Public School vs. Private Evaluation: Which One Fits Your Family’s Needs?

If your child is struggling to meet grade-level expectations and you suspect there may be an undiagnosed disability affecting their learning, you might be weighing the pros and cons of private versus public school evaluations. The good news is there is no right or wrong answer. It ultimately depends on your child and family’s particular needs. To help you sort through the decision-making process, we pulled together some considerations we suggest any family in your shoes should think about.

As part of the U.S. federal law Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, Child Find mandates that every child from birth to 21 who might have a disability be evaluated and provided the services they need.  Evaluation and early intervention are provided to infants and toddlers through government programs. This is organized by designated Regional Centers in the state of California. However, once a child turns three, services transition to the school district. It becomes the school’s responsibility to assess and identify these children. This is true for children who are home schooled, attend private school, or public school. Psychoeducational evaluations identify the child’s developmental and/or learning challenges. They are conducted by local school districts and are free of cost to the family. However, a school must have reason to suspect a child has a disability before conducting an evaluation. A family’s request for testing could be denied if the school does not share the family’s concerns.

Parents may request an evaluation at any time, however, we suggest allowing the school to implement interventions through general education first. Schools have processes and supports in place that may remedy the problem. The ultimate purpose of a public school evaluation is to determine whether your child qualifies for special education services. Thus, the first action we recommend is to collaborate with your student’s teacher and school to ensure all supports and interventions have been considered and implemented prior to moving forward with an evaluation.

While every child with suspected disabilities is entitled to an evaluation through the school system, some families may choose to have their child assessed by a private practitioner. If you are a parent weighing the options, here are some points to consider:

  • Cost: If the school district agrees to assess your child, the evaluation is free. A private evaluation will cost you money; however, depending on your insurance you may be reimbursed for some of the out-of-pocket expenses.

  • Time: Schools must operate within legal timelines, which can vary by state. In California, once the referral has been made, the district has 15 days to present the parent with an assessment plan. After the signed assessment plan is received by the school,  the district has 60 days to complete the evaluation and hold an IEP (individualized education plan) meeting to discuss the results.Professionals in private practice do not have to adhere to this timetable. Some may be able to start immediately and provide results within a few weeks following testing. However, in many areas, agencies and private practitioners have long waiting lists and lengthier turnaround times. Thus, a private assessment could take longer than the school’s timeline. If you are seeking results quickly, this should be something you clarify before hiring a private evaluator.For assessments completed at school, test sessions are likely to be short and more frequent. However, your child will miss classroom time when pulled for testing. A private assessment typically has fewer appointments but the length of test sessions may be longer.  Testing is typically conducted at an office, but some agencies, such as our team, offer testing in the home if preferred.

  • Bias: School-based assessments are completed in a familiar place for your child, but that also means there is potential for labels and stigmatization when they are pulled for testing or provided special education services if found eligible. Furthermore, schools may not be as quick to determine whether your child has a special education disability since school professionals are expected to exhaust all general education interventions before considering special education.A private evaluator can assess your child without the environmental pressures faced by school districts, such as politics, budget restrictions, and resource constraints. However, it is important to note that some private evaluators may recommend a program or service associated with their organization, which poses a potential conflict of interest.

  • Evaluator: In a public school evaluation, the assessment is multidisciplinary. At the very least, a school psychologist and special education teacher complete the testing and work in collaboration with your child’s teachers.  Other professionals may also assess, if needed, to address additional areas of concern (e.g. a speech-language pathologist may evaluate communication or an occupational therapist may assess fine motor skills). Parents may not choose their evaluators in the public school. Their child is assessed by whomever is assigned by the district.There are many options in the private sector. You can research evaluators in your area and select the right fit for your child and family based on personality and credentials. Furthermore, private assessments are typically conducted by one person rather than a team, although some agencies do offer multidisciplinary assessments as well.Since the private provider isn’t affiliated with the school, they may be impartial and less impacted by school politics. But, they might not be familiar with your child’s particular learning environment, or structure and processes available in the school. Private practice assessments will provide you with recommendations for home as well as additional resources and services to consider for your child based upon the test results. This is typically not included in school evaluations.

  • Scope of evaluation: When a family selects a private assessment, there is usually a longer menu of tests that can be completed and you can focus on a particular area of concern. While we recommend quality over quantity, in some cases being able to access a diverse battery of tests is needed. If applicable, families will also walk away from a private evaluation with a diagnosis. In a public school assessment, the goal is to determine the need for special education services and therefore it’s often more generalist. The results may include a special education disability, but not a diagnosis. However, neither one is inherently more “comprehensive” than the other.

  • Control: Your child’s test results from a public school assessment will be part of their official education record. Conversely,  if you choose a private assessment, you can decide if you would like to share the results. If you choose to share a private practitioner’s evaluation report with your child’s school, the school may not agree with the recommendations. Or, they may offer to complete their own assessment if the results suggest a possible special education disability is present.Whether you choose a public school or private assessment for your child, the most important consideration is not so much the label or diagnosis, but what can be done to remedy the problem. In many cases, families opt to have both conducted. It’s essential that you, your child’s school, including teachers, administrators, and specialists, and any private therapists involved, collaborate together. The results may warrant a comprehensive school plan such as an IEP, a 504, or intervention plan that you and the school agree upon.

Psyched Services is committed to supporting the connection between families and schools. We offer testing in the comfort of your home and provide the results of our assessments two weeks after testing is completed. Our psychologists have experience working in schools and thus provide realistic recommendations for a school setting.

If you’re interested in learning more about our private educational evaluations, please contact us for a free consultation.

Download our Developmental Milestones guide