The importance of reading, organizing, analyzing, and evaluating your child’s school records cannot be overemphasized. The information in these records provides the basis upon which crucial decisions will be made concerning your child’s education. In this article, a step-by-step process for analyzing and revising/updating your child’s school records is described.

Using the Four-Step Record Decoder process and accompanying form, you will become thoroughly familiar with your child as seen through the close up lens of her school records. When you’ve completed the process, you will know whether the information in your child’s file paints an accurate picture of her learning needs and strengths. The first article on school records explains how to obtain your child’s records from the school.

When you have obtained your child’s school records, often a stack of documents an inch or more thick, what will you do with them? How can you begin to make sense of all this material written about your child? The four basic steps —Organize, Read, Analyze, and Evaluate — are described in detail below: You may also wish to download the Four Step Record Decoder (pdf), which is designed to help you record pertinent information as you organize, read, analyze, and evaluate your child’s school records.

Step 1: Organize

1. After obtaining the complete set of records from the school system, separate the documents into two sets:

  • Records that describe your child (such as teacher reports, psychological evaluations, social history, IEPs, etc.)
  • Other documents or correspondence of an administrative nature (for example, the minutes of an eligibility committee meeting, consent forms, etc.). These administrative documents and correspondence help you keep track of your contacts with the school system.

2. Make an extra copy of the records. This way you will have an “original” that remains untouched, and a copy that you can mark, cut, paste, and use in whatever way is most helpful to you.

3. Arrange each set — descriptive reports and other documents — in chronological order.

4. Secure the pages in a folder with a clip or in a loose leaf notebook so that if you drop them you won’t have to back up three steps.

5. Number each report and make a chronological list that you can add to as new records are generated. The list might look like this:

Report Date Reporting Person
Educational Reports of Jessica Lee

1. Psychoeducational evaluation

5/3/04 Angelica Connor

2. Teacher’s report

5/5/04 Cathy Porterman

3. Social history reports

5/12/04 Patricia Roberts

4. Psychiatric evaluation summary

6/8/04 Dr. Marcia Ortiz

5. IEP

6/14/04 Dru Dunn

6. Psychological evaluation summary

8/23/04 Dr. Ronald McPherson

7. Teacher’s report

9/14/04 Dru Dunn

8. Psychologist’s memorandum

9/14/04 Barbara Hager

Step 2: Read

1. Read through the entire record to get overall impressions and tones of the school’s view of your child.

2. In the margins of your working copy, put a question mark beside the statements or areas of the reports you do not understand or with which you disagree.

Step 3: Analyze

1. Now reread the reports and underline the phrases or sentences you feel best describe your child’s strengths, those that describe your child’s problems, and those that describe the way she learns. As you underline, write in the margin of the report, opposite the passage you’ve underlined:

  •   “S” for a description of your child’s learning strengths
  •   “P” for a description of learning problems
  •   “LS” for a description of the style or way your child learns.

2. Using the Four-Step Record Decoder or a similar chart you make, list the phrases or sentences about your child’s strengths (“S”) and problems (“P”) by the following developmental categories. Under the last category, “Learning Style,” you will list all of the “LS” phrases and sentences.

  • Movement
  • Communications
  • Social relationships
  • Self concept/independence
  • Perception/senses
  • Thinking skills
  • Learning Style

3. After each phrase or sentence describing your child’s strengths, problems, or style of learning, put the source of the information, and the date of the document in which the phrase or sentence appears. Often you will find trends beginning to emerge. The same observation, expressed in similar language, may occur in several reports, and/or over a period of time.

4. The last section of the Four-Step Record Analysis form is titled “Recommendations.” In this section, list any recommendations made by each evaluator or teacher. Recommendations might include services needed, preferred classroom environment, optimum class size, most desirable type of school setting; or recommendation for further testing, specific teaching materials, or equipment.

Step 4: Evaluate

Using the question mark notations you have made in the margins and your overall sense of the records from your analytical work with them, evaluate them to determine if they are:

  • Accurate. Do the reports and portions of the records correspond with your own feelings, perceptions, observations, and assessments of your child?
  • Complete. Are all the documents required by the school system for the eligibility, Individualized Education Program (IEP), and placement decisions available in the file? These can include a medical report, social history, psychological examination, educational report, and other documents that may be required by your local or state guidelines.
  • Bias-Free. Are the reports free from cultural or racial bias? Do they take into consideration the effect your child’s disability might have had upon the outcome of the results of the tests?
  • Non-judgmental. Do the reports reflect a respect for your child and your family? Do they avoid the use of language that judges rather than describes? Examples of judgmental statements include: “She is fickle.” “He is incorrigible.” Examples of descriptive statements include: “She is inconsistent in stating what she likes and dislikes.” “He will not respond to directions to stop disruptive behavior.”
  • Current. Are the dates on the records recent enough to give a report of your child’s present behavior and functioning? Records generated within the past three years are generally useful for making good decisions. Older ones should be used with caution.
  • Understandable. Is the language used meaningful, clear, and understandable to you? If technical terms (jargon) are used, have they been defined or made understandable to the non specialist? (Example of an unclear statement: “She appears to have a psychological learning disability, calling for treatment involving a moderation of the special focus on interpersonal sensitivity she has received so far.” What does that mean?)
  • Consistent. Is there consistency among the descriptions of your child given by each evaluator or teacher? Or do you find contradictions and differences of opinion? Considering the record as a whole, does it make sense and lead logically to the recommendations that are made?

Correcting Defects in Your Child’s Evaluation Reports

You can select one of two paths to attempt to correct the defects you find in the evaluations.

Informal

Ask school officials to:

  • Remove the faulty information from the record, or
  • Undertake additional evaluations, or
  • Add materials you provide to the file, or
  • Possibly just clarify for you the deficiencies you see in the evaluation findings

Formal

Should the informal approach fail, you can seek to resolve your difficulties through a more formal approach.

  • If your problem involves earlier evaluations that are now part of your child’s official school file, you can seek to amend the records through the formal process for amending records, described in the previous article.
  • If your concern is the inadequacy of the school’s most recent evaluation, you can request that an independent evaluation of your child be made at public expense.

Obtaining an Independent Evaluation

Both federal and state law provide parents the opportunity to obtain an independent evaluation of their child when they believe the school’s evaluation is inadequate. An independent evaluation is one made by professionals not employed by the school system. Sometimes these evaluations may be conducted by county or state departments of health. The steps you should follow to secure an independent evaluation are outlined in your state regulations. But remember: an evaluation paid for at public expense must be conducted by an evaluator who meets the licensing criteria of the school system.

School officials do not always agree to pay for an independent evaluation. Before they can deny your request, however, they must hold a due process hearing and must prove to the hearing officer the appropriateness of their evaluation. Otherwise, the school system cannot deny your request for an independent evaluation. Remember: You don’t have to prove that the school’s evaluation results are incorrect before asking for an independent evaluation—you are entitled to an independent evaluation if you merely believe that the school system’s findings are inadequate. If school professionals don’t wish to pay for the independent evaluation, they must initiate a hearing procedure to justify denying the request.

An alternative to the independent evaluation at public expense is the independent evaluation at private expense. There are several reasons you might choose to pay for an evaluation out of your own pocket:

  • You can personally choose the professionals who will make the evaluation. This allows you to select the specialist most appropriate to work with your child, and often gives you greater confidence in the findings.
  • You can control who sees the results. When an independent evaluation is made at public expense, the findings must be considered by the school system in making educational decisions regarding your child. Further, the independent, publicly financed evaluation may be presented as evidence in a due process hearing. If you feel that the independent evaluation is also incorrect, you have no way to stop its being used by the school system or the hearing officer.

Although there are benefits to paying for your child’s evaluation, you must weigh these benefits against several potential costs before you make your decision.

  • The dollar outlay. Complete educational evaluations may cost $1,500-2,000 or more. (When the evaluation confirms the school system’s findings, it may still be beneficial. It gives more reason to believe the initial testing results. But it’s an expensive way to secure such confirmation.)
  • Another cost occurs if you introduce findings from your own specialists, and these findings are given little or no significance by the school officials or hearing officer. If your school administrators take the attitude that parents can “shop around until they find a psychologist or other professional who will say exactly what they want to hear,” the benefits of the evaluation you pay for may not equal their costs.

One last word about obtaining your own evaluations. Never have the evaluation results sent to school officials before you have examined them. You may discover that to do so works to your child’s disadvantage. Discuss the evaluation findings with the professionals who developed them first. Then, and only then, decide whether you want the results sent to the school system or the hearing officer.