For some parents, the request from a school to have their child assessed for special education services is quite a shock. Aside from the emotional stress of realizing their child might have a disability, parents can be confused about special education law, as well as their parental rights and the rights of their child. Here is a brief overview of special education law, assessments, multicultural considerations, and some helpful tips if you, or any parent you know, has to navigate the unfamiliar world of special education.
Special Education Law
Individuals with disabilities are protected under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). IDEA will only cover individuals up through 21 years of age, whereas ADA covers individuals throughout their lives. There are several rights afforded by both acts. For the purposes of this discussion, only the rights found under IDEA will be discussed.
Under IDEA—as well as previous iterations of special education law—individuals with disabilities have the right to free and appropriate public education (known as FAPE). This means that regardless of disability children have the right to attend public school and participate in the same general education classroom as their peers. However, schools do have the right to limit the amount of time a child spends in the general education classroom based upon safety and disruption concerns, as well as the type of instruction a child needs in order to be successful. In other words, all students have the right to quality education in the least restrictive environment (LRE) possible on an individualized basis. All conditions and accommodations for a child under FAPE and LRE must be spelled out in an Individualized Education Plan (IEP).
IEPs are created by a team of professionals that may include speech-language pathologists, occupational therapists, special education teachers, general education teachers, and a representative of the school or school district. A parent has the right to be involved in the IEP development process and to sign off on all plans and accommodations. A parent also has the right to bring in an advocate to help ensure a child’s best interest is truly being addressed. When a parent and educator cannot agree upon the goals and accommodations needed for the child, an arbitrator will come in to help make the decision. IEPs are renewed once per year; therefore, parents have the opportunity to see what has worked and what has failed in order to make changes for the next IEP.
Screening for disabilities—such as vision and hearing checks—are routine in public schools and usually happen every other year, or otherwise directed by the school district. Screenings are noninvasive and do not take very much time out of a child’s school day; therefore, parents should ensure that their children are screened whenever it is available. Participating in screenings is a great way to help a child avoid potential formal assessments looking to identify possible disabilities. With the rise of electronic screen use and load activities, the need for vision and hearing screenings is paramount. Many—yet not all—unnecessary assessments can be avoided through proper screenings.
Assessments are used to determine if a child has a disability. If a disability is present, assessments determine if special education services are necessary for the child’s academic success. Assessments should be conducted only after informal measures have been taken—such as behavioral observations, interviews through parent teacher conferences, and information gathered from school registration—and response to intervention (RTI) has been conducted.
Teachers use RTI as a screening tool in order to identify differences in a child’s learned behavior, learning styles, or cultural expectations from those of other children who are not disabled. The use of RTI is not an indication that a child has a disability, but rather is meant to target any student who is struggling in the classroom. RTI is noninvasive and should take place before any formal assessments are conducted.
Formal assessments exist for various expected disabilities. Some assessments are better than others for testing for a specific disability. You may find information on different assessments used in each state by visiting that state’s board of education website, or by contacting your local public school district and speaking with the special education director. Parents should ask what assessments will be used and what they are designed to do. A qualified professional should conduct all assessments, and a professional trained in the scoring of each assessment given should interpret results.
It is important to know that a parent has the right to refuse participation in any particular assessment. A child should be given more than one assessment to check for any suspected disability. Parents have the right to have multiple assessments conducted before their child is labeled with a disability.
Children who come from diverse cultures or multilingual families are at greater risk for misdiagnosis of a disability. Parents of these children need to make sure that proper informal assessments and RTI have been done in the child’s native language if other than English. Parents have the right to have all interviews and plans for assessments explained to them in their native language. It is not considered ethical for a school to proceed with assessments without explaining the situation and plans with the parent in the native language, even if the native language is rare.
Parents must be informed of their rights and the rights of their child during every step of the assessment and evaluation process. These rights must be presented in the native language of the parent(s) or legal guardian. For a school to deny any parent or guardian written notification of assessment plans, or to formally assess a child without parental consent, is illegal. Also, for a school to proceed to assess a child for disabilities without nullifying cultural barriers that may be impeding academic progress is considered unethical. Questions a parent/guardian may want to ask before any assessments are given are: 1). How many assessments are going to be conducted? 2). What assessments are going to be used, and what do they identify? 3). Are all assessments given in the child’s native language? 4). Who will be conducting the assessments, and who will interpret the results? 5). How long will the assessment process take? 6). Will I receive all plans and results in writing? Additionally, here are some helpful tips to keep in mind:
- Make sure to get everything in writing and that you respond in writing in a timely fashion.
- You have the right to bring an advocate to all meetings. Attorneys can be intimidating to school personnel and may result unneeded hostility; therefore, it is better to bring a community disability advocate if you need/want one.
- Screenings are done for all children. It does not mean your child has a disability. All children are screened so that the best education can be delivered to all students.
- You have the right to refuse any assessments given, or have assessments conducted by an independent educational evaluator.
- If your child already has a diagnosed disability, it does not mean that the child will qualify for special education services. Assessments must be conducted to see if services are needed.
- If special education services are needed, you have the right to be apart of the process of establishing an IEP. You also have the right to be a part of every IEP meeting in the future.