Parent guide: The special needs evaluation process

What happens during an evaluation?
Evaluating your child means more than the school just giving your child a test. The school must evaluate your child in all the areas where your child may be affected by the possible disability. This may include looking at your child’s health, vision, hearing, social and emotional well-being, general intelligence, performance in school, and how well your child communicates with others and uses his or her body.

4.1.1The evaluation must be individualized (just your child) and full and comprehensive enough to determine if your child has a disability and to identify all of your child’s needs for special education and related services if it is determined that your child has a disability.

The evaluation process involves several steps, including:

Reviewing existing information

A team of people, including you, begins by looking at the information the school already has about your child. You may have information about your child you wish to share as well. For the special needs evaluation, the team will look at information such as:

  • your child’s scores on tests given in the classroom or to all students in your child’s grade;
  • the opinions and observations of your child’s teachers and other school staff who know your child; and
  • your feelings, concerns, and ideas about how your child is doing in school.

Deciding if more information is still needed

The information collected above will help the group decide:

  • if your son or daughter has a particular type of disability;
  • how your child is currently doing in school;
  • whether your child needs special education and related services; and
  • what your child’s educational needs are.

If the information the team collects doesn’t answer these questions, then the school must collect more information about your child.

Collecting more information about your child

Your informed written permission is required before the school may collect additional information about your son or daughter. The school must also describe how it will collect the information. This includes describing the tests that will be used and the other ways the school will gather information about your child. After you give your consent, the school will go ahead as described. The information it gathers will give the evaluation team the information it needs to make the types of decisions listed above.

How does the school collect this information?

The school collects information about your child from many different people and in many different ways. Tests are an important part of an evaluation, but they are only a part. The evaluation should also include:

  • the observations and opinions of professionals who have worked with your child;
  • your child’s medical history, when it relates to his or her performance in school; and
  • your ideas about your child’s school experiences, abilities, needs, and behavior outside of school, and his or her feelings about school.
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The following people will be part of the team evaluating your child:

  • You, as parents;
  • At least one regular education teacher, if your child is or may be participating in the regular educational environment;
  • At least one of your child’s special education teachers or service providers;
  • A school administrator who knows about policies for special education, about children with disabilities, about the general education curriculum (the curriculum used by students who do not have disabilities), and about available resources;
  • Someone who can interpret the evaluation results and talk about what instruction may be necessary for your child;
  • Individuals (invited by you or the school) who have knowledge or special expertise about your child;
  • Your child, if appropriate;
  • Representatives from any other agencies that may be responsible for paying for or providing transition services (if your child is age 16 or, if appropriate, younger and will be planning for life after high school); and
  • Other qualified professionals.

These other qualified professionals may be responsible for collecting specific kinds of information about your child. They may include:

  • a school psychologist and/or an occupational therapist;
  • a speech and language pathologist (sometimes called a speech therapist);
  • a physical therapist and/or adaptive physical education therapist or teacher;
  • a medical specialist; and
  • others.

Professionals will observe your child. They may give your child written tests or talk personally with your child. They are trying to get a picture of the “whole child.” For example, they want to understand such aspects as:

  • how well your child speaks and understands language;
  • how your child thinks and behaves;
  • how well your child adapts to changes in his or her environment;
  • how well your child has done academically;
  • how well your child functions in a number of areas, such as moving, thinking, learning, seeing, and hearing; and
  • your child’s job-related and other post-school interests and abilities.

IDEA gives clear directions about how schools must conduct evaluations. For example, tests and interviews must be given in the language (for example, Spanish) or communication mode (for example, sign language) that is most likely to yield accurate information about what your child knows or can do developmentally, functionally, and academically. The tests must also be given in a way that does not discriminate against your child because he or she has a disability or is from a different racial or cultural background.

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IDEA states that schools may not decide a child’s eligibility for special education based on the results of only one procedure such as a test or an observation. More than one procedure is needed to see where your child may be having difficulty and to identify his or her strengths and needs.

In some cases, schools will be able to conduct a child’s entire evaluation within the school. In other cases, schools may not have the staff to do all of the evaluations needed. These schools will have to hire outside people or agencies to do some or all of the evaluation. If your child is evaluated outside of the school, the school must make the arrangements. The school will say in writing exactly what type of testing is to be done. All of these evaluation procedures are done at no cost to parents.

In some cases, once the evaluation has begun, the outside specialist may ask to do more testing. Make sure you tell the specialist to contact the school. If the testing is going beyond what the school originally asked for, the school needs to agree to pay for the extra testing.

Deciding eligibility for special needs services

What does the school do with these evaluation results?

The information gathered from the evaluation will be used to make important decisions about your child’s education. All of the information about your child will be used:

  • to decide if your child is eligible for special education and related services; and
  • to help you and the school decide what your child needs educationally.
How is my child’s eligibility for special education decided?

As was said earlier, the decision about your child’s eligibility for services is based on whether your son or daughter has a disability that fits into one of the IDEA’s 13 disability categories (see question #3) and meets any additional state or local criteria for eligibility. This decision will be made when the evaluation has been completed, and the results are available.

Parents are part of the team that decides a child’s eligibility for special education. This team will look at all of the information gathered during the evaluation and decide if your child meets the definition of a “child with a disability.” If so, your child will be eligible for special education and related services.

Under IDEA, a child may not be found eligible for services if the determining reason for thinking the child is eligible is that:

  • the child has limited English proficiency, or
  • the child has not had appropriate instruction in math or reading.
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If your child is found eligible, you and the school will work together to design an individualized education program for your child. This process is described in detail in Part III.

The school will give you a copy of the evaluation report on your child and the paperwork about your child’s eligibility for special education and related services. This documentation is provided at no cost to you.

What happens if my child is not eligible for special education?

If the eligibility team decides that your child is not eligible for special education, the school system must tell you this in writing and explain why your child has been found “not eligible.” Under IDEA, you must also be given information about what you can do if you disagree with this decision.

Read the information the school system gives you. Make sure it includes information about how to appeal the school system’s decision. If that information is not in the materials the school gives you, ask the school for it. IDEA includes many different mechanisms for resolving disagreements, including mediation. The school is required to tell you what those mechanisms are and how to use them.

Also get in touch with your state’s Parent Training and Information (PTI) center. The PTI can tell you what steps to take next. Your PTI is listed on NICHCY’s State Resource Sheet for your state under “Organizations Especially for Parents” — available online at:

What happens if my child is found eligible for special education, but I do not agree?

If your child is found eligible for special education and related services and you disagree with that decision, or if you do not want your child to receive special education and related services, you have the right to decline these services for your child. The school may provide your child with special education and related services only if you agree. Also, you may cancel special education and related services for your child at any time.

It is important to note, however, that if you decline or cancel special education for your child and later change your mind, the evaluation process must be repeated.

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