It was the end of first grade when we realized that our son Luc was not learning to read as quickly as most other kids. He loved books and being read to but still couldn’t recognize all the lowercase letters of the alphabet. Sight words he had read many times remained a mystery. Maybe it’s developmental, we thought.

We had him repeat first grade. Halfway through the second year of first grade, the teacher started mentioning that there might be “something else going on.” But what?

This is the point in every parent’s journey when you wonder what you did wrong. It’s also the point when you learn about testing, otherwise known as a psycho-educational assessment.

The search for intelligent tests in the universe

The tests themselves vary, but the basics remain the same. Whether your child is in a public school and a district psychologist tests him or you pay a private practitioner, your child will spend three to six hours — depending on the depth of the testing — completing academic and cognitive assessments. As parents you will fill out pages of detailed developmental and psychological history.

What the test tells you about your child and how its results affect his or her access to services may vary radically depending on the expert, the institution, and the region you live in.

The first time Luc was tested by the school psychologist at our neighborhood elementary school, he didn’t qualify for services. He scored too high in math, and his vocabulary was too big. In San Francisco, where we live, children generally have to test two grades below grade level to qualify for services such as one-on-one tutoring as well as legal and financial benefits under the Individual With Disabilities Education Act. If they qualify, an individual education plan, or IEP, is drawn up and executed. If they don’t, you’re dependent on whatever extra services your school can offer.

Luc’s test results were disappointing and there was no diagnosis — only the determination that he did not qualify for services. His school did its best to accommodate his needs by modifying homework and putting him in a special reading group, but his self-esteem continued to erode. He had completely stalled in reading acquisition. We enrolled him in a Lindamood-Bell reading program for a year, but he made minimal progress.

On the advice of a resource specialist at a private school, which had waitlisted Luc, we decided to have him tested privately at our own expense.

The benefits (and cost) of private assessment

Twelve hundred dollars and six hours of testing later, we finally had a diagnosis: a reading disorder or dyslexia. The private psychologist spent an hour and a half reviewing our son’s testing results with us so that we understood how his weak short-term visual and sequential memory impacted his reading and the need for an occupational therapist for his painful writing technique.

Her number one recommendation: that he attend a special school for dyslexic learners. We weren’t sure we were ready for that. All three of our children went to a school we loved four blocks from our house.

We insisted that his school test him again. Now that Luc was in second grade (and we had supplied the school with the private diagnosis), he qualified for services. Suddenly, he was a “student with a specific learning disability, according to IDEA and state law.” He also qualified for occupational therapy.

Our testing saga took nearly three years, from the first assessment to the IEP. Our journey from our early suspicions to a confirmed learning disability took nearly four years, during which our son’s self-confidence dwindled. When his IEP was finally in place in March 2006, there were only two and a half months left in the school year. We had just received our acceptance letter to Charles Armstrong School in Belmont, Calif. — a private school that specializes in dyslexic learners. At this point, we decided to switch schools.

The two-tiered system

District assessments are predominately geared toward discerning eligibility for services, not in educating parents about what kind of learner their child is and how to best support him or her. Despite all that public schools are obliged to do for struggling learners and their families, testing creates a two-tiered system. Parents with more means can access more-meaningful information about their child’s learning profile by going the private route — and they will get it in a timely manner. And for cash-strapped local school districts, which must take on the legal responsibility of providing “free appropriate education” for all children no matter their needs, it’s not hard to understand how there might be an institutional bias against qualifying yet another child.

Federal law does allow parents to petition school districts for retesting or to pay for a private assessment if they are not satisfied with testing results. But I suspect that would have added another three to nine months to our testing journey — another year of Luc’s learning unattended to.