Category Archives: school evaluations

Interpreting the Language of Special Education

Over the years we had many opportunities to read a variety of special education documents. There are all kinds: letters from the school district, progress reports, eligibility evaluations, three-year reevaluations, and of course, Individual Education Programs or IEPs, to name just a few. Parents can quickly become overwhelmed by all this paper, much of which contains confusing jargon and abbreviations that aren’t explained. We know, we encountered it all.

We have written previously about the importance of organizing special education documents in our articles, How to Create a Paper Trail, and How to Use a Paper Trail. In this article, however, we want to alert parents about a tendency for school professionals to use unnecessary and sometimes intentionally obscure language in communicating with parents.

This language can hide the truth about what your child is struggling with in special education. You need to learn how to recognize and interpret this language, which can have a direct effect on the programs and services your child receives.

Special Education “Filler,” a Swamp of Vague Descriptions

Sadly, school culture frequently encourages special education staff to use language in their documents and other communications that can hide the reality of your child’s educational experience. During our years in special education, many of our son’s evaluations and other reports were full of vague, but optimistic sounding descriptions, such as calling him a “hard worker,” or “motivated to learn.”

These reports would usually end with a statement like “He is a pleasure to have in class,” which made us feel good without questioning what these pleasant, but meaningless phrases meant. Ultimately, we realized that they just distracted us from fully understanding how much difficulty he was having in learning to read and write, and the fact that he was below grade level in certain areas.

Author and special education teacher, Jeffrey M. Hartman, in an article on the Edutopia website, Replacing Filler in Special Education Documents describes this problem. Hartman defines “filler” as vague language, meaningless anecdotes, and “thin and insubstantial praise,” that too often appear in special education documents. His point is that this kind of language, without objective data to support it, prevents parents and educators from adequately addressing a student’s academic, social, and emotional needs.

“Being Explicit is More Than a Best Practice”

Mr. Hartman writes that, “Being explicit is more than a best practice. Documents such as reevaluation reports and IEPs demand specific and detailed information.” Anecdotal statements such as “Student struggles with math,” and is a “hard worker,” do not indicate a student’s grade level or what skills a student needs to master, making it harder for IEP Teams to develop realistic and attainable goals that are supported by appropriate services.

The article makes the point that special education teachers wanting to praise their students is understandable for many reasons, not the least of which is that teachers are sensitive to the parents and want to give them “something positive that interrupts the stream of disappointing news about what their child can’t do.” Well intentioned or not, these positive statements can have a negative effect.

Effective Reports Contain Data

Honest evaluations with objective data are what guide IEP Teams to write goals and decide on services that allow a student to make measurable and meaningful progress. Effective IEP goals, for example, begin with detailed descriptions of a student’s Present Level of Performance. Filler does not provide this critical information. In our book, Parents Have the Power to Make Special Education Work, we document many examples of a direct correlation between vague descriptions of performance and ineffective goals.

Question Filler and Sugarcoated Language

The message is that you shouldn’t settle for filler in your child’s special education documents. Question language that appears to “sugarcoat” or obscure your child’s difficulties. While it may be well-intentioned on the part of school evaluators, not dealing directly with your child’s disability only serves to make the process of obtaining appropriate services more difficult and delays getting help for your child.

Getting appropriate and individualized instruction boils down to this: You need to make sure that your child’s special education documents contain specific and explicit language that tells the truth about your child’s special needs and what it will take to help your child make effective progress in school.

Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves

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Three-Year Reevaluation Strategies

fall-14 textTeam meetings are a major part of the special education experience, none more important than the three-year reevaluation. The evaluation reports and subsequent Team meeting to discuss them set the course of your child’s next three years in special education. During the meeting, the Team can modify your child’s services to make them more appropriate, or the Team may conclude that your child is no longer eligible for special education. With so much at stake, you need to be prepared for a meeting of this importance.

What Is the Purpose of the Three-Year Reevaluation?

The purpose of the three-year reevaluation is to determine if your child has made progress achieving his or her goals and what changes, if any, are needed to continue that progress. First, both you and the school personnel decide ahead of time which evaluations your child should have. They should be in all areas of suspected disability, such as academic, social-emotional, occupational therapy, or physical therapy. These evaluations should carefully assess what progress your child has actually made over the previous three years. The Team then meets to discuss whether your child continues to have a disability and what services, accommodations, or modifications are needed based on objective data provided by the evaluations.

What We Experienced in Reevaluation Meetings

We experienced several three-year reevaluations during our 15 years in special education and some of our experiences are worth mentioning. During each reevaluation meeting there were many separate reports that needed discussion. Fortunately, we had requested the written reports in advance so we could review them before the meeting. In addition, we usually brought outside professionals to the meetings to give reports of their evaluations. The meetings also included a discussion of IEP goals for the coming year.

We would attend these meetings without an advocate, confident we could manage the meeting and all the information presented in it. We were wrong about that. As each meeting progressed, we would begin to feel overwhelmed. It was difficult to listen, take accurate notes, and fully understand what was being said. Some reports were very detailed and confusing. Each report had recommendations that were briefly discussed but not fully explained. All of this would happen in approximately one hour, after which the teachers and specialists would have to attend to other duties. We would leave these meetings exhausted and wondering what, if anything, had been accomplished.

What You Can Do

Looking back on our experience now, we have the following suggestions to help keep your meetings more manageable:

1. Request, in writing, copies of all evaluation reports in advance of the Team meeting that will discuss them. Federal law requires schools to do this, though each state differs as to how many days in advance the school must let you review them.

2. Make sure that each report contains recommendations for services, accommodations, or modifications to be written into the IEP. The recommendations should be in plain English, not technical jargon, and based on objective data, not anecdotes. If not, ask the evaluator to clarify what he or she is recommending. If the recommendation is too brief, such as “more time on tests” or “provide counseling,” ask for more details. If counseling is recommended, for example, how many times a week? With whom? What kind of professional? Do not accept any report that says “Recommendations will be discussed at the Team meeting.” If necessary, postpone the meeting until clear and specific recommendations are added to any report that lacks them.

3. If many evaluators are scheduled to discuss their reports and time is limited, request a brief summary of each report, saving detailed discussion for the written recommendations. That way the evaluators will be on the record for saying what they think the school needs to do to help your child.

4. Never attend any Team meeting alone. Bring a spouse, partner, or friend. Ideally, bring a special education advocate who understands the dynamics in the room and who can help keep the meeting on track.

5. Bring someone to the meeting just to take notes. A person who is not as emotionally involved in your situation as you are can provide important factual information to you later. Don’t rely only on your memory.

6. Prepare a list of your concerns several days ahead of time and give them to your special education liaison. Work with your liaison to create an agenda with both school and parent items to discuss. Bring copies of the agenda to hand out to each person in the room. Follow the agenda during the meeting to help keep the discussion on track.

7. Have a Team discussion to determine if your child is achieving his or her IEP goals based on the results of the evaluations. The discussion should focus on specific goals based on the objective data in the reports.

Realize that the three-year reevaluation meeting is an important milestone for both you and your child. A productive meeting will give the Team the best possible chance to determine if your child has actually made progress over the previous three years and how to plan for the future. The data from the evaluations and the specific recommendations based on this data will be critical for your child’s success during the next three years.

Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves

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The Social/Emotional Component of Special Education Eligibility

One question that we have gotten more than once during our presentations on “Empowering Parents in Special Education,” has to do with the relationship between social and emotional deficits and eligibility for special education.

For example:

“My child’s eligibility meeting for special education is soon and I would like to know the extent to which the law requires social and emotional concerns to be included as eligibility criteria for an IEP.”

Another form of the question is:

“My school tells me that my child’s documented disability doesn’t qualify him for special education because he is at or above grade level in his academic skills, despite the fact that he has had many behavior problems that have led to suspensions from school.”

The Laws Require Social/Emotional Assessments

With the caveat that we are not lawyers, we would refer readers to the federal regulation 34 CFR § 300.304 (c)(4), which states: “The child is assessed in all areas related to the suspected disability, including, if appropriate, health, vision, hearing, social and emotional status, general intelligence, academic performance, communicative status, and motor abilities.” (emphasis added)

Some states have even stricter requirements. For example, in Massachusetts, 603 CMR § 28.04 (2)(a)(2)(ii) states that the school is required to perform an educational assessment that includes “an assessment of the student’s attention skills, participation behaviors, communication skills, memory, and social relations with groups, peers, and adults.” (again, emphasis added)

These regulations suggest that assessing a child’s social and emotional status is important in determining eligibility. This is not to say that social/emotional concerns are a learning disability as defined by either IDEA or state special education laws (each state has different criteria), but that they are strongly related to the presence of a qualifying disability and that schools should be evaluating them and formally assessing their relevance in any determination of eligibility for special education services.

Testing for Behavioral and Social Functioning

According to Ellen Braaten and Gretchen Felopulos, two staff psychologists at the Massachusetts General Hospital for Children and authors of Straight Talk About Psychological Testing for Kids, the two most commonly used tests for assessing behavior and social interaction are the Child Behavior Checklist (CBCL) and the Behavior Assessment System for Children, second edition (BASC-2). Each test includes multiple check lists, one for parents to fill out, one for teachers, and one for the student (self report). In addition, the evaluation report for the student should include clinical observations of behavior and social functioning under the heading “Behavioral Observations” or “Behavioral/Social Functioning.” Informal observations by teachers or other school staff who are not trained in performing psychological evaluations are not considered a valid assessment of social and emotional functioning.

The bottom line for parents seeking special education services for their child is that they should expect the school to formally evaluate social and emotional performance as part of a suspected disability in any determination of eligibility.

Effective Progress Includes Social and Emotional Issues

As a post script, it should be noted that once a child is on an IEP, IDEA requires schools to address the social/emotional issues before the school can demonstrate that the child is making effective progress. Again, many state laws are even more specific in that regard. Massachusetts requires that the child have “documented growth in the acquisition of knowledge and skills, including social/emotional development…” 603 CMR § 28.02(17)

Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves

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Eight Evaluation Essentials

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Evaluations are a major part of the special education experience.
The purpose of evaluations, aside from determining eligibility for special education, is to inform parents, teachers, and other specialists how a student’s disabilities may be affecting his or her ability to learn and interact socially with peers. This information is important in providing a road map for the student’s Team to develop an effective Individualized Education Program (IEP). The evaluation process should be an ongoing and interactive experience with parents and professionals seeking the answers to questions that will benefit the student and provide guidance to the school personnel and specialists who work with the student.

Evaluation reports are not always easy to understand, however. When parents are exhausted and grasping for answers, they can read reports with complicated charts, vague statements, and confusing statistics, and still not fully understand their child’s needs. Unless the report clearly describes the meaning of the testing data and includes recommendations that are practical and comprehensive, an evaluation can be unhelpful and possibly even damaging if it misleads parents and teachers as to the true nature of the problems a student faces.

Eight Essential Things to Look For

We have read many evaluation reports and seen our share of both good and bad ones. From our experience, we have compiled eight essential elements you should look for in all the reports you receive:

1. Personal Data:
Evaluations should begin with personal information about the student and why that student was referred for evaluation. Make sure this section describes your son or daughter accurately. Also be sure you agree with the reason for the referral.

2. Test Goals:
The purpose of the evaluation should be stated at the beginning of the report. This may seem obvious, but we have seen many reports that don’t describe the goals of the test being given. How can you know if a test has achieved its purpose if you don’t know why it was given?

3. Review of Existing Data:
IDEA requires that school examiners review any previous relevant evaluations, including those performed by independent evaluators and supplied by the parents. The report should acknowledge these evaluations and indicate whether the current testing confirms or contradicts the previous data and conclusions.

4. Behavioral Observations:
An important category of information is the examiner’s observations of the student both before and during the test. Is the student confident and willing to take risks in answering questions, or uninvolved, anxious, and hesitant? If the student is making a sincere effort, that increases the likelihood that the test results are a valid measure of the abilities being assessed.

5. Explain All Test Scores:
The evaluator should explain the importance of all the test data clearly and in terms that you can understand. One school report we read had this to say: “A statistically significant discrepancy is observed between student’s Verbal and Performance Indices, with the Performance Index falling thirty-five points below the Verbal Index.” The report made no further mention of this discrepancy or what it might mean. In another report describing a similar discrepancy, a different examiner wrote: “There remains a statistically significant difference (36 points) between verbal cognitive ability and visual-spatial ability, consistent with the student’s diagnosis of Non-Verbal Learning Disability.” In addition to acknowledging and confirming previous testing data, the second evaluation clearly states the significance of the discrepancy while the first one essentially ignores it.

6. Recommendations:
Make sure that the report contains specific recommendations on how the school can help the student. We have read many reports that end with a summary but no recommendations. If you receive a report with no recommendations, ask the evaluator to add them. We have also seen reports that say “Specific recommendations will be discussed at the next Team meeting.” Do not accept this either. Team meeting discussions are not always written down, and it is almost guaranteed that any verbal recommendations will be forgotten and not acted upon.

7. Examiner’s Signature and Credentials:
If an examiner believes that the testing and conclusions in the report are valid, then you should expect that person to certify the validity by signing the report. We have seen many evaluations where the examiner’s signature was missing. We have also seen reports that only list the examiner’s credentials as “teacher” with no further information. IDEA expects all evaluators to be qualified, so the credentials should be listed next to the name. You have the right to this information.

8. Clear and Understandable Language:
Make sure you understand the contents of the report. Sometimes evaluators use specialized terminology that lay people find hard to understand. If you receive a report like that, ask the evaluator to rewrite the parts that are not clear to you. We have seen reports that use phrases like “imbalance in functioning” or “processing impairment” without any further explanation of what these phrases meant.

What You Can Do

As a parent, you must make the effort to understand the evaluations you receive and question any parts that aren’t clear to you. Do not be afraid to ask for more clarification and rewriting if necessary. You should not accept a report that is lacking important information. You may not have the advanced degrees of the examiner, but you are the one who knows your child best and you are the one who needs the information in the report to help your child get an appropriate education.

Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves

This article is adapted from Chapter 4 of Parents Have the Power to Make Special Education Work.

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