Are you considering having your child tested to see if they have a learning disability (LD)? Are you wondering whether you should pay for the evaluation privately or ask the public schools to do it? What do you need to know to make the choice?
There are many reasons why kids are referred for evaluation, a process that includes review of the child’s school records, observation, interviews, and testing. Public schools are obligated to evaluate for specific reasons. If you have other concerns, you’ll want to consider a private evaluation.
If you suspect your child may have a learning disability and be in need of special education services, the public school must respond to you by making a determination, based on specific information, as to whether an evaluation is warranted. Here are signs to look for:
- The teacher expresses concern about your child’s progress.
- Your child’s group standardized test scores are low — below 15th percentile.
- Your child’s report card grades are poor — some Ds and Fs.
- Your child is starting to have behavior problems at school.
- Your child complains daily about how hard school is.
- Your child isn’t progressing or benefiting from their general education program.
- Your child regularly struggles with homework.
Either a public school evaluation or a private evaluation should generate information that:
- Helps you understand better how your child learns.
- Provides ideas to guide you or a tutor in supporting your child’s learning.
- Helps you figure out whether or not your child will be allowed extra time on college entrance exams.
- Helps improve your child’s grades.
- Provides information about what your child has actually been learning.
- Provides individualized testing results to a private school that is considering providing your child accommodations.
IDEA requires that the public schools evaluate a child in all areas related to a suspected disability: health, vision, hearing, social and emotional status, general intelligence, academic performance, communicative status, and motor abilities. Parents are free to provide input on assessments/evaluations to be administered.
Public school personnel who conduct evaluations have credentials and specialized training. They follow federal special education law, which requires that the existence of a learning disability be determined by a group of professionals from different fields — a multidisciplinary team — who evaluate your child. When the evaluation is completed, another team (which may include several or all of the people involved in the evaluation team) meets to discuss the evaluation results, in order to decide whether your child is eligible for special education. The team that determines eligibility includes the parent and, at a minimum, includes a special education teacher, the child’s general education teacher, and other professionals as appropriate, such as a school psychologist, reading teacher, speech-language pathologist, or educational therapist. In some cases, the evaluation team identifies a learning disability, but the eligibility team decides that the child does not require special education services to benefit from the general education program. This is based on federal law requiring that children receive a free, appropriate public education or FAPE.
Note: Informed parental consent is required by law for both an initial evaluation and a reevaluation conducted by the school; this consent is for evaluation only, not for the provision of special education services. Consent to provide initial special education services is requested of parents as a separate step.
Before you choose a private professional to conduct an evaluation, be sure to ask questions about the person’s training and experience, as well as the cost. You may want to find out whether the cost of the evaluation is covered by your insurance. If your child is assessed by a private professional, most likely they’ll be tested by one individual. If you engage the services of specialists from more than one field it will be your responsibility to bring them together, if necessary, to collaborate on any plan for your child.
Where and when is it done?
Evaluation is a process that may take many hours to complete, over a period of time. Your patience and understanding about timelines will help to ensure that results reflect a true picture of your child.
Private assessments usually take place in a clinic or office setting — probably somewhere that’s unfamiliar for your child. However, some individuals may agree to test in your home. Because of the difficulty of scheduling many short evaluation sessions, your child may be required to work for fewer, but longer periods of time to complete the evaluation. Because you’ll need to coordinate schedules among you, your child, and the evaluator, you’ll likely want to arrange appointments well in advance.
If your child is evaluated at school, they’ll most likely be seen in a familiar environment and may recognize some of the school staff testing them. Because your child is at school every day, the evaluation can be flexible — over a period of time, involving shorter sessions, and, ideally, when your child is at their best. In either case, prepare your child ahead of time so they know what to expect and why they’re being tested. It will help to reduce your child’s stress and achieve meaningful test results.
What is included?
Prior to public school assessment, a vision and hearing screening is done to make sure physical issues aren’t contributing to learning difficulties. Someone from the team who is trained in observation, other than your child’s teacher, observes your child in the general education program to evaluate how they perform in that setting. School records are reviewed as part of the process. Qualified school personnel test your child in areas of suspected disability, so probably more than one specialist — school psychologist, special education teacher, speech and language pathologist, etc. — will be involved.
Like the school evaluation, a private evaluation includes individual standardized tests, and interviews with you and your child. However, some private evaluators do not observe your child at school, review school records, or talk to their teachers. Be sure to ask if these valuable evaluation methods will be included in the process.
How are learning disabilities identified?
A professional who does a private evaluation may identify your child with a learning disability using a set of criteria other than those found in federal regulations for special education eligibility. Although the evaluator may conclude that your child has a learning disability, the evaluator does not have the authority to determine that your child is eligible for special education services; only the public school can do that. Likewise, although a private evaluator can recommend services and accommodations for your child, only the public school can decide which services or accommodations an eligible child will actually receive at school.
While public schools must consider reports you obtain privately, they don’t have to agree with them. Since schools are required to evaluate your child before making any educational decisions, a private assessment may or may not “speed up” the timelines or process of a public school evaluation. If you believe your child needs special education services, IDEA 2004 requires that schools conduct an evaluation within 60 days of parental consent, unless your state has a different established timeframe for conducting evaluations.
By law, a multidisciplinary team first must identify your child as having a specific learning disability (SLD). Under the provisions of IDEA 2004, school districts have choices about how they identify SLD. Some districts will use the more traditional approach of determining whether a discrepancy exists between the child’s ability and their achievement, using standardized tests to measure each. Other districts will first offer the child increasingly intensive, research-based instruction in areas of weak academic performance, assess the child’s progress regularly, and then evaluate them for SLD if their performance doesn’t show sufficient improvement. This approach is often called “Response to Intervention” (or “Responsiveness to Intervention” or “RTI”). Some schools will choose to use a combination of these two approaches.
By federal regulation, the multidisciplinary group at the school that determines either (1) the existence of a learning disability, or (2) the need/eligibility for special education services, must consider information from a variety of sources. This information includes:
- Whether the child’s current level of achievement is commensurate with their age.
- Whether the child’s current level of achievement is adequate to make sufficient progress in the general curriculum.
- Whether, at their current level of achievement, the child is responsive to research-based interventions delivered by general education teachers.
Additionally, a determination must be made that the child’s learning difficulties are not primarily the result of a visual, hearing, or motor disability, mental retardation, emotional disturbance, cultural factor, environmental or economic disadvantage, or limited English proficiency. Under the provisions of IDEA 2004, the child’s learning issues also must not be a result of a lack of appropriate reading instruction, including the essential components of reading instruction.
What are outcomes?
A private evaluation professional may suggest a tutor, software programs, ways to help at home, or ideas to try at school. Sometimes private evaluators recommend a product or program associated with the organization where testing was done, which is a possible conflict of interest. If your child is identified as having a learning disability, be wary of promises that their two-week program will “cure” your child’s SLD, or that their products will improve your child’s grades.
The report you receive from either a public school or private evaluator should be written in a way that’s easy for you to understand. Assessment results should identify your child’s strengths, as well as your child’s areas of difficulty, to help plan an effective educational program for your child.
Either you or the evaluation professional should review evaluation results with your child, taking their developmental level into consideration, so your child doesn’t feel there are “secrets” about them. Information from the evaluation can help your child understand how they learn and what they need to be a successful learner, as well as appreciate their own strengths and talents.
Unsure how to request a free evaluation for your child? Find out how at Understood.org, a comprehensive free resource for parents of kids with learning and attention issues .