classroom.

School Evaluation Step 3: Perform Tests

Your child will be given a number of standardized tests by the school psychologist, generally over two or more sessions.

Preparing your child for the school evaluation can help minimize any anxiety that might be created by being pulled from class by someone they don’t know well and asked to spend time on academic and cognitive tasks. You should explain the evaluation process in age-appropriate language, try to make sure your child has a chance to meet the evaluator in advance, and make sure your child is well rested. If your child takes ADHD medications, speak to the school psychologist about whether regular medication should be administered the day of the evaluation.

The IDEA specifically requires that a child be assessed in “all areas related to the suspected disability, including, if appropriate, health, vision, hearing, social and emotional status, general intelligence, academic performance, communicative status, and motor abilities.” In addition, because children who qualify for services under the IDEA are entitled to services for all of their disabilities, the evaluation needs to be sufficiently comprehensive to identify all of the child’s special education and related services needs, even if they aren’t commonly linked to the disability category under which the child is ultimately classified. Because all areas of suspected disability need to be examined, additional professionals may also be involved in the evaluation, most commonly speech and language therapists, occupational therapists, or physical therapists. For example, if a child has a reading disorder and his evaluation also reveals that he has a speech impediment, he can be classified as having a “specific learning disability” while also receiving speech and language services.

While the IDEA doesn’t list specific tests that should be administered, it does set forth very clearly what kinds of tests should be used, how they should be given, and by whom.

The school must use a variety of assessment tools and strategies, including information provided by the parent, so that an appropriate Individualized Education Program (IEP) can be created. The evaluation should not just look at a single test (and specifically not just at IQ scores) and the tests must be scientifically accurate and technically sound. The evaluation should assess the relative contributions of cognitive, behavioral, developmental, and physical factors that may impact the child.

Tests should be both selected and administered so as not to discriminate on a racial or cultural basis and should be administered in the child’s native language (especially important for English language learners). They should be given for the purposes for which they are designed and in accordance with the instructions provided by the publishers of the test. They are to be administered by trained and knowledgeable personnel, which usually means a school psychologist.

School Evaluation Step 4: The IEP Team Meets

Once the evaluation is completed, a meeting of your school’s Committee on Special Education (sometimes called an IEP Team) will be held to determine if your child qualifies for an IEP under the IDEA. This process is called classification, because the IDEA requires that children have one of 13 classifications of disability in order to be provided with an IEP.

Ideally, you will have had an opportunity to meet with the school psychologist before this meeting is held to get a preview of what the evaluation has shown. If your evaluation has been undertaken to obtain Section 504 accommodations, once the evaluation is complete the Section 504 Team will meet to determine what accommodations might be appropriate for your child.

Keep in mind that an evaluation is not forever. The IDEA requires that IEPs be reviewed annually and that students be reevaluated every three years, unless the school and parents agree that a new evaluation take place sooner. Section 504 isn’t specific about how often re-evaluations must occur, but it does state that they should occur “periodically,” which most states and districts interpret to mean every three years as well.

School Evaluation Q: What If Your School Won’t Evaluate?

Sometimes, parents will get push back from their child’s school about an evaluation. The IDEA permits schools to explore how a child responds to “scientific, research-based intervention” and some schools will seek to delay an evaluation to see how a child responds to more rigorous interventions and instruction (called response to intervention or RTI).

A brief period to see if additional instruction in reading or math or some other area helps the student is reasonable. A refusal to evaluate while the school tries one approach after another unsuccessfully over an extended period is not.

School Evaluation Q: What If You Don’t Agree with the Evaluation Findings?

If the district has completed an evaluation but the parent disagrees with its findings, parents have the right to seek an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE) at district expense. This can happen when a district evaluation doesn’t show a problem in an area that the parents believe is definitely not going right, like reading. The parents should promptly advise the school that they disagree with the school evaluation and explain why (“We believe that your evaluation doesn’t explain why Max is struggling with reading and writing and is far below his classmates in these skills”).

The school district then needs to either agree to pay for an IEE or file for a hearing to demonstrate why the school evaluation is adequate. The school can set guidelines, such as cost and qualifications, for an IEE, although a hearing officer may override these. While an IEE can be an effective remedy when an evaluation isn’t adequate, it does not apply when the district simply refuses to evaluate a student. Why would this happen?

The school may claim that a child is doing too well to have a disability, or they may just delay for no stated reason to the point of depriving the student of an evaluation. To the frustration of many families, the only remedy when the district refuses to evaluate is to file a complaint with a State Hearing Officer to challenge this decision. In addition, parents always have the right to go ahead on their own to seek and pay for a private evaluation. The IDEA requires schools to consider IEE’s but not necessarily to follow their recommendations.

School Evaluation Q: Does My Child Need an Evaluation for a 504 Plan?

We’ve talked a lot about the IDEA, but what about an evaluation under Section 504? The language of the Section 504 Regulations closely parallels that of the IDEA. Most school districts follow the same guidelines for both 504 and IDEA evaluations. Districts may use a simpler form when families seek to use Section 504 to provide a plan for their child to receive medication or medical services in school in the absence of a learning issue. This can occur when a child has an allergy, diabetes, or other condition and a plan needs to be put in place to deal with this.

Sometimes, a parent will seek an evaluation with the goal of obtaining an IEP under the IDEA but the evaluation will determine that the child only requires the kinds of accommodations provided by Section 504 and that an IEP isn’t needed. In that case, the parent can agree to proceed to create a 504 Plan, or they can take steps to obtain an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE) to better demonstrate the child’s needs. It’s important for parents to understand that only the IDEA gives parents the right to obtain an IEE at district expense; the right to an IEE paid by the school district does not exist under Section 504.

School Evaluations for ADHD: Next Steps

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