Often, school districts are confused by the difference between an evaluation, which is a legal term, and an assessment, which is a medical term. An evaluation is a task that a school district is obligated to perform under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”). A student receives only one evaluation at a time under the IDEA, and that evaluation must cover “all areas of suspected disability.”1 I have previously discussed how often a student is entitled to an evaluation, but the brief answer is that a school district probably cannot be required to evaluate more frequently than once per year, and may not be required to evaluate more frequently than once every three years. The purpose of the evaluation is twofold. First, evaluations exist to determine if a student is a “child with a disability,” which is to the technical way of saying that the student is eligible for an IEP. The other purpose of an evaluation is to guide the creation of the IEP by figuring out the child’s needs.2
By contrast to an evaluation, an assessment is something that an expert like a psychologist does to try and figure out a child’s capabilities in some area. There are many types of assessments, based on particular areas of weakness – examples include, but are not limited to cognitive function, hearing, behavior problems, need for assistive technology, or functional life skills. In practice, this means that your child may undergo evaluation from several different experts in order to complete the evaluation and determine your child’s needs. Although not every student will need assessment in every possible area of need, an evaluation must cover a student’s behavioral issues, social skills, and the emotional status of the student if those issues could interfere with educational success.3
Because the evaluation must address all areas of the student’s suspected disability, a school district’s failure to notice a particular disability or need of a student violates the law, even if the school district identified other disabilities and needs. Failing to notice a particular problem is essential equivalent to failing to effectively evaluate the student. For example, a school district that notices a child has hearing problems but fails to notice that the child is also dyslexic has fallen short of its legal obligation.
In short, a school district cannot defend its evaluation by saying that it performed some assessments, relevant to some of a student’s needs, and any additional assessments can be requested in the next evaluation, in a year’s time. Quite simply, if you need more experts or more tests to figure out a student’s needs, the evaluation is not complete. That does not necessarily mean that particular assessments (such as all the assessments necessary to identify auditory processing disorder) must be administered, but it does mean that a school district cannot close its eyes to a particular areas of need of a student simply because it has investigated other, unrelated needs of that student.
1 20 U.S.C. § 1414(b)(3)(B)
2 20 U.S.C. § 1414(b)(2)(A)
3 34 C.F.R. §§ 300.304(b)(3), 300.304(c)(4).
For those interested, here is a link to Prof. Weber’s article “All Areas of Suspected Disability,” that discusses the legal issue in greater detail.
I will be speaking at the Reach Enrichment Center’s monthly meeting on Saturday, August 3 at 10:00 am.
Additionally, I will be speaking at the SPECTRUM parent support group monthly meeting on Thursday, October 3 at 6:30 pm.
Have your own event for children with special needs? Submit it here for inclusion in future events lists.