HomeLearning DifficultiesLegal Rights & AdvocacyIndividuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) 2004

Special education evaluation: An overview

Learn about the purpose, procedures, and laws for evaluating a child for special education services.

By GreatSchools Staff

When can you ask the school to evaluate your child for special education? What does the process involve? What are your rights as a parent?

Basic rights

If the general education program isn't meeting the needs of a child with disabilities, he may be eligible to receive special education services in public schools. Services are free to parents under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a federal law, and its regulations.

In addition, each state has special education laws and regulations that govern special education. For more information about these rights, contact your local school district's department of special education or your state department of special education.

Obtaining an evaluation

If you feel your child isn't benefiting from the general education program in your local public school, has significant learning problems, and needs special education, you can ask the school district where you live to evaluate him. This is true whether he attends a public or private school. (Note: Under IDEA 2004, the school district in which the private school is located is responsible for conducting the evaluation - not the district where the student resides.)

Effective July 1, 2005, under the 2004 reauthorization of IDEA, school districts have different options for addressing the needs of children who are struggling with learning. Traditionally, public schools have been required to determine whether there is a discrepancy between the child's ability and his achievement, both of which are measured by standardized tests. (Often, before evaluating a child - as a "pre-referral" step - schools attempt to address the child's learning difficulty with instructional remediation in the general education classroom.)

Because of widely acknowledged shortcomings in the "discrepancy method," IDEA now permits schools to take other approaches, the most prominent of which is the "Response-to-Intervention" (or "Responsiveness to Intervention," or "RTI") approach.

In the RTI approach, a struggling (or at-risk) student is provided with increasingly intensive instruction in his areas of academic weakness, such as reading. Based on frequent progress monitoring, if the child is not responsive to these instructional interventions - i.e. he's still not making progress - then an evaluation may be conducted to determine if he has an SLD, as required by IDEA. However, regardless of whether a school is using the RTI approach, the discrepancy approach, or a combination of approaches, parents still have the legal right at any time to request that their child be evaluated for specific learning disabilities.

You should address your written request for evaluation to the school principal or the special education administrator. It's important that you document each of your concerns in the letter because all areas of suspected disabilities will be assessed. Be sure to keep a copy of the letter and any attachments for your files.

You should receive a written response - either an evaluation plan that requires your consent or a denial of your request giving the reasons why. In both cases, you'll be sent a copy of your legal rights and responsibilities. Remember that, if the public school agrees to evaluate your child to determine if he needs special education, that does not obligate them to provide a diagnosis, give you more information for his tutor, or qualify him for extra time on college entrance exams.

Your child can't be evaluated unless you provide your consent in writing. When the school district receives the consent form that you signed, timelines begin. For timelines that apply in your state, consult with your local school district or state department of education.

Initial evaluation

The first time your child is evaluated for special education is called an initial evaluation. (You may also hear the term "assessment" to describe an evaluation.) It should be a complete and individualized evaluation using a variety of methods to gather academic, functional, and developmental information about your child.

Evaluation procedures

The school can't just give an IQ test because no single test may be used to identify a disability. All areas of suspected disability must be evaluated.

The standardized tests that will be used must be proven to measure the skills they claim to be testing. The trained and knowledgeable personnel who give the tests need to follow the written instructions in the test manuals. If any nonstandard conditions are involved, such as using an interpreter to communicate with your child, this will be mentioned in the written report.

In addition, the tests and procedures that will be used must:

  • Not be discriminatory on a racial or cultural basis
  • Be given in your child's native language or other mode of communication unless clearly not feasible to do so
  • Measure a disability and not limited English language skills

A member of the multidisciplinary team other than your child's teacher will observe your child's academic performance in his regular class as part of the evaluation.

Purpose of an evaluation

The purpose of the initial evaluation is to decide if your child is a "child with a disability." In order to do so, he must meet two requirements:

1. Fit the defined criteria for at least one of these disabilities:

  • Autism
  • Deaf-blindness
  • Deafness
  • Emotional disturbance
  • Hearing impairment
  • Mental retardation
  • Multiple disabilities
  • Orthopedic impairment
  • Other health impairment
  • Speech or language impairment
  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Visual impairment
  • In addition, states may choose to identify kids aged 3-9 as having developmental delays, but they do not have to

2. And, because of the disability, need special education and related services to benefit from the educatonal program.

Multidisciplinary team and the Individualized Education Program (IEP)

Following the evaluation, a multidisciplinary team meeting will be held to discuss the results of the evaluation and decide whether or not your child is eligible for special education and related services. At a minimum, the team includes you, your child's teacher, a school administrator, and the staff who did the assessments.

If the team agrees that your child (1) has a specific learning disability and (2) needs special education services in order to benefit from the educational program, then an Individualized Educational Program (IEP) will be developed. An IEP must be developed within 30 days of eligibility determination. Goals in your child's area(s) of need will be written. A discussion of options for placement and services is last. The team must decide where the goals can be implemented in the least restrictive environment. Parents are expected to participate in and contribute to the IEP process.

Special education services

Your child won't receive any special education services unless you give your consent in writing. Any or all of the IEP with which you agree will go into effect as soon as possible after you sign it.

If you disagree with the proposed IEP, you may exercise your rights of due process. These include participating in mediation and/or an administrative (due process) hearing. For further information, review the legal rights that were sent to you with the evaluation plan, or contact your district's special education administrator.

Comments from readers

"I read this article because I am concerned for my niece who goes to school in Spring Lake, MI. She is in 6th grade & has a tough time in school. It has been a real struggle for her. I would like to find out if she can be tested w/o cost because her Mom can not afford it. If you could direct me to the right resources I would be very appreciative. Thanks! Diane "
"I have a question: I teach in Washington state and I've had parents ask before about how they can get their child tested for a learning disability. I usually respond that it's a complicated process but that I will pass their request on to our school's special education team. Up until the last few years, this seemed to work ok. But now that we've started the RTI process, parents have complained that they're not getting any response at all now. I forward their message, they attempt to contact the special education team and they are met with.....silence. I asked about the change in policy and was told that, with budget cuts, there wasn't enough money to do what the parents wanted and the school district wasn't required to test per parent request unless it was done in writing. I mentioned that the parents had specifically asked what they had to do to get their child tested, so should I then tell them to put their request in writing? The team quickly responded, "No, no just forward the e-mail on to us and we'll take care of it." I also got the unspoken message that informing the parents of what they had to do to "start the clock" would make life very uncomfortable for me. My questions are: 1, is it legal for a school to refuse to inform a parent that they have a right to request special education testing for their child (under the circumstance I described)? and 2: is it legal for the school or district to retaliate against me if I inform the parent against the school's wishes? "
"In NJ, the RTI approach is very costly to smaller districts or towns. They tend to promote the discrepancy method to identify SLDs. There is also benefit to smaller districts to retain their State funding quotas for small NCLB grants and tiers. They tend to over identify the more moderate disabilities to ensure their funding quotas which is not necessarily to the educational benefit of the small group SLD child. Especially in NJ you will find that the RTI method or model is not used due to administrative costs and poor staffing problems. Most of the monies are earmarked for salaries and benefits and little of the Title I or tiered funding actually goes towards the texts and assistive technologies needed by the SLD children. I am a parent of two SLD children who have been caught in this self-promoting system for years. My oldest is out of district and graduated from a technical school, attending part-time college and practicing his automotive trade. My youngest is now ! caught in the small-group catch 22 non-productive special educational cycle using the discrepancy method. They group teach, offer little new teaching methods and are not made to differentiate their instruction to the strengths or weaknesses of their students. Both my children are SLD and had ADD and dyslexia (reading/writing) differences but both strong in math and science with accommodations. Much home tutoring was necessary to make them advance due to lack of educational expertise in the public system. "
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"what arguments are there for the rights that special educational students have the same testing as noneducational students."