In order to better explain the Special Education eligibility evaluation and determination process, I thought it best to break things down into a series of questions and answers. Hopefully, it makes sense to everyone.
QUESTION 1: WHO IS ELIGIBLE TO RECEIVE SPECIAL EDUCATION SERVICES UNDER THE IDEA?
In order for a child to receive special education services under the IDEA, he/she must
have one or more of the qualifying disabilities listed in the statute Section 1401 AND
as a result of having such disability, need special education and related services.
So, having a disability alone is not enough. That brings up our next question.
QUESTION 2: WHAT EXACTLY IS "SPECIAL EDUCATION" AND "RELATED SERVICES"?
Well, as luck would have it, the IDEA provides definitions. According to the US Code, the term "special education" refers to instruction that is "specially designed" to meet the disabled child's unique needs (20 U.S.C. §1401(29)). Does that clear things up for you? No? How about this: the Code of Federal Regulations (34 C.F.R. §300.39(b)(3)) defines "specially designed instruction" as adapting, as appropriate to the needs of an eligible child under this part, the content, methodology, or delivery of instruction—
(i) To address the unique needs of the child that result from the child’s disability; and
(ii) To ensure access of the child to the general curriculum, so that the child can meet the educational standards within the jurisdiction of the public agency that apply to all children.
Basically, special education means individually adapting what the child is taught, how it is taught to the child and/or how the child receives instruction in order to enable the child to learn and progress in the general curriculum.
"Related services" include transportation and any supportive services necessary to enable the child to benefit from special education. Supportive services include things like physical and occupational therapy, psychological or counseling services, audiology services, speech and orientation and mobility services.
QUESTION 3: HOW DO I FIND OUT IF MY CHILD IS ELIGIBLE FOR SPECIAL EDUCATION AND RELATED SERVICES?
The answer is through a Full and Individual Evaluation (FIE)..
QUESTION 4: HOW DO I GET THE PROCESS STARTED?
The best way to start is to contact the school principal or district SPED Director (or both!) in writing to state your concerns regarding your child and specifically request a Full and Individual Evaluation for Special Education and related services. Once a request has been made, the district must respond in writing by either denying the request and providing information on how to appeal the decision or by providing an opportunity for you to sign a consent for the evaluation. Your request alone does not constitute this consent.[*] Once parental consent for the evaluation has been received, the clock starts ticking. The initial evaluation must be completed within the time frame established by the state. In Texas, that’s 45 school days.
QUESTION 5: WHAT DOES AN INITIAL EVALUATION ENTAIL?
According to IDEA, the school or district conducting the evaluation must use a variety of assessment tools and strategies to gather relevant functional, developmental, and academic information, including any information provided by the parent. The IEP Team (ARD Committee in Texas), which includes the parents, cannot rely on any one measure or assessment in determining eligibility. The tools implemented should be reliable and administered by people with the appropriate knowledge and training to do so. The assessments must address all areas of suspected disability and provide information regarding the child's functional, academic and developmental abilities. It is important that parents be as detailed as possible when providing information about their concerns regarding their children. The information gathered is not only used to determine what areas to assess for eligibility but what needs those services should address. Parents must be provided copies of all assessments performed at no charge. When determining if the child needs SPED and related services, there is a tendency to focus on academic performance. If the child has a disability and is failing classes as a result, the need for special education services is pretty clear. But what if the child isn't struggling academically? Does that mean the child is not entitled to services under the IDEA? The answer is no. The IDEA includes specific language requiring the assessment of functional and developmental abilities as well as the academic. According to the US Department of Education, functional abilities refer to the skills necessary to perform everyday tasks such as life skills (eating, dressing, toileting, etc.), social skills, behavior skills and mobility skills. Having a deficit in any of these areas can have an adverse effect on the child's involvement and progress in the regular education curriculum. In such cases, specialized instruction in these areas would be appropriate.
QUESTION 6: WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?
When the assessments are completed, parents meet with "a team of qualified professionals" and together determine eligibility and educational need. (IDEA Section 1414(b)(4)(A)). If the child is determined to meet eligibility requirements, the team (including the parents) will formulate a plan on how to best address the child's individ ual educational needs and create an Individualized Education Program (IEP). Informed parental consent must be obtained before the child can receive any such services. If the parent refuses to give consent, the school will not be required to do anything further under the IDEA.
If the parents are dissatisfied with the evaluation results, they are entitled to request an Independent Educational Evaluation at public expense. If the request is denied, parents can request a hearing to determine the appropriateness of the original assessment. Even if the parents' request is ultimately denied, parents can still seek an independent evaluation at their own expense and the results must be considered by the school/district in any decision regarding the provision of a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) for their child (see 34 CFR Section 300.502). Parents should be sure that any outside assessments obtained meet with any reasonable district criteria requirements.
[*] It is important to note that by consenting to the evaluation, parents are not consenting to the provision of special education services. That comes later once the child is determined eligible and an IEP has been developed.