I am by no means a psychiatrist, psychologist, school psychologist, special education teacher, or related service provider. I am not licensed or trained in administering any of the test typically given to students with disabilities in our public schools. However, over the many years I have been representing children with special education needs in my Connecticut law office, I have learned that there are a lot of ways in which a student’s needs and progress can be misunderstood if evaluations are not properly interpreted.
When it comes to reviewing school evaluations, question authority!
The most common times for students with special needs to be evaluated by school districts are 1) when determining initial eligibility under the IDEA, and 2) for “triennial” testing under the IDEA, which is required at least every 3 years for students who have been identified as requiring an IEP. For parents of those children, reviewing the results of the school district testing can be overwhelming, especially if they do not have any background or experience in reviewing such evaluation results.
In my experience, schools are able to take advantage of a parents’ ignorance on how to interpret evaluation results.
It is therefore essential that you become as familiar as possible with the different types of evaluation instruments that your school district might use to assess your child, and to be prepared for the ways in which your school district might interpret them differently than you might. There are thousands of different tests out there that could be used to test a child with disabilities, and no, I don’t expect you to become an expert on all of them. As a reminder, if you feel that your child’s needs are being dramatically misunderstood by the school staff who are testing your child, it might be time to consider an Independent Educational Evaluation.
In the interim, here are some important things to pay attention to when attending your child’s IEP at which evaluation results are being reviewed:
Tip 2: Don’t Compare Apples and Oranges
The IDEA requires that students with special education needs be evaluated at least every three years (referred to as a “triennial” evaluation), or more often if the performance or behavior of the student indicates that reassessment is necessary. The problem I often see is that, by the time a triennial or other reassessment is indicated, a new team is working with the student, and that group may or may not “prefer” the specific instruments that had been previously administered.
When re-evaluations are reviewed, be cautious about comparing the results to previous testing unless the same instrument was used in the last assessment.
There are variations among instruments that can impact the results of testing in such as way as to make comparisons useless. As an example, if a student had been previously given a WIAT to assess academic skills, and the school district uses a Woodcock Johnson achievement test three years later to measure academic skills, my understanding is that while there are some comparisons that can be reached, these two tests are different enough that a “pure” analysis as to progress can not necessarily be made.
If the purpose of a re-evaluation is at least in part to measure progress, it is essential that you are comparing apples to apples.
There are a lot of good reasons why a particular test may not be re-administered to a student. Some tests can not be repeated within a certain period of time, either due to the protocols of the test (e.g. concerns about a “practice effect”) or because a student’s age or grade placement make re-administering the same instrument impossible. Those are perfectly acceptable reasons not to use the same instrument.
My concern is not with considered judgments as to why a different tool should be used this time around; rather, I worry about arbitrary decisions to use “what we have.”
What I often see are school psychologists or special education teachers who are more comfortable with some tests over others, and they just give those instruments because they prefer them. Or, at least as often, kids are assessed using the tests that the school has purchased and which are available to the evaluators, rather than buying a new instrument because it might be more appropriate for the student in question.
Familiarity with, or access to, a particular instrument should not be the deciding factor in determining which evaluative tools to use to assess current special education needs.
My practical tip to parents is this: when your school district proposes a re-evaluation, take a look at the tests last performed, whether obtained privately or by the school. If you don’t have them with you, don’t stop there: ask some questions!
Most importantly, ask how the proposed instruments differ from the last set of testing, and why.
Special education evaluations are confusing. If you can find a way to measure your child’s progress by comparing their current level of performance to a baseline obtained on the same instrument previously given, it will be far easier to understand how he or she is doing.
And from proper evaluations, flow appropriate programs.