Evaluations are at the heart of the special education process. The IEP teams translate the strengths and challenges reflected in the evaluations into IEP supports, goals, and objectives. The team then proposes services and a type of classroom or program that has the personnel and resources to help the child make progress.
It is a good process. Why is it then that almost every time I review evaluations and IEPs, I inevitably find a long list of challenges that are identified but not being addressed? Part of the answer is that sometimes evaluations are not done well. Another part of the answer is that even when evaluations are done well, they are often not used well.
There is a direct link from solid evaluations to a solid IEP. When that link is weak, the IEP is also weak. When an IEP is weak, the child is not getting what he or she needs. To illustrate, here is a real life example.
I was recently in an IEP team meeting for a middle school girl on the spectrum who also has ADHD. She has extensive executive functioning issues and social challenges, both of which her school has been refusing to see and do anything about. The team just reviewed the child's new neuropsychological and executive functioning evaluations documenting her extensive challenges in these areas.
The team was discussing why this child's homework assignments were incomplete. She is turning them in, but her written work needs elaboration and expansion. She also sometimes participates in small academic group work and sometimes does not, and at times she does not do what the teacher tells her to because she does not see why she should.
There was a lengthy and lively exchange of the possible reasons for these challenges between public school team members. They went through a laundry list of options.
Are these non-preferred activities?
Does she have an emotional disability?
Does she choose not to do it?
Is it the "teenage rebellion?"
Is her homework space not well set up?
Are her parents not checking on her work?
Finally, a private psychologist who was also attending the meeting asked a simple question, "Why aren't we considering that the reason is simply that this child is on the spectrum?"
Bingo! Thank you!!! Thank you!!! Thank you!!!
Autism is one "little" thing the team forgot to think about.
During the discussion, IEP team members weren't able to use the information from the evaluations they have just reviewed to understand this child's difficulties. This is very common and very frustrating. Many educational teams struggle to understand how an autistic profile connects to what the child looks like in real situations in school. A child's profile is described in various evaluations; however, somehow this information does not inform how the team thinks about the child. In my experience, this specific issue is the cause of many special education disputes.
Often, schools conduct excellent evaluations that are poorly interpreted and used. Parents spend a lot of money to get a private expert opinion to help the team make better decisions, but all too often it ends up not making a difference. Teams review evaluations that describe the child's profile but when they see an actual behavior they often cannot connect it back to the challenges documented in test scores and clinical observations. That is why we often hear misguided statements like "He is just lazy," "He chooses not to do this," or "He just needs to work harder."
Why? There are several possible reasons.
Team members are not trained to make connections between scores and child's real-life challenges;
Many team members do not understand statistics and the meaning of scores. I often have to explain the basics or correct mistakes;
Each team member has expertise in a narrow professional field and often cannot integrate the results of an evaluation that is outside of their specific field into their understanding of the child. They simply do not understand the evaluation well enough;
Team members do not have an in-depth understanding of autism or other conditions that might be involved;
Team members often are very busy and just skim through evaluation reports, rather than read them carefully. In this meeting, I had to call the team's attention to the child's extremely low test scores in some important areas and the team members were asking where I found them in the report. The answer was in the Test Scores Summary section. The team members simply didn't take the time to review it.
Educational team members are often generalists who work with a lot of different disabilities and know a little bit about each one. A big part of my role, and the role of any advocate for any child, is to help the team understand clearly how the child's disability connects to the child's difficulties.
Then, in the team's eyes, the child is no longer someone who stubbornly refuses to benefit from their efforts. The child finally becomes someone who needs help and support. And then, it becomes possible to add those supports to the child's IEP or 504 plan. And that's what we want.
So, if the school has just evaluated your child and you have a meeting coming up, what can you do?
This is a little bit tricky. While a private evaluator usually has highly specialized training, works for you and is "on your side," school evaluators work for the school, and the information they will provide you will depend on many factors out of the evaluator's and your control. Here are some things you c
You can ask to meet with each evaluator ahead of time to go over the evaluation. Ask any questions you have about specific scores, results and recommendations.
You can get as educated as possible on reading and understanding evaluations. It takes both basic statistical and some clinical knowledge;
You can find a private professional in the appropriate field who can review the evaluations and give you feedback on how well one they are and on the meaning of the results;
You can hire a special education advocate who has specialized training in interpreting evaluations;
If your child is struggling but school evaluations show no issues, find a private professional who specializes with children like yours to do a consultation and recommend further steps. Autistic profiles, especially for kids with high IQ and good verbal skills, aren't easy to capture in evaluations. You might need to ask for observations and data collection.
And if you have that incredibly insightful and in-depth private evaluation and want to make the best use of it, what can you do? How can you help your team take advantage of the amazing (and expensive) additional expertise you are bringing to the table?
Have an evaluator call in or come to the meeting to present the report and answer questions from the team. When you choose a private evaluator, ask in advance for their availability to do this;
Ask your evaluator to touch base with your child's teacher and connect their reports and concerns to the child's test scores and clinical profile;
Ask your evaluator to explicitly describe the connections between scores and school challenges in the report. This should be as detailed as possible;
Ask your evaluator in the Recommendations section to spell out specifically what will happen if each recommendation is NOT implemented. It helps team members understand what skill or area each recommendation addresses;
Speak to the evaluator about the specific concerns you have so that you understand how they connect to the scores and can explain to the team;
If you hire a special education advocate, make sure your advocate has clinical expertise and is trained to read evaluations, or at least is willing to speak to your private evaluator to get a good grip on what evaluation results mean
Have your child's team review evaluations every time there is a discussion that relies on their understanding of your child's profile. There is no rule that the evaluation report can only be reviewed once. I often send an email to a team chair in advance of the meeting and ask that all team members review specific evaluations that have been done in the past and are relevant to the discussion, before we meet. That way, in the meeting, everyone's memory of these evaluations is fresh.
Autism is a complex condition that can be challenging for teams to understand well. Teams also have a difficult time making connections between students'challenges and students' autism. Make sure you spend time helping your team make connections between evaluations and your child's real life challenges. If this can be accomplished, your child's experience in school will be so much better.