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What are Special Education Evaluations and Why Are They Important for My Child’s Education?

What are special education evaluations?

  • Does your child have a Section 504 plan for Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) but requires more executive functioning or organizational support in school?
  • Does your child have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) for speech and language services, but still struggles in school socially or behaviorally?
  • Or, does your child have neither a Section 504 Plan nor an IEP and you want to know how they can obtain more support and services in school?

A special education evaluation (also referred to as a psycho-educational evaluation) will address all of these possible scenarios.

A special education evaluation is the first step in evaluating what your child’s learning, emotional and behavioral needs are as they relate to their performance in school. These evaluations are conducted by psychologists who perform a battery of tests and assessments. Evaluations can help determine the diagnosis of a particular physical, mental or emotional condition of your child, such as a reading disability, a speech and language impairment, an emotional disability, or an intellectual disability. Once the special education evaluation is complete, the evaluation can serve as the building block to providing your child with an IEP if your child is considered eligible for services under the IDEA.[1]

In Pennsylvania, there are very specific timelines and rules that accompany special education evaluations that take place in our school districts and intermediate units, which will be addressed further below.

 Why are special education evaluations important?

A special education evaluation will likely provide you with valuable information about your child.

  • First, they help identify your child’s present levels of performance, including their strengths, deficits, and needs in their learning environment.
  • Second, they can help provide an educational diagnosis which can inform educational planning and the research-based interventions that may be required to respond to your child’s academic needs. For example, if your child is struggling to grasp information in math class, and is acting out, an evaluation can help tease out whether it’s a behavioral issue or an underlying math disability, like dyscalculia.
  • Third, a special education evaluation can lead to the development of an IEP for your child, which provides various legal protections to your child.

*Tip – the special education evaluation does not provide a medical diagnosis for your child, only educational diagnoses. For more information on the kinds of educational diagnoses and eligibility criteria that go into the creation of an IEP, visit https://www.education.pa.gov/K-12/Homebound%20Instruction/Pages/IEPs-and-504-Service-Agreements.aspx.

What kinds of special education evaluations exist?

School District Evaluations

The most common type of special education evaluation is an evaluation which is completed by psychologists who work at your child’s school district and/or intermediate unit. This is called an Evaluation Report (ER), and it is free of charge. The ER varies from student to student but typically will include cognitive assessments (IQ testing), academic achievement assessments (testing reading, writing, math), speech and language testing, motor testing, behavioral or emotional testing, reviewing outside sources (such as a report from the child’s private therapist), parent input and teacher input. If your child is struggling behaviorally or emotionally, you can also request a Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA). Although this assessment is not a part of the ER, it is vital if your child is repeatedly engaging in behaviors that impact their ability to access their education.  Ideally, a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) would conduct the FBA, but it also depends on the circumstances. The Pennsylvania Training and Technical Assistance Network (PaTTAN) website provides many helpful resources on the ER process including here, https://www.pattan.net/Forms/Evaluation-Reportv.

If your child becomes eligible for an IEP after an ER is completed, Pennsylvania schools are required to evaluate your child every three (3) years after the initial ER. This is called a Re-evaluation Report (RR). The only exception is if your child has an intellectual disability; then the school district must complete an RR every two (2) years.

*Tip – You can request an RR for your child before the two or three years are up. If your child is struggling in school, this may necessitate a re-evaluation before the required legal timeframe.

Psychiatric Evaluations

There are times when a student’s mental health needs are not comprehensively identified by the ER, RR, or FBA. In these cases, school districts can also complete a psychiatric evaluation referral for your child. The Psychiatric Evaluation is completed by a psychiatrist, not a psychologist, who is employed by the school district or intermediate unit. Its purpose is to assess and then respond to a student’s individual social/emotional deficits which can help inform program choices or placement decisions.

Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE)

If you are unhappy or disagree with the Evaluation Report completed by your child’s school district, you have the option to request an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE) at the school district’s expense. The IEE is conducted by a qualified psychologist or neuropsychologist who is not an employee of the school district or intermediate unit. A request for an IEE must be made in writing to the school district, usually the special education director, within one year of the date on the school district’s ER or RR.

Private Evaluations/Parent Paid

If you disagree with the ER or RR, and you request an IEE, but the request is denied, you also have the option to privately pay for an evaluation by a non-school district or intermediate unit employee. If you choose to take this route, you can share this report with the school district after the report is completed and ask that the IEP or school team consider the findings when programming for your child’s education.

What steps do I take to obtain a special education evaluation?

School District Initiated Evaluation

Your child’s school district is responsible for identifying all children with suspected disabilities and evaluating them in a timely manner. This is called their “child find” responsibility. If your school district initiates this process for your child, then the process is outlined in the Pennsylvania Statutes and your school district should provide you with a Permission to Evaluate (PTE). This form, once signed by the parent(s) is what will start the process for your child’s evaluation, or ER. Once you sign the form, the school district has 60 school days to complete the evaluation. For more information on this process, see https://www.pattan.net/Publications/The-Special-Education-Evaluation-IEP-Process.

Parent Initiated Evaluation

If your child’s school district has not initiated an evaluation, you have the right to request one at any time during the school year. Even though you can ask for the evaluation verbally, it is recommended that you ask for it in writing, either via email or a hand-delivered letter. The school district has 10 days to respond to your request for an evaluation. For a detailed step-by-step explanation of how to request an evaluation for your child, you can review the Education Law Center’s Fact Sheet on Special Education Evaluations, https://www.elc-pa.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/09/Special-Education-Evaluations-2023.pdf.

How Can I use the Evaluation Report to help my child?

The Evaluation Report provides a snapshot in time of how your child is performing in school. If the ER finds that your child requires special education services, then it is the building block for the IEP.  The IQ scores, academic achievement assessments, and other testing should be documented in the IEP in the “present level of performance” section, to give the IEP team (and your family) a baseline that measures how your child is performing now. In this way, you can use the ER to show a need for more or increased services.  If your child is performing below grade level in math, for example, then you can use their present levels in math to show that your child requires direct instruction in problem-solving or word problems.

One of the most important aspects of ERs is the recommendations section at the end. The recommendations should be specific enough to help the IEP team create IEP goals, with objective progress measures to guarantee that the goals are being achieved. The recommendations should also go into detail about the type of academic, emotional, social, behavioral, and/or related services that should be included in your child’s IEP. For example, a recommendation that says “John requires additional reading instruction during the school day” would not be sufficient. In contrast, a recommendation that says “John requires daily direct reading instruction in phonics, decoding, and encoding, using a research-based reading program such as Wilson or Orton Gillingham” would be more appropriate.

How can we help?

Obtaining an appropriate evaluation for your child can be challenging, especially if you are uncertain whether your child requires a school-based evaluation or an independent educational evaluation. The law firm of Raffaele & Associates is dedicated to serving the legal needs of students, children, and families. Our trusted team of attorneys, education consultants, and staff provide skilled, thoughtful representation for your case.

We have experience helping families like yours through the evaluation process and can help you by reviewing your child’s school-based Evaluation Report (ER), Re-evaluation Report (RR), related service provider reports (Speech and Language Report, Occupational Therapy Report), and/or requesting an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE).

If you would like to get in touch with us, please contact us here. We look forward to speaking with you.

[1] This article does not address Section 504 evaluations. For more information, feel free to visit the PATTAN website, https://www.pattan.net/getmedia/fb622ac4-7091-4114-87c9-e625d441b776/TDR5_2_Chpt15_504_415.

The information within this article is not, nor is it intended to be, legal advice. Please consult an attorney for individual advice regarding your personal situation.


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