How Does a Student Get Started with Special Education?

Special Education: Starting with an Evaluation

Note: This information is from our manual, Protecting the Educational Rights of Students with Disabilities in Public Schools

How does a district locate students who need special education services?

Under IDEA and state special education law, districts have an affirmative duty to identify all students residing in the district who might need special education services. This duty is called “Child Find.” Districts are required to have policies and procedures in place to ensure that students with disabilities are identified, located, and evaluated.

How can my child be evaluated for special education?

Your child needs to be referred to the school district for a special education evaluation. To conduct a special education evaluation, the district must decide whether to evaluate a student, and then get permission or consent from the student's parent to perform the evaluation. School districts must evaluate a student in every area related to his or her suspected disability. The evaluation must be done at no cost to the student or family. There are three basic steps to make an evaluation happen:

Step 1 Someone makes a request that the student be evaluated.
Step 2 The district decides that an evaluation is necessary.
Step 3 Consent to evaluate is given to the district.

Can I make a request for a special education evaluation for my child?

Under Washington law, the following people or entities can refer a student for evaluation:

  • Anyone who meets the definition of parent
  • School district
  • Another public agency
  • Other persons knowledgeable about the child.

How do I make a referral for an evaluation?

1. Do it in writing. A referral must be in writing, unless the person making the referral is unable to write. It can be handwritten and simple. Make sure to date it and keep a copy for your records.
2. Don't worry about the referral letter being perfect. Do worry about getting it done as soon as possible. Nothing will happen until a referral is made, and the date that the district receives the referral triggers the timelines within which the district must act.
3. Request that the school evaluate for both IDEA and Section 504 eligibility. If the student is not eligible for special education under IDEA, he or she may be eligible to receive services under Section 504.
4. Be specific about what kinds of problems you think your child has. Districts are required to test in all areas related to a student's suspected disability, so make sure you describe all of the problems. For example, if you think your child has difficulty reading and has emotional problems that need to be addressed, ask that both areas be evaluated.
5. Use examples. Include your own observations to describe why you think your child may have a disability. If you have them, provide documents that indicate that your child may have an impairment, such as letters from doctors or mental health providers.
6. Send the referral to someone in the school or district who you think has authority and will act quickly. Although the law does not specify a particular person or office to whom a referral should be sent, it is a good idea to send it to someone you think will act on it. For example, you might choose to send your referral letter to the school principal or the district's special education director.

What happens after the district receives a referral for special education evaluation?

The district has 25 school days to decide whether to evaluate a student. (There are no evaluation timelines in Section 504. If the district doesn't have a 504 evaluation policy, use IDEA timelines as a guide.) In making its decision to evaluate, the district must review any existing educational and medical records in the school files or provided by a parent or caretaker. Once the district has made a decision about whether to evaluate, the district must send the parent or guardian a written notification of the decision. If the district decides not to evaluate, you can challenge the decision. See Section VII of this publication for a description of the various ways to resolve disputes with the district.

What consent does the district need to do the evaluation?

Before the district can evaluate a child for the first time, it must ask for permission from a parent. If the parent refuses, the district may request a hearing to override the parent's refusal.

What happens once the district gets consent to do the evaluation?

The school district has 35 school days to evaluate the student. Washington law states that once the district has permission to evaluate for special education eligibility, it has 35 school days to:

  • Fully evaluate the student
  • Decide whether the student has a disability
  • Determine if he or she needs special education services.

The District and the parent can also agree to another timeframe, as long as the District documents the parent's agreement. For example, a parent may wish to agree to extend the timeline to wait for the results of an independent educational evaluation. The 35 school day timeline is waived if the parent repeatedly refuses to bring the child to the evaluation or if the child moves between districts during the assessment, as long as the new district is making sufficient progress to ensure the evaluation is completed promptly and the parent and new district agree on a timeline to complete the evaluation.

Washington State Timelines for Evaluation


What happens if my child moves during the evaluation process?

If a student moves to a different district in the same academic year, the student's prior and new school must coordinate as quickly as possible to ensure the special education evaluations are completed promptly. Washington State law requires that the new district begin obtaining student records when the student is enrolled and that the student's prior school district provide vital information within 2 school days and school records as soon as possible.

What is the scope of the special education evaluation?

The district must evaluate a child in all areas in which a disability is suspected. The special education evaluation has two purposes: 1) to determine eligibility for services, and 2) to identify the needs and strengths of the student so that an individualized education program can be developed. The fact that the district must evaluate in ALL areas of suspected disability is a crucial, important point. Sometimes a student will have problems in more than one area. A district might stop the evaluation once a student is found eligible for special education in one area. If the evaluation has dealt with only one area, there might not be enough information about all of the student's needs when it comes time to develop the individualized program. In order to get the most appropriate education plan for your child, pay careful attention to the district's evaluation efforts to make sure that they are comprehensive. Remind the district of its obligation to evaluate in all areas.

What areas may be evaluated and what kinds of tests will be used?

The district may evaluate a child in the following areas:

  • Health (physical and mental health)
  • Vision
  • Hearing
  • Social and emotional health
  • General intelligence
  • Academic performance
  • Communication, speech, and language
  • Motor abilities.

The tests used for the evaluation should be valid and appropriate for the area being tested. This means that the tests need to measure accurately the things they are intended to measure. For example, the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children IV (called the WISC IV) is a commonly used test that is designed to measure general intelligence. In general, results of the WISC IV should not be used to assess a child's emotional status because it is not designed for that purpose. Tests and evaluation materials must be selected and administered so as not to discriminate on the basis of race, culture or sex. In addition, tests and materials must be given to the student in the student's native language or other mode of communication (such as sign language), unless it is not feasible to do so. What can you do? Ask questions about the tests. Although the jargon of assessments can be intimidating, by asking questions you can understand:

  • The purpose of the test, and
  • Whether the type of test used seems right for your child.

Ask one of the assessment team members to explain the tests to you in plain language. Make sure that the test can accurately measure the ability it is supposed to measure. For example, some tests have age, reading skill and language ability requirements in order for results to be valid. If your child is too young for a particular test, can't read at the level necessary for the test, or if the test is not given in your child's first language, then the results of the test might not be useful and might be invalid.

Who will do the testing?

Professionals who are qualified to conduct testing in the area of suspected disability. The school psychologist can conduct many tests. But some areas of disability will need a psychologist with special training, a psychiatrist, a physical therapist/speech therapist, a medical doctor, or some other person with expertise. If district staff is not able to do a complete evaluation, the district may need to seek outside expertise to complete the evaluation process. These outside evaluations should be paid for by the district. The district might ask if a student or family has private insurance or other funding that would cover the cost of outside evaluations. If a student or family doesn't want to use up insurance benefits or other sources of funding, the district must still arrange and pay for the outside testing necessary to complete the evaluation.

What other ways can the district gather information about my child's eligibility and need for special education?

The district must use a variety of assessment tools and strategies to gather relevant functional, developmental and academic information about a student. Gathering information may include observation of the student and interviews of family, caregivers, and others who know the student. IDEA and the No Child Left Behind Act emphasize the use of in-class assessments for gathering information. These in-class assessments are often called curriculum based measures (CBMs). You should ask if CBMs were used with your child so that all members of the evaluation team can review these assessments because sometimes CBMs are completed by the general education teacher and not shared with special education staff.

What if I disagree with the scope or results of the evaluation?

You can request an independent educational evaluation at the district's expense if you disagree with the evaluation. If you have concerns about the scope or results of the evaluation, there are things you can do:

  • Talk with the district and voice your concerns. Ask the district to do additional or further evaluation
  • Find some other means for an evaluation to be performed (Does your child have medical coverage that would pay for an evaluation in the areas of concern? A district must consider outside evaluations.)
  • Ask for an independent educational evaluation at the district's expense, and get a list of evaluators from the district
  • Consider more formal dispute resolution options, such as mediation, a complaint, or a due process hearing. See Section VII of this publication for more information on dispute resolution.

What happens if I request an “independent educational evaluation at public expense?”

The district must either grant the request or initiate a hearing to show that its evaluation is appropriate. An independent educational evaluation means an evaluation conducted by a qualified person who is not an employee of the district that is in charge of the education of the student. Upon request, the district must give parents information about where an independent evaluation can be obtained. The parents get to choose who does the evaluation. The district has 15 calendar days to ask for a due process hearing if it opposes the request for an independent evaluation. If the district doesn't request a hearing within 15 calendar days, then it must pay for the independent evaluation or make sure that one is provided at no cost to the student or family. If the hearing officer determines that the district's evaluation is appropriate, the parent still has a right to an independent evaluation, but the district does not have to pay for it. The district must still consider the results of the independent evaluation even if it doesn't have to pay for it.