Let’s take the case of Susie, a fictional student, a third-grader who is still struggling to read fluently. She also has difficulty sitting still and paying attention for more than ten minutes while her classmates are easily attending for half hour lessons. She is a quiet girl who otherwise follows classroom rules and appears eager to succeed. Her teacher’s comments on Susie’s report card note her concern with Susie’s slow progress in reading. What can be done?
- Parent-Teacher Conference: At the report card meeting, Susie’s teacher and parents will discuss Susie’s strengths at school and home, areas where she is lagging behind, and how to support her reading at home.
- Teacher consultation with professionals: Susie’s teacher will ask for help from specialists like the principal, reading specialist, and school psychologist who will offer suggestions on differentiated instruction (i.e., modifying lessons for all levels of learners).
- Student Study Team meeting: If Susie doesn’t begin to perform within the range of her classmates in a reasonable amount of time, Susie’s parents, teacher, and other school staff will get together to discuss Susie’s development and to see if she has been behind in other areas like speech and language or motor skills. They will ask about any family history of learning difficulties, and they will document interventions tried so far at home and school. They may suggest that Susie’s pediatrician check her vision and hearing, and, finally, the team may suggest formal interventions like small group or individual reading intervention, also known as Response to Intervention (RtI).
- Follow up SST meeting: If Susie has not responded to formal intervention in six to eight weeks, the team will try to figure out why and may suggest different interventions. Or at this meeting an evaluation for special education (IEP) or a 504 plan may be recommended.
- Once a referral for an evaluation has been made, school districts must write up an assessment plan and present it to Susie’s parents within 15 days. Once the plan is signed and received by the district, the school team has 60 calendar days to complete the assessments and hold the IEP meeting.
What does the special education evaluation look like?
- Susie’s parents will sign an assessment plan giving permission for testing in the areas of intellectual ability, information processing, attention, and academic levels. Generally, these tests are conducted by a special education teacher and a school psychologist with input from the general education teacher. A speech and language specialist and an occupational therapist will join the assessment team if there are concerns about language and motor skills.
- Susie’s parents will complete an in-depth developmental history as well as rating scales that show any difficulties paying attention at home. Her parents may be asked to give permission for the assessment team to speak with Susie’s pediatrician and any other private specialists who know her.
- Susie’s teachers will complete rating scales to show how Susie attends and concentrates at school. They may also discuss their observations with the assessment team.
- The assessment team members may observe Susie in her classroom and on the playground.
- The assessment team will administer tests to Susie individually and will write reports showing their results. For Susie, they will be testing for a reading disorder (sometimes known as dyslexia) and/or an attention deficit disorder. They will test her auditory and visual processing, her intellectual skills, and what grade level she has reached in reading, spelling, writing, and math.
- Susie’s parents and the assessment team will meet for an IEP eligibility meeting to determine whether Susie requires 1) special education instruction, or 2) accommodations on a 504 plan, or 3) continuing in general education. Her parents will be given a copy of their legal rights regarding the special education assessment process and information about what to do in case they disagree with the findings. For more information about legal rights, see: wrightslaw.com
Sometimes IEP teams do not find evidence of a learning disability, or they may find one but Susie’s testing shows that she is actually keeping up with her classmates in reading, just somewhat more slowly. They may find that her attention span is a lot shorter than her classmates and that she needs accommodations in order to focus. In that case, they will refer her to the school’s 504 team to formalize those accommodations.
If Susie is eligible for an IEP or a 504, those plans will be written for a calendar year and updated at least yearly. If she is not eligible at that time, the team may follow these same steps at a later time to check her progress. If her parents believe the school’s assessments are not accurate, they may request an independent educational evaluation (IEE) paid for by the district.
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