Returning to School after COVID: Navigating Triennial Evaluations

Formal testing is not legally required for every triennial special education evaluation. So why have many districts automatically required it? Does it always help children? And what new considerations do IEP teams face in light of students' long awaited return to schools.

Triennial Evaluation: To Test or Not to Test?

It can be really hard to help children who are struggling. The problem is when a child is struggling and IEP team members go around and around about how nothing is working, the discussion almost always ends with a request for testing. 

The Purpose of Assessment

Under the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA), the purpose of Special TriEducation Assessment is:

  1. To determine whether a child is a child with a disability (as defined specifically by IDEA), and;
  2. To determine the educational needs of a child

Right now, assessment teams are beyond spread thin. The current reality is that much of a service delivery provider's time is spent completing evaluations. This is especially true for school psychologists, who often complete the bulk of psychoeducational evaluations (see a previous article, Hanging on to Your School Psychologist in an Era of Shortages). 

In California, prior to the pandemic, many districts opted to complete a full psychoeducational evaluation for every triennial due date. Throughout the pandemic, most special education legal mandates remained while IEP teams struggled to determine how best to complete evaluations with myriad new obstacles and considerations. This begs the question: Is testing always needed to make those determinations?

Weighing the Options: 3 Pros and Cons to Consider

It’s not that testing is bad, but it’s not always good either. To special education leaders, it feels like testing has become the default request – nay, solution – for almost every obstacle. At times, it can actually do more harm than good. Consider the following pros and cons:

Pro: Committees may get answers to unanswered questions.

Con: The answers often exist in previous evaluations, in which case the problem may actually be one of follow-through rather than insufficient data. In such cases, testing can distract from the hard work of developing and implementing plans that work.

Pro: Students get the undivided attention of an expert in child development.

Con: Students will likely never see that expert again. Meanwhile, they have missed valuable time learning from the expert they will see: their classroom teacher.

Pro: Student needs change as they grow and develop over time. Updated testing can provide a snapshot of their current needs.

Con: Standardized, norm-referenced tests lose much of their value when trying to determine a student’s strengths and needs in the “new normal.” More than likely, parents and teachers have a far better picture of those changes than any test session can produce. Unless testing is needed to establish eligibility, school psychologists often get the best data through consultation and collaboration with others. 

Tips for Triennial Assessment Planning 

The fundamental questions come down to what a student needs and how committees can best support those needs. Testing is appropriate if committees are unable to answer one or both questions without it. 

To help kids and stay compliant:

  • Plan triennials early with your assessment teams: Review all overdue and upcoming triennial assessments. Teams may determine the appropriateness of completing a records review in lieu of a complete full reevaluation outside of an IEP meeting.  
  • If a records review is recommended, collaborate with families to finalize that determination: Parents have invaluable information on their child’s functioning, particularly after directly educating them during virtual instruction. Contact families to discuss the team’s reasons for determining a records review is appropriate and gain their input. Parents and districts must agree in writing that reassessment is unnecessary. For further guidance on making this determination, download our Considering Reevaluations guide.
  • When additional testing is needed, be specific about why: If a formal assessment is needed, the team should be able to describe their specific questions in detail. School psychologists have a lot of tools at their disposal, so the more information obtained upfront, the more thoughtful they can be in choosing the right tools to answer the questions at hand.
  • Involve your school psychologists early and often: As the school year progresses, IEP teams will undoubtedly have ongoing discussions about the need for assessment. It is absolutely appropriate to invite the school psychologist to IEP meetings when there are concerns about a plan, so please don’t wait until the triennial if a child is tanking. School psychologists can help committees interpret the data they have, adjust and monitor plans, and request an additional assessment if needed.

Many times, IEP Teams reach an “a-ha” moment when they take time to better understand the whole child. Educators are masters of data collection and analysis. Families provide a wealth of insight and knowledge that can’t be learned in the classroom, and children are the resident experts on their strengths, perceptions, and interests. These supports and interventions can help our children learn and do right now, which is critical for their self-perception and their academic progress. When we find immediate solutions, we should pat ourselves on the back for our hard work and implement them as soon as possible.

Need help getting caught up with assessments? We see the struggle of trying to do too much with too little, which is why our learning and behavior experts are here to champion with you. Schedule your call with us today so you can stop feeling stretched and stressed and enjoy the peace of mind that comes with partnering with our expert team.

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