The Special Education Referral, Assessment, Eligibility, Planning, and Placement Process
If a student does not respond to increasingly intensive interventions or the intervention assistance team believes the student's needs are serious enough to consider special education as an option, the student's parents are formally contacted and the assessment process begins. At this point, a multidisciplinary team (MDT)—consisting of parents, educators, and others as appropriate—assumes responsibility for making educational decisions regarding the student. No student may receive special education unless the steps discussed in the upcoming sections are followed.
Before any discussion of how a student comes to receive special education services can proceed, it is essential that you understand how central parents are in all aspects of the referral, assessment, eligibility, planning, and placement process. Parents are key participants in all decision making related to their child's suspected or documented disability. They must be informed of their rights in their own language and in a manner they can understand (Fitzgerald & Watkins, 2006). If you teach older students, you also should know that beginning at least one year before reaching 18 years of age, students also must be informed directly of their rights, and at age 18, most students assume the rights that parents have held for them (National Center on Secondary Education Transition, 2002).
The very first application of parents' rights comes before any assessment process begins. That is, parents must give written permission for their child to be individually assessed. Although it is not common for parents to deny permission, if they do, the process must stop unless the school district asks for a hearing to compel parents to comply. As you read about the rest of the procedures related to special education, you will notice many references to the rights parents have.
Components of Assessment
Although the specific requirements regarding the types of data gathered vary somewhat by state and by the type of initial intervention processes used, assessment generally involves gathering information about a student's strengths and needs in all areas of concern. Typically, if the student has not had a vision and hearing screening and you have reason to suspect a sensory impairment, these tests precede other assessments. If sensory screening raises concerns, the parents are notified of the need for a more complete assessment by a physician or appropriate specialist.
Assessments completed by school professionals may address any aspect of a student's educational functioning (Yell, 2005). Often, for example, the student's intellectual ability is assessed. An individual intelligence test (often referred to as an IQ test) is administered and scored by a school psychologist or another qualified school professional. Academic achievement usually is assessed too. The student completes an individual achievement test administered by a psychologist, special education teacher, educational diagnostician, or other professional. A third area often evaluated is social and behavior skills. This evaluation might involve a checklist that you and parents complete concerning a student's behavior, a test given by the school psychologist, or a series of questions asked of the student.
Another domain for assessment is the student's social and developmental history. A school social worker may meet with the parents to learn about the student's family life and major events in her development that could be affecting education. For example, parents might be asked about their child's friends and favorite out-of-school activities, their expectations for their child as an adult, and their child's strengths. Parents also might be asked whether their child has had any serious physical injuries, medical problems, or recurring social or behavior problems.
As another assessment component, a psychologist, counselor, or special education teacher often observes the student in the classroom and other settings to learn how he responds to teachers and peers in various school settings. For example, a psychologist may observe Chris, who usually plays with younger students during recess and gets confused when playground games are too complex. Chris also watches other students carefully and often seems to take cues for how to act from how they are acting. Similarly, a special educator may observe D.J., a sixth-grade student, in the cafeteria to try to understand what is triggering his many behavior incidents there. Such observations are helpful for understanding students' social strengths and needs.
If a potential need exists for speech, occupational, or physical therapy, another component is added to the assessment. The professionals in those areas complete assessments in their respective areas of expertise. A speech/language therapist might use a screening instrument that includes having the student use certain words, tell stories, and identify objects. The therapist also might check for atypical use of the muscles of the mouth, tongue, and throat that permit speech and for unusual speech habits such as breathiness in speaking or noticeable voice strain. Similarly, an occupational or physical therapist might assess a student's gait, strength and agility, range of motion, or ability to perform fine motor tasks such as buttoning and lacing.
Throughout the entire assessment process, IDEA specifically gives parents the right to provide information to be used as part of the evaluation. In addition, as the general education teacher, you can provide details on the student's performance in class, patterns of behavior, and discrepancies between expectations and achievement. Your informal and formal observations play an important role in assessment .
The exact procedures for assessing a student's needs vary according to the areas of concern that initiated the assessment process. The assessment must be completed by individuals trained to administer the tests and other assessment tools used; the instruments must be free of cultural bias; the student's performance must be evaluated in a way that takes into account the potential disability; and the assessment must provide data that are useful for deciding an appropriate education for the student. School professionals are responsible for ensuring that these obligations are met.
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