July 19th, 2021

BRIEF #3: Effectively Managing Special Education Evaluations

The Challenge

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires districts to complete special education evaluations within 60 days of the date of the request (unless states choose a shorter timeline). The law also sets out various components that should be included in a comprehensive evaluation. After a child is referred for special education, a comprehensive evaluation collects multiple points of data — including standardized assessment, response to intervention data, teacher and caregiver feedback, and academic performance — about a child to determine if they have a disability and if they would benefit from specially designed instruction.

COVID-related school closures significantly complicated the usual process and timeline that districts use to evaluate whether or not a child requires special education. Districts have struggled to keep pace with evaluations for special education during the COVID-19 pandemic. Because there was inconclusive guidance on how to administer assessments and conduct observations in blended or virtual settings, many districts were unable to complete the evaluations they had begun before the pandemic and struggled to begin new evaluations requested after the onset of the pandemic. In addition, many students have experienced instructional loss and new stress, trauma, and behavioral challenges over the course of the pandemic. As a result, it is likely that requests for new referrals will increase in the coming year as schools try to meet the needs of students.

In addition to the backlog of evaluations and a potential rise in referrals, instructional loss and COVID-related stressors make it more difficult to determine which children require special education. Specifically, for a student to qualify for special education due to a specific learning disability, the team (including school professionals and the caregiver) must determine that the disability is the primary cause of the student’s academic challenges, rather than poor instruction or lack of English proficiency. States and districts may struggle to rule out poor instruction as a causal factor in student difficulties, or find meaningful academic proficiency baselines with which to compare students. As a result, they may find it difficult to accurately assess student performance. 

Practice and Policy Considerations

The following school-level practice and policy considerations can help states and districts effectively manage special education evaluation in light of the complexities from COVID-19. 

Practices to effectively manage special education evaluations.

As teams of education professionals and district leaders strive to effectively evaluate students for special education, they must focus on four key areas: (1) data collection; (2) accurate determination of special education eligibility; (3) family and caregiver empowerment and collaboration; and (4) managing the backlog of evaluations. 

Collecting data for an evaluation to determine eligibility for special education:

Closely examine background and history before conducting an assessment. Teams of education professionals should review a child’s background and history — including past proficiency and response to intervention (RTI) data and teacher and caregiver input — to determine what data are necessary to compile a comprehensive perspective of the child’s strengths and challenges, and the causes of both. 

Ask caregivers to share feedback and observation. Caregivers know more about their child than ever before through supporting them in blended and virtual environments, and have a deep understanding of how COVID impacted their child. Caregiver input is a key piece of every evaluation. But now, more than ever, those data are critically important. The team of education professionals should provide more time and support to caregivers to gather data without adding undue burden on caregivers or creating barriers for caregivers who may speak a language other than English.

Determine the need for data from cognitive assessments on a case-by-case basis. Teams of education professionals should examine a child’s history and other data to determine which cognitive assessments are a necessary part of the comprehensive evaluation to adequately address the reason for the referral. Cognitive assessments may not be necessary if academic performance data, notes from observation, and anecdotal data from caregivers and teachers are sufficient to answer questions related to the referral. Differences in current experiences and those from the norm group could also raise questions about the validity of conclusions from cognitive assessment data, and interpretations should be cautiously conducted with only the most robust scores (e.g., full-scale IQ).

Document alterations in how cognitive assessments are administered or interpreted. If cognitive assessments are needed as part of the evaluation, ongoing health and safety concerns will continue to influence the way some assessments can be administered. Whenever possible, evaluators should follow publishers’ guidelines to maximize the validity of the data. But if modifications or alterations are necessary — including conducting assessments virtually, wearing masks, or social distancing — evaluators should document those changes in the assessment report and explain how that may impact the results and meaning of the data. 

Prioritize response to intervention (RTI) data. Because of school disruptions, the academic proficiency benchmarks normally used to evaluate a child against others are limited. Without this, RTI data can play a critical role. Rather than relying on benchmarks, an RTI approach monitors if children are making adequate progress in real time when compared to their peers. 

Determining eligibility for special education:

Clearly define the questions an evaluation should answer. While special education evaluations are designed to consider whether a child has a disability and needs special education services, there are other considerations to keep in mind. For example, while teams of education professionals are required to consider whether the student’s learning challenges persist in spite of being provided appropriate instruction, they should now also consider the impact of COVID. A team may want to ask, “Is there evidence of other factors that are likely to be impacting learning?” For some students, the stress of COVID and disruptions to their routine might be leading to behavioral or social-emotional challenges that are impeding learning, as opposed to the student needing special education instruction. 

Consider social-emotional and behavior factors. School disruptions, disruptions in caregiving environments, loss of adult supervision, and the stress from COVID have had a significant impact on many children’s behavior, and behavior can have a dramatic impact on academic performance. Teams of education professionals should observe and evaluate how a child’s context may have influenced a child’s behavior and collect data on a child’s response to behavioral or social-emotional supports. 

Use multiple sources of data and consider the context of a child’s present circumstances. The past year has resulted in a lack of reliable academic proficiency benchmarks due to instructional loss, difficulty administering assessments, and challenges collecting other types of data in virtual or blended instruction. Therefore, it is more important than ever to consider multiple sources of data when making special education eligibility decisions. Data should include RTI, educator and caregiver observation, current and previous academic performance, and cognitive assessment results, if necessary. It may also include input from other school support or outside providers, such as therapists, speech and language pathologists, and occupational therapists. A team of education professionals should look for a preponderance of evidence that a child has a disability and would benefit from special education services. 

Empowering families and caregivers:

Make IEP meetings either virtual or in-person, based on the caregiver preference. During school disruptions, many districts offered IEP meetings virtually. For many caregivers, this made it easier to join meetings, increased their confidence to engage, and allowed caregivers to invite other advocates. At the same time, some caregivers still prefer in-person meetings and feel more engaged in that setting. Therefore, districts should allow caregivers to choose the format of IEP meetings when health and safety procedures allow. 

Communicate regularly and clearly with caregivers of children who are engaged in the evaluation process. Teams of education professionals should communicate the timeline, process, and expectations to caregivers. Caregivers should understand any change to normal processes due to COVID-related factors and how the school will provide additional supports in the interim to make sure the child does not fall further behind. 

Managing a backlog of evaluations:

Honor existing IEPs while districts make progress on students’ reevaluations. Children have a right to a reevaluation every three years unless caregivers waive the reevaluation. In light of COVID, as districts work through the backlog of evaluations, they should continue to implement existing IEPs and serve students even where a reevaluation might be overdue. If reevaluations are delayed, teams of education professionals should meet informally with caregivers to discuss how best to support the child in the interim while a plan is put in place to complete the reevaluation as soon as possible.

Prioritize initial evaluations. Teams of education professionals should work to ensure that all evaluations and reevaluations are completed in a timely manner. But if there is a backlog, education professionals can consider prioritizing initial evaluations in order for eligible students to begin receiving specialized services. It is important that children in need begin receiving services as quickly as possible.

Increase capacity to manage evaluations. To manage a backlog of evaluations and a potential wave of new referrals, districts can hire additional professionals, specifically evaluators, on a contract or temporary basis, to manage the workload. 

Policies to effectively manage special education evaluations:

States and school districts play important and differentiated roles in helping teams of education professionals implement school-level practices to respond to COVID-related challenges.

We recommend that states and school districts take the following actions to encourage education professionals to effectively manage evaluations for special education. 

Invest in building capacity in areas such as the intersection of disability and other factors. Ruling out exclusionary factors is always challenging, but COVID-related instructional loss and trauma make this particularly difficult. States and districts can help teams of education professionals better evaluate and identify the primary cause of a learning challenge by leaning on school psychologists and educators who are experts in the area. Experts can either provide additional capacity to conduct evaluations or provide coaching or guidance materials to increase expertise among education professionals. See more on ruling out exclusionary factors here and here

Invest resources to improve caregivers’ collaboration and empowerment. Consistent and clear communication with caregivers engaged in the special education evaluation process will take careful thought, planning, and time. States and districts can work with community partners or caregiver-focused organizations to build resources or structures that allow for actionable, meaningful, and clear communication for caregivers. There should be multiple ways that caregivers can engage and share information with schools — some virtual and some in person — as various caregivers more easily grasp information in different formats.

Update guidance to rule out exclusionary practices. Policies and guidance designed to help teams of education professionals rule out exclusionary factors vary across states and districts. Given the complexity of factors that can impact learning challenges during and after COVID-related school disruptions, states should update guidance that helps education professionals determine the degree of impact of school disruptions, trauma, a lack of English proficiency, and other factors. The guidance should help education professionals identify or manage a lack of proficiency baselines. See more on ruling out exclusionary factors here and here

Issue guidance on how to address the backlog of evaluations. To maximize equity and consistency, states and districts should issue guidance on how to prioritize the backlog of assessments. For instance, guidance should instruct teams of education professionals to prioritize initial evaluations over reevaluations. Teams of education professionals must not prioritize certain children based on their suspected disability as that would cause education professionals to predetermine the disability category prior to completing sufficient evaluations, which is forbidden by IDEA. 

Invest in additional capacity to manage the backlog of evaluations. As part of the guidance, states and districts should also encourage districts to use IDEA and Elementary and Secondary Emergency Relief Fund money to increase capacity to manage a backlog of evaluations. Additional funds may be used to hire outside evaluators to conduct assessments, hire additional school psychologists — although in many regions there is a shortage — or hire additional part-time staff to manage evaluation paperwork to free up education professionals to manage other parts of the evaluation. 

Clarify IDEA requirements around assessments within triennial reevaluations. States and districts should clarify for education professionals that assessments within triennial reevaluations should be administered on a case-by-case basis, depending on a child’s needs. Districts must reevaluate a child with an IEP at least every three years to determine if the child continues to have a disability, “whether the child continues to need special education and related services,” and “whether any additions or modification to the special education and related services are needed to engage the child to meet measurable annual goals set out in the IEP of the child and to participate, as appropriate, in the general education curriculum.” Districts must only administer assessments if instructional data and observation indicate that the results of any assessment may have changed or if additional data are needed to supplement other forms of data. To ensure that evaluations are effective and to administer assessments appropriately, education professionals should consider child data and input from caregivers before determining which assessments are necessary. 

Invest resources to implement response to intervention (RTI) approaches with fidelity. Effective implementation of RTI is a team effort and requires coordinated administration of effective interventions and continuous monitoring. States and districts can invest in resources, including hiring coaches and procuring high-quality interventions, to improve the quality and impact of RTI data. For more information, see here

Invest resources to improve caregivers’ collaboration and empowerment. Consistent and clear communication with caregivers engaged in the special education evaluation process will take careful thought, planning, and time. States and districts can work with community partners or caregiver-focused organizations to build resources or structures that allow for actionable, meaningful, and clear communication for caregivers. There should be multiple ways that caregivers can engage and share information with schools — some virtual and some in person — as various caregivers more easily grasp information in different formats.

Evaluating Children for Special Education


Brief 1:

Obligations to locate, evaluate, and serve students with disabilities.

Brief 2:

Creating inclusive environments.

Parent & Caregiver Guide:

Special education evaluations.

This project has been made possible in part by a grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative DAF, an advised fund of Silicon Valley Community Foundation.

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