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.

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