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.
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.