After analyzing thousands of IEPs, we’ve settled on the top five IEP mistakes. This installment focuses on Mistake #2, failing to question authority. Failing to fully read, understand and–most importantly–question IEPs and Assessments/Evaluations before agreeing to them can negatively impact your child’s education for the entire school year-and beyond. These documents can be long and confusing and often no one seems to have time to clearly explain them. At the same time, parents are pressured to sign so that placement and services can start. Parents naturally trust their school district and may not think to question its authority. No wonder this is one of the mistakes that we see most often.
I. Assessments and Evaluations:
Who is testing my child? Why? Are the assessors qualified? Are these the right tests for my child? Are they biased? What areas are covered? How long does it take? How frequent? Can I make changes? What if I disagree with the findings? Can I get a second opinion? These are just some of the questions that you should ask when any school district or charter school offers to test your child for special education. Most importantly, you are entitled to the answers before testing begins. Proper assessments are critical in determining whether or not your child needs special education and related services. Since special education is not one-size-fits-all, this testing also drives the types of services (e.g. resource, speech, 1:1 aide), the location of these services (e.g. the regular classroom, resource room or consultation), and their frequency and duration (e.g. 45 minutes each day, 2x each week in a small group, or 30 hours per school year). Flawed assessments result in flawed IEPs.
Despite the importance of these assessments, parents generally fail to question the school district’s decisions regarding what kind of testing is being done and who is doing it. Parents assume that School Psychologists are the same as PhD-level Clinical Psychologists–they are not. While many assessors do an adequate job, we frequently see “drive-by” assessments that include other children’s names, incorrect pronouns and lots of boilerplate jargon. Often, school districts refuse to test for common conditions such as Dyslexia, Mental/Emotional Health or even Autism Spectrum Disorder. Assessors are often overloaded so important information such as subtest scores, percentiles (how your child ranks compared to other children in his age bracket) and even parent observations can be completely omitted. How can you question authority regarding this very important testing?
Before beginning any special education testing, the school district must request your permission by way of an Assessment Plan. Read the Assessment Plan carefully and add any additional areas of testing as appropriate. Find out who will be testing your child and his or her qualifications. You can look up school psychologists in California on the web at the Commission for Teacher Credentialing. Insist (in writing) that your child’s main teacher or aide is included in the evaluation process. Attach private medical or other evaluations if helpful. As with any communication with your school district, keep a signed copy for your records. (Bonus tip: snap a picture of the signed Assessment Plan with your cell phone before you return it to the school district).
Timely and fully complete and return all surveys and developmental history forms. Be forthright regarding your child’s needs. Now is not the time to underplay your academic, behavioral or social concerns regarding your child. Again, keep a copy for your records.
Request a copy of all testing well in advance of your child’s IEP meeting. (See, Mistake #5: Failing to Prepare) This will give you a chance to review the testing and come up with any questions regarding the tests, findings and recommendations. You can also do a little extra-credit homework by “Googling” specific tests to learn more about them, or asking an advocate, trusted parent/teacher or private psychologist to explain them to you.
Make sure that the person who tested your child attends the IEP meeting. This is often your only chance to directly ask about her findings and what they really say about your child. For example, does your child have a processing, speech, or auditory disorder? Where does your child rank as compared to others in reading comprehension? Math computation? Attention? Impulsivity? “Intelligence”? Request and expect answers in plain language.
Consider requesting a second opinion if you disagree with the school district’s assessment of your child. This is called an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE). It’s a good idea to contact your local parent advocacy agency to ensure that you prepare a proper IEE request.
II. The Individualized Education Program (IEP)
IEP forms can be long and complex. They typically include lots of codes and check-boxes that seem routine but can actually make a huge difference in your child’s classification and services. For example, codes like “ID”, “OI”, or “MD” can determine whether or not your child is classified as intellectually disabled, orthopedically impaired or has multiple disabilities. These labels can (but shouldn’t) drive placement and services. Similarly, checking or not checking a certain box could determine whether or not your child receives assistive technology, transportation, extended school year services, behavioral intervention or even whether or not she graduates with a diploma.
Parents are often pressured to sign a”draft” IEP only to later discover that the “final” version is different. Many parents report that they are told to sign the IEP in English instead of awaiting a translation in their primary language. Parents typically will trust that the school district has done its job with respect to their child’s IEP and therefore will not question the district’s authority. This is a huge mistake. How should you question your child’s IEP?
The school district will send you a notice which includes the type of IEP meeting as well as the date, time and location. There is a big difference between the initial IEP, annual, triennial, manifestation determination and transition IEP meeting. You must know the purpose of the meeting so that you can plan your questions. Read the IEP Meeting Notice carefully and feel free to invite any caregiver, advocate, service provider or other person with knowledge about your child, to attend.
Connect with a local parent advocacy group like TASK, Nevada PEP or Parents Helping Parents before your first IEP meeting so that you know what to expect and what questions to ask specific to your child.
Bring a positive, constructive attitude to the IEP meeting. You are your child’s chief advocate, and it is important that you work as cooperatively with the school district as possible. Strive to listen carefully to the school district’s findings and recommendations regarding your child, and then ask questions.
Request a draft IEP to review at home prior to signing it. You can then submit any follow-up questions to the case manager and sign the IEP after she provides clear answers. Don’t include a long list of questions as this will likely trigger a second, needless IEP meeting. Instead, focus on a few, key areas. This is another instance in which a parent advocacy agency can be a tremendous help.