The key to making independent educational evaluations work
Monday, October 12, 2015
You're happy. You sent your child's IEP team a brief request for an independent educational evaluation (IEE), and they agreed with it. Like you, the team members said they wanted greater insight into your child's struggles with reading, writing and related problems.
They too felt stymied, and they agreed to the IEE without restrictions or legal actions. They even asked you to pick your own examiner, as long as he or she had the proper certifications. You feel great! Smooth sailing. No problems, right?
Not so fast.
Despite schools agreeing to parents' requests for IEEs, the results often frustrate parents. The evaluations may fail to tell them what they want to know, fail to improve children’s IEPs, and fail to accelerate their progress. School personnel often share this frustration. After all the parents and schools' efforts to obtain quality IEEs, the children's struggles continue. Everyone suffers.
If you're seeking an IEE for your child, there's good news. You and the school can markedly improve the odds of getting an IEE that sheds important light on your child's struggles and significantly accelerates his or her progress.
Accomplishing this requires that you let the evaluator know what you want to learn from the evaluation. This is best done by developing critical questions for the evaluator to answer. But try not to feel anxious about this. Instead, just review the questions you'll find later in this article in the sample request letter.
Ideally, it's best for parents to discuss their questions with the evaluator before selecting her (or him) or agreeing to the school's recommendation. Why the questions? Because good questions can help tailor the nature of evaluations to match your child's needs.
They can help evaluators focus more precisely on the current and modifiable causes of your child's struggles, especially those that tests can't identify (e.g., disorganized classes, frustration level books, little positive reinforcement, dependence on "round robin" oral reading, little guided and distributed practice, an exceptionally fast instructional pace) and help them suggest more precisely focused and potentially effective solutions.
The questions can also help you and the school select an evaluator who is highly qualified and prepared to answer all your questions.
Over the years, I've found it's often wise for parents to first meet with a private expert to formulate the critical questions, incorporate them into their written request, and then meet with school personnel to review them and revise them (if necessary).
Although it's usually best to do this collaboratively, in a genuine attempt to improve the evaluation, IEP and intervention, some schools will refuse. They'll either accept the request and some or all of the questions or legally challenge the request.
In this article, the request letter illustrates the kinds of questions and concerns that can improve your odds of obtaining an IEE that can produce effective interventions. The request is focused, businesslike and respectful. Its questions demonstrate knowledge and commitment, two sources of influence.
Most of its concerns are obvious and verifiable by the school's own records. And if the school rejects your request, the questions and concerns may well prove highly convincing in mediation or court.
The letter, however, is not the kind that an attorney is likely to write (as I am not an attorney and this article does not offer legal advice), nor is it one you should copy and send to your child's school. But it's fine to use it as a sample-to-revise that fully and accurately reflects the realities of your child's struggles.
When writing your request, keep in mind it must be factual, justifiable, respectful and consistent with your state's code and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 (IDEA). Also keep in mind that it's usually best to build a collaborative relationship, often moment-by-moment, even if some or all of the school's IEP team members seem adversarial.
With these points in mind, here's a sample request letter that you can revise to meet your child's needs.
Dear Case Manager and School Members of the IEP Team for Orlando Hypothetical (Our Son),
Over the past six-and-a-half years, Orlando's reading, writing and academic success has consistently been poor. It falls far short of his intelligence and language abilities. For example, the school's IQ and oral language scores show he's a highly intelligent and articulate eighth grader, but his test performance on his last state test, the seventh-grade NJ reading and writing test, was consistent with all his previous test performances since second grade — it was abysmal.
It was abysmal despite teacher reports that he tried to do well on the tests. With great concern for Orlando, one of his teachers told us his reading and writing performances resembled that of "an anxious, struggling third grader." Moreover, this teacher and several of his previous teachers have said his reading and writing problems partially or fully cause or complicate all his other academic struggles. The school's fourth-grade psychology evaluation essentially said the same.
Despite having some wonderful teachers, these abysmal test scores reflect Orlando's achievement in class. For example, when reading he has not learned to reliably differentiate "want" from "went" or "fast" from "first." Unless the effectiveness of his full-day reading and writing experiences are fundamentally changed, we see little chance that he will become college or career ready; likely, this will destroy his chance for a decent social, emotional and economic future.
From what many of Orlando's teachers have told us and from his school records, we believe that these are his six most serious difficulties:
- Poor motivation for academic classes caused by feelings of incompetence and helplessness
- Impulsivity, attention and concentration
- Working and short-term memory
- Decoding and sight vocabulary
- Reading comprehension
- Resistance to writing activities
In contrast, Orlando:
- Has great empathy for anyone he thinks is suffering
- Enjoys helping others, especially peers and younger children
- Is well-liked by many of his peers
- Is innately curious about the world
- Loves playing sports
- Wants to become a physical therapist or medical researcher
Based on all the above, including Orlando's chronic and debilitating academic struggles, we formally request an independent educational evaluation (IEE) for reading and writing. Although his primary problem is reading and writing, which creates overwhelming barriers to success in all of his classes, he has never had this type of intensive and detailed evaluation.
We request a comprehensive diagnostic evaluation of Orlando's reading and writing disabilities by a State of New Jersey certified reading specialist. As Orlando's records show, his struggle to learn how to read started in September of second grade, which means he has struggled incessantly for some six-and-a-half years.
At best, during these years his progress has fluctuated between invisible and minimal. Sadly, he's made only one year or so of reading growth in six-and-a-half years of schooling. Not surprisingly, during the last three years, several of his teachers have written that he responds to reading and writing instruction and assignments with anxiety and resistance.
Things are not improving. Thus, we believe more of the same kind of reading and writing instruction will not offer him a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE).
To improve this situation, we believe Orlando needs a comprehensive, diagnostic reading evaluation from a NJ state certified reading specialist and not from general education teachers, special education teachers, school psychologists, learning consultants or teachers with certifications from for-profit companies or nonprofit groups.
Here are two of our reasons. First, it's rare for someone from professions other than reading to have studied reading and writing disabilities to the extent required to obtain New Jersey state certification as a reading specialist. A comparison of the different master's degree and certification requirements makes this strikingly clear.
Second, we believe another evaluation of Orlando's reading and writing by someone whose expertise lies elsewhere, who primarily administers a standardized test battery and doesn't routinely study the reading and writing literature, will not create the understanding an evaluator needs to develop, monitor and support a reading and writing program likely to meaningfully accelerate Orlando's progress.
At this late hour in Orlando's school career, we need someone with great focus on and expertise in reading and writing disabilities to conduct the evaluation. Of course, when appropriate, the reading specialist can and should collaborate with other professionals.
We request that this comprehensive diagnostic evaluation for reading and writing disabilities provide trustworthy (e.g., reliable and valid) answers to these questions:
1. For word recognition, fluency and reading comprehension, what are Orlando's independent, instructional and frustration levels for informational and story-like reading materials?
2. Exactly which phonic and morphemic elements does Orlando quickly and accurately apply when decoding words at his instructional level? How well does he apply these in testing and in direct instruction from teachers?
3. Exactly which phonic and morphemic elements does Orlando need to master within the next two months?
4. What learning and compensatory strategies are likely to improve Orlando's working and short-term memory?
5. What topics and activities are likely to capture and maintain Orlando's reading and writing interests?
6. What readily measurable and manageable goals and objectives (as required in New Jersey) will likely meet Orlando's reading, writing and memory needs?
7. How and how often should the school measure Orlando's objective progress in reading, writing and memory, and report it to us so that we can (a) coordinate our in-home support with his progress, (b) clearly know if he's making sufficient progress to achieve his IEP goals, and if he's not, (c) quickly meet with the full IEP team to plan needed adjustments to his program?
8. What instructional methods, strategies and activities for reading (e.g., decoding, reading comprehension), writing, memory and overall learning will likely accelerate Orlando's rate of progress, and what peer-refereed research supports their application for students with his learning profile?
9. What current instructional procedures and processes need to be modified or replaced?
10. What type of instructional feedback and supplemental supports will likely strengthen Orlando's confidence in successfully learning how to read and write, motivate him to make and sustain reasonable efforts to do so, and accelerate his progress in reading and writing?
11. What types of homework assignments (e.g., nature, level, length and complexity) will likely hamper Orlando's progress and what types will likely support progress?
12. What specific services (e.g., tutoring from a reading and writing specialist) does Orlando need to substantially accelerate his reading, writing and memory progress, and how often does he need them? To prevent confusion and provide him with greater practice and reinforcement, how do services need to be coordinated throughout his school day?
13. Exactly what should we and school personnel do to substantially strengthen Orlando's belief that he can succeed on instructional level reading, writing, memory and general learning tasks? And how frequently should we and school personnel engage in these tasks?
14. To accelerate Orlando's progress in reading, writing and memory, what training do we, as parents without professional expertise, need to meaningfully support him and his teachers?
We believe that without valid, objectively-based answers to these questions, it's unlikely the IEP team will be able to plan a coordinated reading and writing program that offers Orlando reasonable opportunity to make progress sufficient to prepare him for college and career success.
We fear that without valid answers, he will continue to struggle unsuccessfully in school. At his current rate of reading and writing progress, he's likely to leave school as a highly intelligent, but functionally illiterate adolescent. Answers to these and related questions may well reverse his downward trajectory.
At the risk of repetition, we wish to make several comments.
This reading and writing evaluation is critical for designing a comprehensive program with a strong chance of reversing Orlando's incessant and demoralizing struggles. Its information and insights can help his IEP team to create an Individualized Education Program (IEP) that is "reasonably calculated" to offer him the opportunity to make meaningful progress in all areas of educational need, such reading, writing and memory.
Over the past six-and-a-half years, he has lost ground in most areas of education, making it almost certain that on his legal date of eligibility for dropping out of school, he will. With anger, anguish and conviction, he frequently warns us, "I'm quitting school as soon as I can."
Thank you for your attention to our request. We hope to hear from you within the time frame required by New Jersey's special education code. And of course, to discuss our request we would be pleased to meet with you in the next week or so. If you wish to meet, just let us know.
Estella and Juan Hypothetical
Parents of Orlando Hypothetical
If your child's IEP has proven ineffective, it's important to get the critical, accurate and comprehensive information that you and the school members of your child's IEP team need to better conceptualize and write an IEP likely to accelerate progress in all areas of need.
When requesting an IEE, it's important to keep in mind the IEP is akin to a blueprint for a house. If the blueprint is an uninformed attempt to meet a deadline, the house may lack three things: a kitchen, bathroom and stairway to the second floor bedrooms. So consider an IEE as one way to get the information critical to your child's future.
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