The first step in the special education process is an initial assessment. The assessment process is necessary to determine if a student qualifies for an Individualized Education Program (“IEP”) under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”). The assessment process starts with a referral made by school staff or a parent who suspects their student has a disability that is negatively impacting educational performance. Parents may make a request for special education because of a formal diagnosis, feedback from professionals who are familiar with the child, or just a hunch that something is not quite right.
A request for special education should be in writing. In California, a parent’s written request is a referral that should start the assessment process. The school must document a parent’s request. If a parent makes a verbal request, the school must offer to help the parent make their request in writing and provide help if needed. Putting the request in writing creates a clear record of when and why the request was made in case there is a disagreement in the future. Writing out the request is also an opportunity for parents to collect their thoughts to help the school understand why parents are making a request for special education.
The request for special education should explain parent’s concerns, the student’s suspected disabilities, and the impact on the student’s education. The explanation might include a specific suspected or known disability, like Autism, Dyslexia, or Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (“ADHD”), or concerns like social interaction, struggling to read, or an inability to stay on-task. A little context can go a long way in helping the school understand a parent’s perspective and observations. A parent may want to share what prompted the request. For example, a teacher may have shared that the student is struggling academically and needs additional help. Or, the student is struggling to complete homework or receiving very low grades.
Provide supporting documentation or a little history about the student’s needs and previous interventions. For example, if a student has a diagnosis of Autism and is non-verbal with sensory needs, a parent may want to tell the school the child is also receiving services through insurance or is a client of Regional Center. Letting a school know that a child is receiving occupational therapy for sensory needs and fine motor skills will alert the school that an occupational therapy assessment may be necessary. Letting the school know about outside services like counseling, providing doctor’s letters, or sharing private assessments will help support a referral for special education.
A formal diagnosis is not required to request assessments for special education. Parents or school staff need only suspect that a child may have a disability that impacts school to trigger special education assessments. A school can conduct all the educationally related assessments necessary to determine a student’s eligibility for special education and determine their unique educational needs. Schools do not diagnose disabilities. Instead, schools determine if the needs fit within educationally related eligibility criteria and whether special education is necessary to address those needs. A school should not refer a parent to another agency for a diagnosis or support instead of assessing.
The school may want to more information or to meet with the parent before agreeing to assess. A parent’s referral for special education will ideally include enough information to put the school on notice of the suspected disability and educational concerns. However, a school may not see the same concerns in the educational environment or may simply want a better understanding of the concerns to develop an assessment plan that addresses all of the suspected areas of need. For example, if a school receives a request that simply requests assessments because the student has Autism, the school may want to understand whether a speech and language or occupational therapy assessment should also be conducted.
If the school agrees to assess, the assessment process must follow a specific timeline. Once a referral is made, the school has 15 calendar days to develop an assessment plan. An assessment plan broadly explains what areas the school will assess. For example, intellectual processing, communication, or motor. A parent has at least 15 calendar days after receiving the assessment plan to determine if they want to consent. A school may not assess the student without parental consent. After receiving consent to the assessment plan, the school has 60 calendar days, not including breaks of more than 5 days, to assess and hold an IEP meeting to determine initial eligibility. In California, if the student is eligible, a school may take an additional 30 days to develop the initial IEP.
Once a school agrees to assess, consenting to the assessment plan starts the assessment process. A delay in consenting to the assessment plan could delay the assessments. These delays could be due to breaks like Thanksgiving or winter break. If a parent feels a specific type of assessment is necessary but was not offered on the assessment plan, the parent may consider consenting to the assessments offered and make a request for the additional assessment when returning the signed assessment plan. A parent should always keep a copy of the signed assessment plan and something to show it was sent to, or received by, the school. For example, a parent might send the signed assessment plan back to the school by email and make any additional requests in the body of that email.
A school may refuse to conduct initial assessments. A school can legally refuse to conduct an initial assessment if the school is not on notice of a suspected disability that may require special education. However, the school should not refuse to assess simply because the school believes the student will not qualify for an IEP. When a school refuses to assess a student for special education the parent should receive Prior Written Notice (“PWN”) explaining the basis for the refusal and a copy of the Procedural Safeguards.
If a school refuses to assess after an appropriate referral is made by parents or school staff, the school runs the risk be being responsible for compensatory education services or being required to pay an outside assessor to conduct these assessments if a court finds the school’s refusal was incorrect. It is generally uncommon for a school to refuse assessments, but if that happens, a parent may want to consult with an attorney to help determine whether the school’s refusal was appropriate.