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Expert Q&A

What rules must the school district follow when they evaluate a child for learning disabilities?

I am cognizant of the “basic requirements” for re-evaluation, but are there any “bright line” standards for determining appropriateness of a re-evaluation?

For example:

  • Does a quick phone call (5 minutes to ask for consent signature without asking parent input on the evaluation) to a parent constitute full parent participation?
  • Does “informed consent” require that the parent be told what tests are going to be conducted specifically or just that there will be “tests?”
  • Should a full battery of tests be performed or is just one enough, if other information is included, like a nurse’s statement and general ed teacher statement?
  • Should the evaluation report include significant detail or is it appropriate to just include test scores and very brief outline of current circumstances (grades, delightful student, works hard, blah, blah)?
  • If determinations are made that a student doesn’t need specific services (ESY, assistive tech) should the details of that determination (testing conducted, specific records reviewed) be included or is it enough to check the box that says the student doesn’t qualify?
  • Should the report be in plain English, or is technobabble adequate?

You get the picture…

Seattle, WA

Dear Sara,

Your letter raises many important questions with respect to the requirements for evaluation. I will try to deal with them in as much detail as I can. Unfortunately, the desired “bright line” that you refer to is often more blurry than we all would like.

Before any evaluation can be conducted, the school district is obligated to obtain informed written consent from the parents. While informed consent is not well-defined by IDEA, this is a concept that has been a cornerstone of American law for many years. Fundamentally, informed consent requires that the parent have sufficient information to be aware of the reason for testing, the nature of testing, the consequences of testing, and some basis for assurance that the evaluators are qualified to perform the tests. The extent of information that the school should provide will vary based on the circumstance, the extent of testing, and the level of specialization of the testing. For example, I would expect that different information would be provided for a preliminary referral for evaluation for learning disability as opposed to the request for a psychiatric assessment due to the concern that there is a specific psychiatric problem.

Unfortunately, while there is a clear obligation to obtain written consent from the parents, which should be informed, there is often dispute between parents and schools as to what information is necessary in order for consent to be “informed.” While it is reasonable and appropriate for a parent to seek clarification or further information about testing, there may be disputes as to the extent of information that the school district is obligated to provide.

You also question whether a full battery of tests is required or one test, with supplementation by anecdote. At the outset, even the meaning of “a full battery of test,” is subject to debate and will vary from child to child, situation to situation, and district to district. In any event, the law is very clear that school districts are not allowed to rely on a single test or measurement in making a determination of disability. The scope of testing ought to be determined in relation to a collective decision as to the nature of the suspected disability and the types of assessments that would be responsive to it, including both testing, observation, interview with the parents and the child, observation of the child and review of records.

Parents generally should be aware that the “full test battery” which is often used by school districts may very well actually be of greater utility for the purpose of screening than it is for the purpose of fully and accurately diagnosing the existence of particular disabilities and/or the exact nature of those disabilities.

As a result of the 2006 IDEA regulations, states will be deciding to what extent to use Response to Intervention procedures to address the needs of children suspected of having learning disabilities prior to determining eligibility and, ins some instances, prior to conducting an evaluation. Parents and clinicians will need to check their state’s new regulations or interpretations to determine how RTI procedures fit with the normal evaluation process and the extent to which district’s will continue to use the traditional “discrepancy formula,” as part of their assessment of whether a child has a learning disability.

The law requires that parent input be obtained in relation to an assessment of the child’s functioning and needs. A discussion for the purpose of obtaining the parents’ consent to an evaluation is not the same as obtaining the parents’ input with respect to their assessment of the child’s functioning and needs, once an evaluation has been initialed.

The law does not explicitly describe how much information must be shared in an evaluation report. In fact, it does not explicitly delineate a specific responsibility for sharing evaluation reports. School records certainly include scores, although they may not include protocols or the evaluator’s personal notes about the test experience. If there is a written report, the parent certainly has the right to obtain a copy of the written report. The parent also has a right to obtain scores. Under special education and general privacy laws, the parent may not be entitled to obtain raw data that is the basis for the scores, but may even be entitled to have that raw data reviewed by a qualified examiner of their choosing if they are worried that the raw data has not been appropriately analyzed. Parents are always entitled to get sufficient information to make initial informed decisions about whether the child should be made eligible for special education and to obtain a complete copy of the child’s school records, which includes all reports by evaluators.

With respect to your question as to how much information should be provided by the district to explain decisions that a child does not need certain services, the law is somewhat vague in this regard as well. While a school district is not obligated to provide a full explanation for why it did not consider or provide every conceivable service that might be available for a child, as this would be impractical and burdensome, it is obligated to provide an explanation in relation to any service that has been specifically requested, whether by the parent or by a member of the IEP team. In other words, there may be a wide range of services that are not under consideration for a child because no one has any reason to believe they are necessary. However, if a service has been discussed, the school district ought to provide a sufficient explanation in the IEP to allow someone to review that decision later and have an understanding of the basis for refusal.

Finally, you asked whether the IEP report should be in plain English or can be in technobabble. While there is no explicit rule regarding the acceptability of technobabble, nor with respect to the legibility of the document, a strong argument can be made that if the parent cannot understand what was written, the use of either technobabble or illegible documents could constitute the denial of a free appropriate public education. If the language or writing of the report or IEP document impairs the ability of the professionals or the parent involved to understand or read the document, it is hard to imagine how the document could satisfy the procedural or substantive requirements of IDEA.

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