Tag 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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Gatekeeping: Texas Style

In a continuation of our series on special education gatekeeping (Withholding Needed Services and Response to Intervention), we have an amazing story to tell about how the state of Texas kept a quarter of a million children with disabilities from receiving an appropriate education. This story actually deserves its own category, as Texas has gone far beyond the more prosaic gatekeeping tactics we have written about in the past.

What Texas did was to place an arbitrary limit on the number of students for whom the state would provide special education services. Without any legal or other rational basis, a small group of unelected bureaucrats decided to cap the number of students it would enroll in special education at 8.5 percent of the total student population. This was despite the fact that the national average of students with qualifying disabilities is 13 percent. Given the total number of students in Texas schools since the cap was initiated, this amounts to approximately 250,000 students that the state prevented from receiving the special education services that they needed and to which they were entitled.

State Mandated Reductions in Special Education

In a blistering series of articles published in the Houston Chronicle, investigative reporter Brian M. Rosenthal details how the Texas Education Agency (TEA), working virtually in secret, decided that it would limit the number of students with disabilities it would serve under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). This is a clear violation of the law, which states that services should be given based on need, and not on any other criteria.

Although the enrollment limit was couched in the language of a “suggestion,” local special education directors knew what was expected of them. School districts that enrolled more students in special education than the prescribed 8.5 percent were subject to a variety of penalties that ranged from reprimands and fines to having the district taken over and run by state regulators. One director quoted in the article, flatly stated, “TEA required us to do this, there was no wiggle room.

How it Happened

The story begins in 2004, when four members of the TEA decided to place an 8.5 percent benchmark on the number of students who could receive special education services in the state. At the time, special education enrollment in Texas was 12.1 percent of the total student population, close to the national average of 13 percent. One of the four TEA members actually admitted under questioning that the 8.5 percent figure was not supported either by law or any research.

In addition, the TEA did not consult the federal government, the Texas legislature, or even the State Board of Education in reaching its decision. It also never publicly announced or explained its decision. In fact, when asked by some school staff members, the TEA falsely told them that limiting special education enrollment was “federally mandated.” For most school districts, this policy meant purging the rolls of students already on IEPs and discouraging new students from entering special education.

The subterfuge had a very self-serving motive. The Chronicle article estimates that reducing the enrollment in special education saved the state “billions” of dollars. Unfortunately, the collateral damage was that hundreds of thousands of students who should have been eligible were denied special education services.

Texas Tactics

The tactics Texas schools used to enforce the 8.5 percent mandate are used in many other states to prevent eligible students from entering special education or receiving appropriate services. This is why parents need to be aware of the laws that protect their children from any school district that might try to use these tactics to avoid its obligation to provide an appropriate education.

In this and subsequent blog articles, we will review the gatekeeping tactics that the Houston Chronicle uncovered, beginning with the tactic of discouraging parents from seeking evaluations to determine special education eligibility. In later articles we will describe some of the other tactics used by Texas schools.

What Federal and Texas Laws Say

Under 20 U.S.C. § 1414 “Evaluations, Eligibility Determinations, Individualized Education Programs, and Educational Placements,” IDEA states that parents can request an evaluation in all areas of suspected disability to determine whether a child qualifies for special education. Parents can make this request at any time and the school must honor the request without placing any conditions on it.

The only requirement is that the request must be made in writing. Once the school receives a signed consent form from the parents, under federal law it has 60 days to perform all requested evaluations (Texas law specifies 45 school days). All evaluations are to be performed at no cost to the parents. The specific federal statute is: 20 U.S.C. § 1414(a)(1)(B). Texas special education law does not alter this requirement.

What Schools Told Parents Instead

Instead of following either state or federal law, the Chronicle reported that different Texas school districts told parents that:

  • they would have to pay for evaluations
  • there was a long waiting list
  • students could not be evaluated more than once every two years
  • there had to be at least three meetings with teachers before the school can perform an evaluation, or as a variation, a special committee must decide that an evaluation is warranted
  • a student’s IQ was too high for special education
  • dyslexia only qualified for section 504 services and not special education
  • there could be no referral to special education until the student tries Response to Intervention first
  • a private school would be better able to teach their child. (While this last point may be true, if a public school is unable to provide an appropriate education under IDEA, then the school district must pay for the outside placement.)

This is Why You Need to Know Your Rights

All these “tactics” used by Texas schools are contrary to the laws governing special education. Yet, most parents interviewed by the Houston Chronicle were unaware of the law’s requirements, and accepted the school’s explanations without question. This meant that their child never got evaluated for special education eligibility, or they endured long delays while their child fell further and further behind in academic and social skills. This is a tragic situation that can have long-lasting consequences. We wrote our book, Parents Have the Power to Make Special Education Work so that you can separate fact from fiction and to help you get your child the appropriate education he or she deserves.

Postscript

In May of 2017, the Texas state legislature passed a bill banning the practice of placing a cap on special education enrollment. This was 13 years after the Texas Education Agency began the practice.

Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves

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Writing by Hand Improves Cognitive Development

handwriting 6 text
Are you old enough to remember when “penmanship” used to be taught in public schools? We are. We can recall specific classes that focused on teaching the skills of handwriting: both manuscript (printed) letters and cursive. Entire classes were devoted to this skill, with gold stickers on certificates presented to those who produced legible and careful handwriting.

By the 1990s, when our son started school, the word “penmanship” had disappeared from the school curriculum. We kept bringing it up, because legible handwriting did not come easily for him. Some children with good fine motor skills and eye/hand coordination get the hang of it naturally, but for many children with special needs, that is not the case. Without proper intervention, these children will not have good handwriting skills when they become adults.

Why is Handwriting Important?

Recent studies by neuroscientists have established a positive link between learning to write by hand and learning to read in young children. The studies show that similar mental development doesn’t happen when a child learns by typing or tracing letters. This link between handwriting and cognition continues even into adulthood. For example, in the classroom taking notes by hand shows a much greater memory retention of the material than typing notes on a laptop.

Interestingly, the quality of the handwriting, or the difference between writing in manuscript letters or cursive, doesn’t make as much of a difference as the act of actually putting “pen to paper.” According to one expert, “there is something special about handwriting that is distinct from other motor movements.”

The School’s Response

In elementary school, we would ask the school staff to help our son with his handwriting and they would give us a blank look. We would point out that when he was older, he would need to take notes for classes, fill out job applications or medical forms, and write many other documents. He would need to be familiar with cursive handwriting so he could read other people’s writing. At the very least, he would need to be able to write legible manuscript letters if he couldn’t master cursive.

Their response? “Don’t worry, we’ll teach him keyboarding.” They did not see handwriting as an important skill. The only sustained handwriting instruction he got in those critical early years was occupational therapy for fine motor skills provided through his IEP. This helped, but there was no follow through in the general education classroom.

Of course, keyboarding is an important skill in today’s computer literate society, but we strongly feel that every child with the appropriate ability should be exposed to handwriting instruction. Even in an age when everyone “thumbs” text messages on their smart phones, handwriting is still a basic life skill with important benefits for brain development.

A Real Life Example

We experienced an example of the importance of handwriting two years ago, when our son was preparing to take the Graduate Record Exam. He faced a potential obstacle when he read the following on the GRE website:

You will be required to write in cursive (not print) and sign a confidentiality statement at the test center. If you do not complete and sign the statement, you cannot test and your test fees will not be refunded.

Since our son had never learned cursive, reading about this requirement produced a lot of anxiety for him. Fortunately, at the test site he was told that it was acceptable to print the confidentiality statement in manuscript letters, so he was able to take the exam. In fact, the cursive requirement has recently been dropped from the statement. But this is just one example of the importance that society still places on handwriting skills that your child may face in the future as an adult.

The website of the Campaign for Cursive contains other real world examples similar to this and points to peer-reviewed research indicating that the benefits of penmanship include improved neural connections in the brain and better fine motor skills. According to this website, schools today have given up teaching handwriting, offering it only in optional “art” classes.

What Can You Do?

It will take the pressure of parents at both at the local and state levels to demand that schools teach penmanship again. The Campaign for Cursive website has information on contacting your legislators to let them know that you want to see penmanship taught in schools.

Of course, persuading your School Committee and your legislators to change will take time. Meanwhile you can:

  • Read to your preschool child as much as possible. Bedtime is an excellent time for this activity. Demonstrating an appreciation for the written word will motivate your child to learn about writing as well as reading.
  • Find out how your school teaches handwriting, and if available, sign your child up to take optional “art” classes in penmanship. This instruction should begin as early as possible, especially in combination with reading instruction.
  • If your child is in special education, ask for an occupational therapy evaluation to see if you can get services to improve the fine motor skills needed for legible handwriting.

Even in preschool, you should be helping your child master basic skills such as handwriting for success in life as an adult.

Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves

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Demystifying Speech and Language Services

beach-33 textSpeech and language services were always a mystery for us when our son was in school. Even as he struggled with written composition, our school’s Speech and Language Pathologist would end her evaluations with the statement that “services are not recommended at this time.” We assumed that since he did not have an audible problem with his speech, that he didn’t need any of her services.

We now know that this is a typical reaction of many parents, who like ourselves, don’t understand the wide range of services that a Speech and Language Pathologist can and should provide to students in a school setting. In this article, we want to review some of the most important of these services, describe our experiences with schools attempting to limit them, and make suggestions about how you can advocate for your child to have the services that he or she needs.

The Role and Responsibility of a Speech and Language Pathologist*

A Speech and Language Pathologist evaluates children to determine if there is a communication disorder in areas related to speech, the use of language, and sensory issues that impact communication and interfere with attaining educational goals.

Though there are many detailed aspects to what a Speech and Language Pathologist can evaluate, for the purpose of this article we have simplified them into the following categories:

  • Speech: This includes expressive speech (the quality of audible sounds such as articulation and voice volume and quality), receptive speech (how a person understands and processes verbal communication), and pragmatic language (social communication skills).
  • Language: This includes the comprehension and expression of written language, sequencing of thoughts, syntax and grammar, and understanding symbols and their meanings.
  • Sensory Issues: These include social and emotional deficits that impact communication and even difficulty swallowing pills.

In addition to diagnosing disorders in these areas, a Speech and Language Pathologist provides therapy to help children communicate with their peers, teachers, and families. Therapy can also teach children who are nonverbal how to use communication devices to express themselves.

In other words, speech and language services are not just about speech, they are about learning how to communicate with others in many different ways, with both expressive and receptive language, speaking, writing, and assistive technology. The professional organization for Speech and Language Pathologists in the United States takes the position that it is the responsibility of its members to provide a full range of these services to improve the “literacy achievement of… those who struggle in the school setting.” For more detailed information about this organization and what it expects from its members, visit the website of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.

Eligibility for Speech and Language Services

Given the wide range of speech and language services that are available, it is no exaggeration that they are often key to providing an appropriate education to many children with disabilities. Getting schools to provide these services as part of special education, however, isn’t as simple as you might think. In fact, we have found that schools may limit what speech and language services they will provide.

Our school district, for example, claimed that its Speech and Language Pathologists were available only for obvious expressive language deficits, like significant articulation problems or stuttering. We believe that the reason for this is that speech and language services can be intensive and therefore expensive for schools to deliver.

This is a concern for parents, because more and more children, especially those on the autism spectrum, need speech and language services to help with the less obvious, but no less important, pragmatic language or written expression deficits. Because most parents don’t fully understand the nature and importance of pragmatic language, or the connection between written and expressive language, it is easy for schools to convince parents that their child doesn’t need these services. After all, for a child with multiple learning disabilities, what parent wants to hear that there is yet another therapy to schedule for their child?

How Schools Take Advantage of Parents’ Ignorance

This was the situation we found ourselves in during one of our Team meetings in elementary school. Although testing had indicated that our son had difficulty with pragmatic language and written expression, the school’s Speech and Language Pathologist concluded her report by stating that since he didn’t have a noticeable problem speaking, she could not recommend any speech and language services. We actually felt relief that this was one area we didn’t have to worry about, and focused the rest of the meeting on occupational therapy and reading instruction. Unfortunately, the school let our ignorance relieve them of the cost of providing services that our son clearly needed and that they were obligated by special education law to provide.

By the time our son was in high school, we had an independent Speech and Language Pathologist evaluate him. She produced a very detailed report that said he needed intensive and frequent services with a Speech and Language Pathologist to help with pragmatic language and writing skills. We submitted this independent report to our director of special education, who then held a meeting with us and the school’s Speech and Language Pathologist.

During this meeting, which lasted over an hour, the school’s Speech and Language Pathologist reviewed our independent report (she hadn’t done her own testing), and once again we heard the phrase “services are not recommended at this time.” While giving her report, we noticed that she never made eye contact with us, but looked directly at the director of special education as if to make sure that she was saying only what was expected of her.

During another meeting, which the director also attended, we brought up the issue of pragmatic language instruction and she told us that the school’s Speech and Language Pathologist wasn’t necessary because “the students teach each other pragmatic language skills.” In her mind, it seems, our town’s high school was full of certified Speech and Language Pathologists.

Schools Warned by the Department of Education

Diverting students away from speech and language services is apparently becoming a common practice with schools. In 2015, the US Department of Education issued a guidance letter that alerted schools to reports that a growing number of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder may not be receiving needed speech and language services. The letter also said that some schools were not including Speech and Language Pathologists in evaluation and eligibility determinations or in meetings to develop IEPs.

The letter goes on to remind schools that when they conduct an initial evaluation for special education eligibility, the school must assess in all areas of the suspected disability, including “communicative status,” if appropriate, and that IEP meetings must also “include an individual who can interpret the instructional implications of evaluation results,” in other words, a properly trained Speech and Language Pathologist.

What Can You Do?

From all of the above, it may seem that the deck is stacked against parents. We can’t disagree, so we have the following suggestions to help you obtain needed speech and language services for your child:

  • Be aware of possible communication disorders your child may have beyond obvious expressive speech problems. Consider having an independent speech and language evaluation performed to confirm the full range of your child’s needs. If appropriate, have your independent Speech and Language Pathologist attend a Team meeting to interpret the data and advise on his or her recommendations.
  • When any speech and language evaluation is performed, especially the school’s, it should be comprehensive in all areas of a suspected disability according to Part B of IDEA. This should include an assessment of the communicative status of your child. See the US Department of Education guidance letter of July 2015.
  • Think about your child’s sensory needs and how they affect communication. If swallowing is a problem, for example, a Speech and Language Pathologist should be able to help with that. This type of service is included under IDEA.
  • If speech and language services are in your child’s IEP, make sure that the service delivery grid specifies a Speech and Language Pathologist to provide them. “Sped. Staff” is not acceptable, as it could be anyone. Neither is a “Speech and Language Assistant,” who in many states is not required to have formal training. The Speech and Language Pathologist should be certified by your state department of education as well as by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA).

Obtaining appropriate speech and language services for your child is not an easy task. Determining what your child needs through testing and knowing what a properly trained speech and language pathologist can do, however, are important steps in the process. Remember that your research and advocacy now will pay big dividends for your child’s education in the future.

Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves

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* The inspiration for the subhead title and much of the content of this section comes from a document published by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA): Roles and Responsibilities of Speech-Language Pathologists in Schools. This document is considered an official policy statement of the ASHA, the professional organization for certified Speech and Language Pathologists in the United States.

The Role of a Special Education Advocate

When we entered special education many years ago, we had never heard of a special education advocate. And if we had, we probably wouldn’t have hired one because we felt comfortable with our son’s Team members. Later, however, we realized that we had missed important opportunities by not having an experienced professional explain our son’s rights and the school’s responsibilities to us.

Going It Alone (Our Experience Without An Advocate)

In the early days of elementary school, the general education teachers were warm and nurturing. Teachers only had one class of about twenty children all day long, so the demands on them weren’t as great as on teachers in middle school and high school.

The special education teachers also seemed to make an extra effort to get to know us and our son. We were impressed by their sincerity and their efforts. But we discovered that sometimes the school culture and the administrative bureaucracy get in the way of that idealism.

By middle school, we found the nurturing environment and attitude fading away. The entire school culture changed. There were multiple teachers and much larger classes. Getting an appointment to meet with our liaison or the general education teachers was almost impossible. We found fewer opportunities to be involved in school life and to get to know the teachers and the other students.

Now we realized we were in trouble. Our son wasn’t making progress and the teachers didn’t have time to meet with us. By seventh grade we noticed that the goals in our son’s IEP were being changed without our knowledge or a Team meeting to discuss them. A friend suggested a special education advocate who she had used. We contacted that person and made an appointment.

What Does An Advocate Do?

We began by reviewing our son’s educational history with the advocate. Fortunately we had kept all his paperwork. The advocate helped us organize everything in chronological order, then she reviewed our son’s IEPs. Finally she explained to us that the school had committed multiple violations of the special education laws. Our trust in the school district was crumbling with each passing day.

We began to realize how naive we had been in those early years. Although everyone had been very nice, they had ignored opportunities to recommend needed services at a critical time for learning and sometimes even violated explicit special education laws. While it is possible that some of the school personnel simply did not know the law and what was required of them, it is also possible that they chose to not follow the law in order to save time and money on special education services the school should have provided.

Now we understood the importance of working with an experienced advocate. Had we been working with her in elementary school, she would have noted the violations and advised us on our rights when it could have helped our son the most. She also had a lot of experience working with other families in our town and would have helped us avoid certain situations unique to our school district.

How to Find an Advocate

There are no licensing requirements for special education advocates like there are for most other professionals you will encounter in special education. It is critical to check the training and credentials of anyone you are considering. In many states the federally funded Parent Training and Information Centers (PTI) offer advocate training classes. The Yellow Pages for Kids, maintained by the Wrightslaw website at www.yellowpagesforkids.com lists PTIs, advocates, and other professionals in every state. Finally, ask other parents with children in special education about advocates they have used.

Once you have one or more names of advocates you can contact, arrange for an interview, either on the phone or in person, and ask questions such as the following:

  • Confirm the advocate’s training and credentials. They should match what you have already discovered through your research.
  • Describe your child’s problems and listen carefully to the advocate’s responses. Try to get a sense of his or her style and personality and whether or not you feel comfortable with that person.
  • Ask if he or she has worked collaboratively with your school district in the past. Someone who knows the people and programs in your district already has a head start.
  • Finally, ask for references and talk to other parents who have used this advocate. Ask if the kind of help you are seeking is similar to what the advocate helped them with.

Although an advocate’s fees can be quite reasonable compared with other special education professionals you may encounter, if finances are an issue, there is a federal program, Protection and Advocacy for People with Disabilities, that can provide free advocacy help. The website: www.parentcenternetwork.org, contains links that will help you locate a group in your area.

How to Work With an Advocate

The role of a special education advocate is to help you understand the laws and advocate for an appropriate education for your child. There are many ways to achieve this goal. The two most common are:

  • You can work with an advocate behind the scenes. This can help maintain your relationship with school personnel if you fear they might feel threatened by the presence of an outside professional.
  • Have the advocate attend Team meetings and negotiate for appropriate services and accommodations. The advocate can help you understand the sometimes hidden dynamics in the room and keep the meeting on track. For more on how this can work, see our earlier post Surviving Team Meetings.

In some states special education advocates specialize in either legal or educational advocacy. A legal advocate, often referred to as a “lay advocate,” is not a lawyer, but has specialized training in legal matters that pertain to special education. Lay advocates can attend Team meetings, write letters, and negotiate with schools to help resolve problems. In some states they can even represent parents in due process hearings. Educational advocates specialize in making recommendations about accommodations and services based on a student’s disabilities. In general, there can be a lot of overlap between the functions of lay and educational advocates.

Ultimately, if you can only hire one professional, consider hiring a special education advocate.

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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Planning for Transition Before Graduation

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Graduation is usually a time of celebration, when young people complete their high school studies and move on to work or college. For parents of students on IEPs, graduation has an additional significance because it ends their child’s right to special education. Once a student accepts a high school diploma, special education services end. This makes planning for the transition to adult life especially important. Transition planning needs to happen first, followed by transition services, and only then by graduation. The goal is not to graduate on a schedule, but for the student to acquire the skills necessary to function independently in adult life and to become a productive member of society.

Why Transition Planning is Important

All too often parents do not adequately plan for their child’s transition to a post-high school life. If schools do not bring up this topic at Team meetings or do not make parents aware of its importance, parents may be unaware of how critical it is. Without appropriate planning, students with disabilities can graduate from high school without being prepared for post-secondary education or employment. The U.S. Government Accountability Office reports that the employment rate for young adults with disabilities is less than half the rate of their peers without disabilities.

The federal law IDEA requires transition planning for students on IEPs beginning with the IEP in effect when a student turns 16. A better time to begin planning is with the IEP that will be in effect when a student turns 14. In fact many state special education laws require transition planning and services to begin at this earlier date. A transition plan should outline a course of study and specify what services are needed to support a successful transition. This includes identifying any state agencies outside the school district that might be responsible for helping with the transition process.

Planning Should Address More Than Academic Needs

Appropriate transition planning includes addressing more than just academic needs. Such aspects as helping students obtain community experiences, employment training, and daily living skills are equally important. Schools should perform transition assessments to help a student’s special education Team determine the courses, vocational training, life skills instruction, or related services that the student will need during the rest of his or her publicly funded education.

When creating a transition plan, the Team should consider the student’s vision statement of what he or she would like to be doing in the future. This means looking at the many facets of a young person’s life, such as their interests, goals, and hopes for the next five years.

Parents can help their child think ahead beyond high school graduation. For example, does the student want to attend college, vocational school, work at a job, or live independently? Will the student need various services to become independent, such as travel training, remediation in reading, writing, and math skills, counseling, or occupational therapy? Teams also need to consider health care, transportation, and community experiences. Transition planning can be complex depending on a young person’s needs. It is not as simple as achieving passing grades and passing state mandated exams, as recent hearing decisions in Massachusetts have demonstrated.

Transition Planning and Graduation are Closely Linked

Since accepting a high school diploma means an end to special education services, there is a significant financial benefit for schools to graduate students on IEPs and end their obligation to provide special education services. Otherwise, the federal law IDEA allows for special education services to continue until a student’s 22nd birthday. This provides an incentive for schools to devise different and creative ways to move a struggling student along the path to graduation and for parents to carefully monitor whether their child has made sufficient progress in meeting his or her transition goals.

Since most states allow school districts to set their own graduation requirements, we have observed that some districts play a graduation game by adopting low graduation standards to move students out of the system. Districts can legally reduce the number of required credits to graduate, lower performance criteria, or substitute a different course for a student who might have difficulty passing a required one. Our school district actually tried to force our son to graduate before he had earned enough credits to apply to college. Since attending college was his primary transition goal, we filed for a hearing to prevent them from issuing a premature diploma. The lesson is that low graduation standards can be used as a tool to remove a student from a district’s special education obligations by forcing a student to graduate before he or she is ready.

We recommend that once your child begins high school, research your school’s graduation requirements. You may find them in your school’s handbook for students or online on your school’s website. Study the requirements carefully and plan which courses your child will need for a successful transition from high school to adult life whether it is college, volunteer work, vocational training, or adult education. If further education is a goal, make sure that he or she earns enough credits to apply to an appropriate school.

Alternative Diplomas and Graduation Certificates

In addition to a regular high school diploma, schools can offer students different kinds of exit documents that require a less rigorous curriculum. These include alternative diplomas, which go by names such as an IEP diploma or vocational diploma. Some schools offer certificates of completion or certificates of attendance. None of these documents end special education or transition services. The only document that will do that is a regular high school diploma. These alternative exit documents can be an appropriate solution for some students, but parents should be aware that they can flag the graduate as a special education student and may limit that student’s options for the future.

An alternative diploma or certificate may not be recognized as qualifying for attendance at a community college, vocational school, or enlistment in the armed forces without additional testing or certification. They can also indicate to potential employers that a job applicant has special needs or learning disabilities. Each state has different standards for diplomas and certificates, so check with your department of education to see what your state permits schools to offer.

What Parents Can Do

When a student with disabilities has proper transition planning and services, the opportunities for additional education and work are greatly enhanced. To this end we recommend the following:

  • Begin transition discussions with your child’s Team by the time your child enters his or her freshman year in high school, usually by age 14. Start looking at post high school options, such as vocational training, internships, or further education, and have the Team write a transition plan into your child’s IEP. Be sure to update the plan yearly.
  • Once your child begins high school, research your school’s graduation requirements. Study the requirements carefully and plan which courses your child will need for a successful transition from high school to adult life. If further education is a goal, make sure he or she earns enough credits to apply to an appropriate college.
  • If your Team doesn’t feel that your child can meet the course standards for a regular high school diploma, ask the following:
    What accommodations and services are in the IEP that would help your child meet the same requirements as other students receiving a standard diploma?
     Would staying in school until he or she reaches the maximum age of eligibility in your state allow your child to earn a standard diploma?
     Would any form of alternative diploma or certificate be appropriate for your child’s level of performance and would earning it give your child the skills to lead an independent life?
  • Request a vocational assessment if your child would prefer employment rather than further education after high school. The assessment should be performed by a vocational assessment specialist and should provide direction about possible career paths and employment opportunities, as well as provide information about performance in skill areas.
  • Likewise, request an independent living skills assessment, if appropriate, to determine what supports are needed for your child to live on his or her own after high school.

Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves

The above is excerpted and adapted from Chapter 11, “Transition Planning and Graduation” in Parents Have the Power to Make Special Education Work.

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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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The Three Essential Parts of an IEP Goal

mountains-27 textThe Individualized Education Program (IEP) is the cornerstone of special education. The individual goals created for a student on an IEP are the way that the student makes progress toward the Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) guaranteed by special education law. An effective goal is both specific to the student and measurable by objective standards.

Our experience is that it is up to parents to help their child’s IEP Team understand and create effective goals for their children. This requires knowing the three essential parts of an IEP goal: the current level of performance, specific and measurable milestones, and services to support attaining the goal. The following sections describe the three questions you and your Team should be asking to create goals that are realistic and effective for your child.

What’s your starting point?

Every goal begins with an assessment of the student’s current ability in the specific skill area covered by that goal. This is called the student’s “current level of performance.” The importance of this is to establish the starting point for the goal. Knowing how far a student is below grade level, for example, helps answer the question about what kind of specialized instruction is needed and how intensively it should be given. A student who is three years below grade level in math, for example, will need more intensive math instruction than one who is only a year below grade level.

The most effective way to determine the current level of performance is through testing. In reading, the Woodcock-Johnson Test or Wechsler Individual Achievement Test (WIAT) is considered a good indicator of current performance. In non-academic areas, a psychological evaluation is an effective indicator of social-emotional or behavioral performance while a test of fine or gross motor skills can indicate occupational or physical therapy performance. More general assessment methods, such as the completion of a reading skills class or participation in a sports activity, can be helpful.

We have found that there is a definite relationship between the quality of the assessment and the quality of the goal. The less objective the assessment of the current level of performance the more vague and ineffective the goal. In IEPs where the current level of performance is simply an anecdotal description of behavior, our experience is that the resulting goal is often so vague that there is little, if any, chance of the student achieving it.

Where are you going?

The goal is the IEP’s road map for achievement. You need a specific, time-limited goal that can take your child from his or her current level of performance to a realistic higher level during the time period covered by the goal, which is usually a school year.

In their book, Writing Measurable IEP Goals and Objectives, Barbara Batemen and Cynthia Herr describe the four characteristics of a measurable goal:

1. It contains a method for measuring whether or not the goal has been achieved.

2. The criteria for measuring progress are clearly defined in the goal and do not require any information other than what is contained in the description of the goal.

3. The measurement can be validated by multiple observers. For example, if two different observers measure the progress of a goal using the criteria described in the goal, they would independently come to the same conclusion.

4. It is possible to determine how much progress a student has made toward attaining the goal at any time, such as in a quarterly report.

We have seen too many IEP goals that provide little of this information. Most are impossibly vague, contain no standards by which anyone could determine if the goal was ever achieved, and perversely, often place the responsibility for achieving the goal completely on the student without any teacher or specialist assistance.

How Are You Going to Get There?

A goal won’t work if there aren’t services to help your child achieve it. This makes adequate services essential. The service delivery grid is the part of the IEP that specifies what services are needed to help the student achieve a goal, where and how often the services are given, and who is providing the services. Unless the grid specifies adequate time and a properly qualified person, it is unrealistic to expect a student to make satisfactory progress toward even the most well-written goal.

When examining a service delivery grid pay special attention to the the following:

  • The type of service.
  • The dates that service begins and ends.
  • Where and how often the service is provided.
  • The kind of professional responsible for providing the service. Vague references to “sped staff” are not helpful, and not even permitted in some states.

In addition to making sure that service delivery is clearly spelled out in the grid, we recommend that you have this information written into the description of the goal itself. The reason for this is that the service delivery grid often appears pages after the goal and can be overlooked by both you and your child’s service providers. The duplication also helps remind everyone that the most important part of an IEP goal is achieving it.

Putting It All Together

The three parts of an IEP goal: current level of performance, specific and measurable goal, and service delivery all need to support each other. When you know your starting point, where you are going, and how you are going to get there, then your child’s journey toward an appropriate education can be a rewarding one.

Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves

What has been your experience creating IEP goals with your Team? Do you feel that the goals were effective? Please send us a comment on our Contact Page.

This article is excerpted and adapted from Chapter 7, “Writing Effective IEP Goals” in Parents Have the Power to Make Special Education Work.

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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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