I am continually amazed at the ability of school district personnel to overwhelm and yes, intimidate, very intelligent, powerful parents. Why is that? Why do parents sit in those interminable meetings and nod their heads in agreement when they do not believe what they are being told? Why? Because they cannot articulate "why" and even when they do, their observations are either "pooh-poohed" or explained away in vague terms. And, since parents are typically not experts in learning or the educational system, they defer and hope for the best until they are absolutely convinced to take a different course of action.
Learning disabilities, language processing disorders, Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, autism, executive functioning deficits, and visual-motor deficits are conditions that are not "intuitive". They do not readily make sense. You know what to do when your tooth hurts, when your car is "running rough" or when you look in the mirror and say, "Oh my, you really need to do something about that hair!". You make an appointment with the dentist, cruise into the auto shop or call and desperately beg your stylist/barber for an immediate appointment. You have a sense what the results should be...your tooth no longer hurts, your car runs more smoothly and you leave your stylist looking spiffy. Ta-da! The sequence is logical and intuitive ("instinctive"). Essentially, the problem appears, you go to the appropriate professional, identify the problem and fix it. Yet, this does not seem to be the case in the process of special education.
A caveat here. There may be gazillions of kids for whom the special education system works, but I don't see them in my practice. I hope the system works for your child. My experiences may be skewed because the students who come to me do not benefit from their educational services. Considering the graduation rate in this country, it may be the case that my experiences are far too often the "norm" and not the "exception".
So, what's the problem with the special education assessment process and where does the problem start?
The "problem" is the process itself or rather, what it is not. In schools, the evaluation process is not diagnostic. Think about the diagnostic process of the dentist, the mechanic and yes, even the stylist. Each professional has their own "protocol" for determining the "issue" and the steps necessary for resolving it.
The dentist takes x-rays and "pokes around", using experience, evidence and judgment to determine the next step. The mechanic and the stylist use the same process, but of course, with different "tools". What happens if these professionals limit their diagnostic process? How might that limitation impact the outcome? Bingo! There's the "rub"! The "limits" that strangle school psychologists' work is THE domino. Everything else has the potential to fall apart if the presenting problem is not accurately identified.
When school districts conduct assessments, the focus is to determine if your child is eligible for services. Now, why is THAT a problem? Because...
- The assessment focuses on "eligibility" and not a diagnosis, so many features of learning and development are not evaluated.
- Because school district personnel are not licensed to practice (they are "certificated") they are not allowed to "diagnose". Even if they are licensed, they are not allowed to diagnose in the school setting.
- The assessment is so limited that many evaluations fail to identify "all areas of suspected disability" as required by law..
When I attend an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) meeting and explain my results to the team, I field the questions and am frequently asked, "How do you know all of this?" Well, it's because...
- As a private practitioner, I have the luxury of using all of the time I need to gather data to either prove or disprove my hypotheses as to "what" is going on.
- I'm not restricted to the kinds of data I collect. I can administer any test that is appropriate for the purposes of the evaluation unlike the Los Angeles Unified School District which is not allowed to use IQ tests due to the past abuses of test results to place African-American children in classes for students who were mentally retarded when the students were not intellectually disabled. The case, Larry P. v. Riles was decided in 1979.
- I am not told by a supervisor who is frequently not a clinician, but an administrator, what tests I can and cannot administer and what I can and cannot say to parents or teachers.
- And, I don't test kids in schools where they are frequently distracted /worried about "what the class is doing" or "who is winning at four square at recess". There are no noisy ringing bells, no sounds of laughter and no interruptions. In essence, I control the setting. This can be a huge factor for school-age children.
Another caveat before we go on...just because your child has a learning disability does not mean that they "qualify" for special education. The test results have to show that students cannot "access the curriculum" (they cannot learn in their classroom) without support from a team of professionals.
The elements of a competent assessment are:
- The administration of an individually-administered test of ability. There are several well-researched tests of problem-solving that I use to help me focus in on the profile of a student's "cognitive" (thinking) skills. The strengths and weaknesses that are revealed help me to predict student's anticipated achievement (math, reading and writing). Ah ha! Here's another "rub". If the IQ test does not measure the true nature of the child's strength/weaknesses, the "prediction" will be "off". If the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children-4th Edition is administered to a student with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, language processing disorders and slow processing speed, their "learning potential" will most assuredly be underestimated. If, however, they are administered the Leiter International Performance Scale-3rd Edition which is a language-free test of problem-solving that is, for the most part, untimed, it is more likely that their ability will be more accurately measured.
- The administration of multiple achievement tests. Achievement tests are those that measure reading, writing and arithmetic. It is not sufficient to administer one test and be done with it. Best practice requires that data be collected from multiple sources in order to determine if there is a pattern of deficit across several different formats of tests. If it is a persistent deficits across several tests, then the deficit must be severe enough to create a "functional impairment".
Now, let's have a brief conversation about this whole idea of "functional impairments". A functional impairment is the "need for assistance to carry out a specific number of activities of daily living". Learning is a daily living activity. What about special education and functional impairments? Well, in the past, it was the case that students had to "qualify" for services based on an equation. If the scores on achievement tests were 22 points (1.5 standard deviations) lower than the most accurate representation of their learning potential (IQ), then they were determined to not be learning to their potential and subsequently, were determined to be learning disabled (if there were no physical or emotional factors or lack of educational opportunity that could better account for their learning issues). Since the 2004 reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, that "strict" 22-point difference is no longer a major factor. This revision allows students greater access to support.
The decision regarding eligibility for services is the responsibility of the IEP team and that decision is based on a number of factors. The assessment results are one component of the decision. The test results are a powerful component, however, and can influence team members to conclude that the child does not need support when, in reality, the child actually needs services, but the assessment did not accurately reveal those needs (for the reasons I outlined above).
Here's the kicker...who makes up the IEP team? The requires that certain school personnel be present or the meeting is not "legal". A general education teacher and an "administrative designee" are among those that are required to attend. I've attended meetings where there are 10+ people from the district and like most elections, the most votes for a certain position or person win. If you show up with just your spouse, guess who gets voted down? School districts are just so fond of me telling you to bring your closest friend, your child's grandparents, aunties and uncles and maybe your minister. Of course, you have to tell the district who is coming which means that they may try to "one up" you by inviting just one more person to out-vote you! Regardless, you'll have a large support group and they may hear information that you might not hear at the moment and they may have a "different take" on the dynamics than you do, so go for it! Please remind your "crew" to restrain themselves. School district personnel have zero tolerance for rude, confrontational and/or threatening behavior. You do not want that to happen. Give each person in your support team a job. You have the right to invite anyone who is meaningful to the child's life which, by extension, is important to you! You, Mom and Dad, have the right to be supported, too!
- The evaluation of processing skills is frequently missing altogether or is, at best, weak. Again, this is my experience with reading assessments for the past 30 years. I have to say, it is such a pleasure when more than just visual-motor skills are evaluated. The competent assessment should include information on all aspects of memory including immediate and delayed memory for visual and verbal data that is both abstract and concrete. Information regarding the number of opportunities a student needs in order to retain the data should be collected. Recognition memory which is required, typically, on a multiple-choice test should be measured to provide a contrast to the "free recall" memory skills (remembering by just pulling the information out of your mind). Auditory and visual processing skills, executive functioning competence, attentional skills, speed of processing and of course, visual-motor abilities should be assessed because a weakness or deficit in any one of these critical areas could result in a compromised academic performance.
- Overall social-emotional functioning should be evaluated. Students with learning disabilities, Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, language processing disorders, dyslexia, etc., are at a significantly greater risk of having emotional distress and social problems. If there is no evidence of serious symptoms, a cursory "look" may be all that is necessary.
- The report, ah, the report. All too often, the school district assessment is a recitation of scores and percentile ranks and maybe even age and grade equivalences. I must say that I don't see age and grade equivalences very often because they all-too-readily provide descriptive data that will cause great angst for parents right there at the IEP meeting. For example, if I tell you that your child has a standard score of 86 that is at the 18%ile, it may not be as disconcerting as when I tell you that your 5th grader's performance is comparable to those students who are in the 5th month of 2nd grade and who are 7 years, 8 months old. Oh boy, it's "on" then! The "whys" come hot and fast when I mention these scores in an IEP meeting. In all fairness, standard scores and percentile ranks are more accurate descriptions of a student's performance, but I find that they don't mean much to parents.
A few ideas here about the report. Pay attention to this!! You have the right to request the report a full 5 days before the IEP meeting not to include the day of the IEP. If your meeting is on the 20th, you have the right to request the report by the 14th. I recommend that you put in this request with the director of special education as well as the school. Why? Because many, dare I say "Most?" school psychologists are madly typing away even as the team is gathering, your request may be put off. I know this because I was a school psychologist for years. And, for more years than not, I was given 6-7 schools to cover in 5 days...two of which were high schools with HUGE populations. Yeah sure, get all of that work done. Here are the likely scenarios you need to prepare yourself to handle:
- They'll keep telling you the report will be ready "tomorrow". When it's not ready "tomorrow", your sympathies will be played on about how jammed up the school psychologist is and they are right. However, as harsh as it sounds, that's not your problem. I have always seen it this way: "They've got their education, their job, their cars and maybe a mortgage. Those are the same things I want for my child".
- When the report is still not available on the day of the IEP, you'll be told that if you "want to wait, we'll have to reschedule for next month" (retaliation for being an informed parent/"troublemaker"). Of course, you'll go to the scheduled IEP because you are afraid that your child will miss out. And, you are right, they just might miss out. You have to make the call.
- If you get the report at the IEP meeting, you will not have time to research the names of the tests, what the scores actually mean and automatically, you are rendered a "less than" participant in the meeting.
- Ask the questions that are of greatest and most immediate concern to you. Once they realize that you have questions, you'll be told "We have time constraints, Mrs. Smith. Perhaps we can meet privately to address your concerns". Your response should be, "I am not comfortable with meeting privately. I think Susie will benefit from the expertise of all of you and we should continue the meeting another day, if necessary". Why do you say this? Because you have the protections in the IEP meeting setting that you do not have in the private setting and because SCHOOL DISTRICTS ARE VERY VERY VERY INTERESTED IN GETTING A SIGNED IEP!!! Just as with any aggressor, use their weight against them.
An upcoming post will be devoted to the IEP meeting, but for now, some tips:
- Submit, in writing, your intention to audio record the meeting. If you are questioned (and you will be), let them know that it is an important event in Susie's life and you are very interested in being a supportive part of the team. That's no lie because you are! You must bring your own recording devices.
- Once you get the report in your hands, as for a few minutes to quickly read it over and find out as much as you can about the test scores by asking questions. Once you get back home, research local organizations supporting those with learning disabilities are likely to have resources. "Google" searches are very helpful.
- Compare your child's goals and objectives to the content standards on your state's department of education website. The instructional objectives for reading, math and written expression for each grade are listed. Compare your child's performance against those standards. What grade level "fits" your child in terms of being competent on the standards?
There's a great deal more for you to know about this topic in order to you, as parents, to identify, understand and address your child's learning needs.
In 2004, I wrote a 40-page book to accompany a 30-minute video called Testing Your Child and Teen for Learning Disabilities. What School Testing Can't and Won't Tell You. The information is very relevant today. The versions of the tests I discussed have changed, for example, from the Gray Oral Reading Tests-4th Edition to the 5th Edition, but the information still benefits my clients on a daily basis. For example, knowing the critical questions to ask will help you to determine the meaningfulness of the results. If the evaluator had an accent or if they were interns at the time of the assessment, these facts will help you to place the determine the value of the results.
I refer to my assessment plan as the MAP, the McCulloch Assessment Plan, which has proven, over the past 20 years, to be an effective approach to evaluating students for learning disabilities. The book outlines this plan and helps parents to feel more confident about their decisions. The book offers numerous tips about the assessment process, the IEP meeting, how to find an evaluator as well as many other topics. The book is offered for a nominal charge on this website's Store and on Amazon.com in a variety of formats.
A final note. If you disagree with the district's assessment, you have the right to ask the district to fund an assessment (an "Independent Educational Evaluation/IEE") by a professional evaluator who is not affiliated with the district. The information covered in the book may help you to focus on the reasons for requesting an Independent Educational Evaluation because it will teach you about various tests and the skills they measure.
You do not have to explain "why" you disagree with the assessment. I ask parents to be prepared with phrases such as "I don't know what I don't know because I am not an educational expert". However, there is value in being able to articulate your concerns to both district personnel and a private evaluator. The right to request an IEE is in subsection 300.502 of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. It is worth your time to read this part of the law as it outlines of the conditions of an IEE. If you know the limitations and your rights, you can be more confident in working with the right professional.
Be advised that many districts impose a "cap" on the expense of an IEE and you may be responsible for paying part of the fee. The district may also "strongly encourage" you to use an evaluator they recommend. If that evaluator is a psychologist who is licensed, that psychologist is ethically bound to be neutral. Let's hope they are ethical. If the evaluator is not licensed, there may be no recourse if they conduct an assessment that is blatantly biased and then, where does THAT leave you? An unlicensed assessor is unlikely to have malpractice insurance and it is unlikely that there is a board to whom you can direct complaints. Ask for a licensed psychologist or other licensed professional. I believe that 12 states offers licenses for educational psychologists.
As I always recommend, sit down with anyone who might be working with your child. Have a list of questions prepared. Ask for the reasons why a district recommends them. The way they respond to this question alone will tell you a great deal. Be forthright in your concerns and suspicions without being insulting. Prepare your script. "Default" to not being an expert and "only" a parent. Ask them about their assessment tools, If you have read my book, you will be well-prepared to make certain that you have the best possible chance of having your child competently evaluated.
And, as always, do the best you can. You can make decisions based only on the information you have at this very moment...