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Reviewing the FIE: A Crash Course in Assessments, Acronyms and the Bell Curve

The Full and Individual Evaluation (FIE) report is arguably the most important element in the Special Education process. It is central to determining eligibility, calculating present levels of academic and functional performance (PLAAFP) and developing the Individualized Education Program (IEP).

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires such evaluations be comprehensive which means they must:

  1. assess the child in all areas related to the suspected disability and

  2. identify all of the child's special education and related services needs whether or not they are commonly linked to the disability category in which the child has been classified (34 C.F.R. 300.304(c)).

Areas that may be assessed include the child's:

  • physical health,

  • vision and hearing,

  • general intelligence,

  • academic achievement,

  • social and emotional development,

  • communication skills (speech, language, writing)

  • gross and fine motor skills (occupational therapy assessment) and

  • behavior (Functional Behavior Analysis)

As a parent and contributing member of the ARD committee (IEP team), it is important to have at least a basic understanding of what's included, or what's not included, in an evaluation report. The FIE report can be intimidating with a lot of acronyms and unfamiliar terms. Most parents rely on school or district personnel to "explain" the report contents to them, but in doing so, they risk not being provided a full and accurate picture. Remember, the only member of the ARD committee or IEP team working solely in your child's best interests is YOU. In this post, I hope to provide you with tools and information that will assist you in not only acquiring a basic understanding of what's in the report but also what, if any, information may be missing.

General Information: The first page of any FIE report should provide basic facts: names, address, age, grade, school, district, assessment team and their credentials, the date of the assessment, etc. It should also include a statement of the reason or purpose for the evaluation. Check that the information is accurate and the assessment team is adequately qualified. For example, if your child is being assessed for a possible speech impairment, is one of the team members a speech pathologist? Also, if you had to submit a formal written request for your child to be assessed, that should be clearly stated. It may be important should a conflict arise down the road.

Review of Existing Evaluation Data (REED): All reevaluations and, when appropriate, initial evaluations must begin with a REED. The "existing evaluation data may include:

  • Private evaluations and other information provided by the parents,

  • Current classroom-based, local or State assessments (i.e. STAAR performance) and classroom-based observations and

  • Observations by teachers and related services providers.

When is a REED appropriate in an initial evaluation? If you have had a private evaluation or medical diagnosis for your child, if the teacher has been using RTI (Response to Intervention) or your child is performing below grade level in any academic areas, a REED is appropriate.

The information gathered in the REED together with your input and concerns as a parent are used to determine the number and type of assessments given in a comprehensive evaluation. Keeping this in mind, parents should be sure to put in writing any and all concerns they have regarding their child's academic, functional and/or behavioral performance before the evaluation begins. If, when reviewing the report, you find any of the concerns you raised are not included in the REED or any areas of concern included in the REED were not actually assessed, this should be noted and discussed with the ARD committee before the development of the IEP.

Assessments: There are a lot of different assessment instruments available out there. In choosing which ones to use with your child, evaluators must ensure they:

  • are not discriminatory on a racial or cultural basis;

  • are provided and administered in the language and form most likely to yield accurate information on what the child knows and can do academically, developmentally, and functionally;

  • are valid and reliable for the purpose used;

  • are administered by trained and knowledgeable personnel; and

  • are administered in accordance with any instructions provided by the producer of such assessments.

Let's say your child is nonverbal, or alternatively, is an English Language Learner, the law requires that tests be selected and conducted in a way that ensures the results accurately reflect his or her aptitude or achievement level (or whatever other factors the test claims to measure), and not merely reflect your child’s inability to speak or, in the case of the English Language Learner, your child's limited knowledge of the English language (unless the test being used is intended to measure that). In the FIE report, this section should include the name of each assessment tool, what the tool was used to assess, who did the assessment and their qualifications to do so and the conditions under which it was done. Keep in mind, school districts are required to "use a variety of assessment tools and strategies to gather relevant functional, developmental and academic information." (20 U.S.C. 1414(b)(2)(A)). Decisions regarding eligibility and IEP content cannot be based on only one assessment.

Assessment tools can be formal standardized tests like intelligence tests, academic achievement tests, and curriculum-based subject specific tests or informal assessments such as classroom and parent observations, behavior ratings scales, skill checklists and portfolios or samples of work. A proper evaluation will include both.

Scoring: So this is where things tend to get confusing. There are a lot of letters and numbers and not a lot of explanation as to what they mean. While the FIE will include the evaluator's explanation of what was tested and his/her interpretation of the assessment results, it may not be provide you with an objective or complete picture. It is essential that you review the results yourself or with the assistance of an advocate or private sector evaluator to ensure all your child’s relative strengths and weaknesses are properly identified.

The results of assessment tools can be reported in many different ways including Standard Scores, Percentile Ranks, Age Equivalents, Grade Equivalents, Raw Scores, Scale Scores and Subtest Scores. If the type of score used is not clearly stated or explained for a particular assessment in the FIE report, ask! For an in depth look at the different types of scores and how to convert them from one to another check out this article by Pete Wright. In my experience, results usually appear in the FIE report as sets of Standard Scores and Percentile Ranks.

Most standard scores use a mean or average score of 100 and a standard deviation (a measure of how spread out numbers are) of 15. In terms of percentiles, a score of 100 would mean 50% or "average." In any assessment using standard scoring, 68% of all children will score between 85 and 115 or one "standard deviation" from the mean (100). A child performing anywhere from 90 to 110 would be considered "average." A standard score of 85, placing a child at the 16% level, would be considered "very low average" and 115 “very high average.”

Let's try an example. Say your child is given the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children-Fourth Edition (affectionately known as the WISC-IV), a common standardized individual intelligence test. In the report, the results might look something like this:

All of the index scores listed above would fall in that "average" range with the Working Memory Index being considered "very low average." Does that mean you have an average child? Not necessarily! These index scores do not tell the whole story. Each of them is a composite of several subtest scores. The Verbal Comprehension Index, for example, can include subtests in:

  • Similarities (Required-measures abstract reasoning, verbal categories and concepts)

  • Vocabulary (Required-measures language development, word knowledge, verbal fluency)

  • Information (Optional-factual knowledge, long-term memory, recall) and

  • Comprehension (Optional-social and practical judgment, common sense)

In order to get a full and complete picture of your child's areas of strength and weakness, you should request all subtest scores be included in the report. Subtest scores on the WISC-IV range from 1 to 19 with a mean of 10. A low subtest score indicating an area of weakness or high score indicating a strength can be easily masked when combined with average scores in other subtests. For example, a child with high functioning autism or Asperger's might score very highly in areas like Vocabulary and Information, masking a very low score in Comprehension which requires social judgment and common sense resulting in a significant area of need not being addressed. These subtest scores can also be used in future ARD meetings to monitor your child's progress. Are the subtest scores showing improvement with the special education and related services your child is currently receiving? If not, what other or additional supports and services are needed?

Summary: Each member of the evaluation team should provide a summary of their findings which identifies areas of strength and weakness, the impact of those weaknesses and resulting educational, functional and/or behavioral needs of the child, and recommendations on how to properly address those needs. When reviewing the findings, parents should ask themselves these questions:

  • Do the findings cover all areas of strength and weakness identified in the data, including those in the subtest results?

  • Do the findings explain each and all of the difficulties my child is having in school?

  • Do the findings suggest an educational approach that should be used in teaching my child?

If the answer to any of these is "no," address your more specific questions and concerns regarding the findings directly to the evaluator in writing and request a written response..

Finally, a few important points to keep in mind:

  1. Request a copy of the FIE report in writing and well in advance of the ARD/IEP team meeting. While the law entitles you to a free copy of the report, the LEA is not required to provide it to you prior to the IEP meeting unless you request it in writing. Request it at least a week in advance to allow yourself time to review it or to have an advocate review it with you.

  2. The FIE report should not include a determination of eligibility. The evaluation team may provide recommendations and opinions regarding the presence or absence of a particular disability, but the IDEA specifically requires eligibility for special education and related services be determined by the IEP team (ARD committee) which includes you, the parent.

  3. The FIE report should not include decisions regarding a child's placement, present levels of academic and functional performance or individualized education program. Again, such decisions are made jointly by IEP team members during the course of the IEP meeting. School or district personnel may tell you that including some or all of these things as part of the report is done in the interest of saving time. However, convenience and saving time should never take precedence over a parent's right to be fully involved in decisions regarding his/her child's education.

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