special education assessment
Sep 13 2023
Updated at: Sep 15 2023

Special Education Assessment: How and Why It Should Be Conducted

Positive Action Staff
Students with disabilities have unique needs alongside their strengths.

Because these students are complex learners, special education teachers must fully understand their strengths and weaknesses before they can be effective with their instruction.

One tool available to these teachers is special education assessment.

It’s not just teachers who depend on assessments to identify their students’ strengths, weaknesses, and progress, however.

Parents, specialists, and counselors, too, rely on these assessments.

As a means for systematically collecting and interpreting a wide variety of information, assessments can inform any number of decisions related to:

  • Instruction
  • Intervention
  • Classification
  • Placement

Assessment, which is also known as evaluation, may be looked at as a problem-solving process that involves several ways of collecting information about a student for the purpose of making decisions.

For this reason, assessment plays a foundational, if not critical, role in special education.

Expert Tip: Don’t confuse the terms “assessment” and “testing.” While the two are related, they don’t mean the same thing.

Testing refers to the administration of specifically designed and (usually) standardized educational and psychological measures of behavior.

While testing is a part of the assessment process, assessment itself involves several different methods of evaluation; only one of which includes tests.

It’s only after a full and individual initial evaluation has been done that a determination can be made as to whether the child has a disability. At this point, the child will be deemed eligible to receive special education and related services.

Thankfully, there are programs such as Positive Action that offer teachers excellent teaching strategies for students with special needs. These strategies, along with an evidence-based SpEd curriculum, can be crucial in helping students thrive.

How Special Education Assessment Is Conducted

Many parents and educators alike struggle with the issue of evaluating children to determine their eligibility for special education services.

Consequently, it’s a huge relief for parents when they know their rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Understanding the process can make it that much easier to ensure their child receives the appropriate services he or she requires.

“A State educational agency, other State agency, or local educational agency shall conduct a full and individual initial evaluation before the initial provision of special education and related services to a child with a disability.” - Section 1414 (a), IDEA

In addition to being full and individual, therefore, a child’s initial evaluation must be focused on that child, and only that child.

The following components must be present in an assessment before the presence of a suspected disability can be determined:

Step 1: Data Collection

During the collection stage, background information on a child is traced and gathered from sources such as observation, school records, teacher reports, and parent intakes.

Multiple sources of information are required because IDEA doesn’t consider a single procedure or group-administered instruments, such as large-scale tests, enough to:

  • Diagnose a disability
  • Plan an appropriate educational program for the child
  • Determine what, if any, special education or related services the child might need

Instead, a full and individual evaluation conducted on the child will collect data related to his or her:

  • Health
  • Motor abilities
  • Vision and hearing
  • General intelligence
  • Communicative status
  • Academic performance
  • Social and emotional status

Step 2: Analysis and Evaluation

Once data from various sources have been collected, an analysis is conducted to process and understand the patterns present in the child’s social, educational, developmental, medical, environmental, and emotional history.

In addition to the variety of approaches used to collect data for analysis and evaluation (such as interviews, observations, curriculum-based assessment, and tests), IDEA also requires that schools use technically sound instruments and processes.

Technically sound instruments are those assessments that are valid and reliable through research. For assessments and other evaluation materials to qualify as technically sound processes, they must be:

  • Administered by knowledgeable and trained professionals
  • Administered according to the instructions given by the producer of the assessments
  • Used for the purposes for which the assessment measures are both valid and reliable

A review of the existing evaluation data on the child is then carried out to determine the child’s educational needs, as well as to determine if there’s enough information to support his or her eligibility for special education.

This review may conclude that additional information is needed before any determination can be made.

Step 3: Determination and Recommendation

Once a child’s academic, cognitive, emotional, intellectual, perceptual, psychological, language, and medical development are evaluated, a determination about the presence of a suspected disability can be made.

Such a determination is followed by recommendations related to the educational placement and program that need to be made out to the parents, teachers, and the school.

If, however, additional data is needed before a determination is made, the public agency charged with the evaluation will identify what’s needed to determine:

  • Whether the child has a particular category of disability
  • The child’s present levels of performance at school and his or her academic and developmental needs
  • Whether the child requires special education and related services
  • What additions or modifications, if any, may be needed in the special education and related services (provided the child qualifies) to enable the child to meet the goals set out in his or her IEP

Sometimes, the parents of a child with a disability will disagree with the results of their child’s evaluation as received from the public agency (this could be the school’s student study team or special education department).

If this happens, the parents have the right to obtain an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE). An IEE is an evaluation conducted by a qualified examiner who isn’t employed by the public agency responsible for the child’s education.

In the event that a parent asks for an IEE, it’s the responsibility of the public agency to provide them with information about where they might obtain the IEE.

Why Special Education Assessment Is Conducted

According to IDEA, having a disability doesn’t automatically qualify a child for special education.

Rather, the child must not only have a disability that falls under a specific disability category, but they must also need special education and related services by reason thereof.

The specific disability categories that IDEA lists can be found in the table below:

IDEA Disability Categories

  • Autism

  • Hearing impairment

  • Emotional disturbance

  • Visual impairment (blindness included)

  • Intellectual disability

  • Deafness

  • Multiple disabilities

  • Developmental delay

  • Specific learning disability

  • Other health impairment

  • Deaf-blindness

  • Traumatic brain injury

  • Orthopedic impairment

  • Speech/language impairment

Therefore, before any special education and related services are provided to a child, an initial assessment must be done. IDEA requires this evaluation to:

  • See if the child qualifies as a “child with a disability” as defined by the Act
  • Gather data that helps determine the child’s educational needs
  • Guide decision-making on the most suitable educational programming for the child

There are several reasons a special education assessment is conducted:

  1. To screen children in order to identify those who may be having learning problems or experiencing delays
  2. To determine whether a child has a disability and is, therefore, eligible for special education services
  3. To diagnose the specific nature of a child’s problems or disability
  4. To provide detailed information that helps the development of an Individualized Education Program (IEP)
  5. To facilitate the making of appropriate decisions about the child’s educational placement
  6. To plan and develop instruction that’s appropriate to the child’s special needs
  7. To evaluate the student’s progress

IDEA is quite particular about covering children who, by reason thereof or due to their disability, need special education and related services.

This is because many children with disabilities don’t necessarily require extra educational assistance or individualized educational programming.

Such children may be eligible for protection given by other laws such as Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. A child with a 504 plan still receives needed assistance to address disability-related educational needs—just not under IDEA.

Other Considerations in Special Education Assessment

Before a child can be identified as needing to receive special education services under IDEA, either the parents or the school system must ask that the child be evaluated.

To request an evaluation, parents must call, email, or write the child’s teacher, the school’s principal, or the Director of Special Education in the school district.

If it’s the school system that is requesting an evaluation, they must ask, in writing, for permission from the parents. The parents must then give informed written permission before any evaluation is conducted.

If it is established that services for a student with special education needs are required, consider using Positive Action as your special education curriculum.

Compared to other SpEd curriculums, Positive Action provides the most content and meets the highest number of state and national standards. You’ll also benefit from more support, training, and learning resources than from any other curriculum.

Don’t hesitate to get in touch with the team at Positive Action to see how well this program can work for you and your students with special needs.