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Demystifying Diagnoses: The Inside Scoop on Special Education Evaluations

Parents can request an evaluation in writing. Be sure to keep copies of all correspondence, and follow up on how your request is progressing.

High-quality prereferral and assessment systems should be focused on providing data that is both valid and legally defensible. Reminders and considerations are presented to reorient educators and MDT members to ethically sound and comprehensive evaluation processes—particularly in times of service delivery disruptions, such as during the COVID-19 pandemic.


Before your child can receive special education and related services, he or she must undergo an initial evaluation. This evaluation must be full and individual, focused on your child and his or her unique needs. It must include a variety of sound tools and processes, including those tailored to assess specific educational needs (as opposed to large-scale tests designed to provide a general intelligence quotient, or IQ).

Assessments must be conducted in your child’s accustomed mode of communication and must not discriminate on the basis of race, culture or socioeconomic status. Teachers also use assessments to determine what your child already knows, such as vocabulary words needed for an upcoming lesson, so they don’t spend time teaching material your child is likely to understand.


Diagnosis is the process by which doctors figure out what’s causing your child’s symptoms. They collect information through exams, questions and tests. They use this information to rule out some possibilities and arrive at a working diagnosis. They may also change their initial hypothesis based on new information as it comes in.

A CSE or CPSE must conduct a comprehensive individual evaluation of each student who is referred for special education services. The team must ensure that the student’s disability fits within one of the categories for determining eligibility for special education and that the evaluation procedures used meet State and federal requirements. Reevaluations are required at least every three years (sometimes referred to as triennial evaluations). Parents must give informed consent for a reevaluation.


Testing is one way to collect data that can help determine eligibility and need. Standardized tests can provide quantifiable data and compare a student with same-aged, same-grade peers.

However, an IEP team must use more than standardized testing to make a determination of eligibility or need. A full and individual evaluation must be conducted with the individual student in mind. The evaluation should look at the student's overall strengths and needs irrespective of their disability category. It should also be culturally responsive and address systemic referral and evaluation bias within a comprehensive framework.


Whether the team is reporting to an outside doctor or agency, making a recommendation for a student to be reevaluated, recommending special education services or presenting the findings to an Eligibility Committee, it's essential that the report contain clear, comprehensive and practical recommendations. A comprehensive report may include the results of various tests, a description of the child's present levels, information about the child's abilities in different settings and a comparison to the performance of his or her peers.

This report summarizes the Basis of Exit data by age group and disability category.


Throughout the evaluation process, a team of educators will examine your child’s academic and functional skills to determine if they are affected by a disability and would benefit from special education instruction. This complex process is mandated by federal law.

Recommendations are the final result of the team’s review of all the evaluation data and must be made in collaboration with you. You are entitled to receive copies of all evaluation reports before your meeting with the team and are encouraged to read them so you can prepare for the meeting.

While it is important to ask developmentally and educationally relevant questions, it is also important that the team not overly focus on traditional disability category "label" skills. This is because a label can miss important details about your child’s strengths, abilities and needs.