Your child has a disability, and it will impact his education. Most disabilities do. As a parent, working through this issue can be a frustrating and heart-wrenching process. But with some understanding of how children are evaluated for their condition and knowledge of your options, you can feel confident you’re doing the best you can to make sure your child gets everything he deserves out of his education.

How do I get special education services for my child?

There a few hoops to jump through before your child can have special education services. The good news is that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (known as IDEA) makes it easier. Under this law, you have a right to meet with various professionals from your child’s school district.

They may propose to conduct a school-based evaluation, but more often than not, it’s the parent who asks for an evaluation. Teachers, school administrators and other professionals can also refer your child for evaluation. In your meeting, you can discuss if and by whom your child will be evaluated. This evaluation isn’t an independent educational evaluation. It’s done through the school district at the public’s expense.

What happens if I’m not satisfied with the results?

Here’s where independent educational evaluations (IEEs) come into play. If you disagree with the district’s evaluation, you can request an IEE. You don’t need to spell out the nature of your disagreement at this stage. Sometimes the school district will agree to pay for the IEE, but don’t count on it.

Often, the school district will go to a due process hearing to prove that its evaluation was sufficient and to avoid paying for the IEE. Districts sometimes do this despite knowing that its own evaluation was poor, simply to deter you from spending the time and energy it takes to go through the process. If you prevail at the hearing, the district must pay for the IEE. If the district proves that its evaluation was sufficient, it’s off the hook. You can still get an IEE, but you’ll need to pay for it.

And what exactly is an independent educational evaluation?

An IEE is an evaluation conducted by one or more objective, independent specialists who are at least as qualified as school district personnel. You can choose who evaluates your child. The evaluator(s) should not work for the district or have any relationship to people who work for the district.

School districts do have lists of independent educational evaluators, but they may not have a comprehensive list of the providers in your area. Furthermore, they often deal with a select few individuals with whom they have a high comfort level. But it’s perfectly within your rights to identify specialists who are not on the district’s list.

Why would an independent educational evaluation be helpful?

There are so many reasons a parent would seek an IEE, and every situation is different. Here are some, but not all, possible reasons an IEE would be helpful:

  • The parent believes her child has a disability, but the school district’s evaluators did not find that the child met criteria for eligibility.
  • The school’s evaluation identified the child as having a disability, but the parent thinks that her child doesn’t have a disability.
  • The parent doesn’t feel that the school district evaluation was thorough.
  • The parent feels that the school district failed to evaluate all areas of a child’s suspected disabilities. For example, the school district identified a reading disorder but didn’t address problems in written communication. Or, the district elected not to conduct an occupational therapy evaluation, which covers fine motor skills like writing, cutting and drawing.
  • The parent believes that the child does have a disability but does not agree with the school district’s identification of disability. For example, the school district identifies the child as having a serious emotional disturbance, but the parent believes that the child has an attention deficit disorder.
  • The parent believes that the child’s levels of performance are considerably higher or lower than what the school’s evaluation results suggest.
  • The parent disagrees that the child is not making sufficient progress in one or more areas.
  • The parent disagrees with the objectives included in the child’s individualized education program based on school evaluation results.
  • The parent disagrees with the school district’s perspective on where the child should be placed. For example, the parent would like the child to be in general education classes with nondisabled peers, but the school’s evaluation suggests a far more restrictive environment.

Obtaining an independent educational evaluation can be an important component in a child’s special education process. When there is not enough information available through the channels of a student’s school district, gaining another perspective from a third party often allows for valuable insight and impartiality. Be aware of your rights when requesting an independent educational evaluation to best advocate for your child.

Steve Imber, Ph.D., is an advocate, consultant and independent educational evaluator who has presented and written nationally on IEEs since 1992. He has held state, regional and national office in the field of special education and served as an expert in many matters of special education in several states. He is a professor of special education at Rhode Island College.