Independent Assessments

July 11th, 2010

By Lynne Arnold & Lisa Ackerman

Independent assessments can provide a more detailed, objective and comprehensive evaluation of a child with autism. Many parents can gain a better understanding of their child’s needs through independent assessments rather than solely relying on evaluations by a state/early intervention agency and/or school district.

In fact, independent assessments are the answer to what we call the “90% Rule” on IEP questions. Which means that 90% of parent questions on how to change an aspect of their child’s program and services can be answered with, “Get an independent assessment.” It’s critical that a qualified, third-party professional evaluates the child and makes specific, written recommendations that address the individual child’s deficits with an action plan.

Often, assessments performed by the party financially responsible for fulfilling the child’s needs are lacking in detail or objectivity. Unfortunately, evaluators at public agencies and school districts often are compelled to consider staffing problems, budgetary restrictions, administrative convenience and other factors that are irrelevant to the child’s unique needs and challenges.

This frequently creates a conflict of interest for the assessor in evaluating the child and in making objective and evidence-based recommendations for the child’s education and/or services. In school district evaluations this is evidenced by the consistent lack of any recommendations in their reports. Many school districts even specify in contracts that prohibit outside professionals or agencies from making recommendations in their reports or even in IEP meetings. By definition, this deliberate ambivalence is not in the best interests of the child.

Nonetheless, parents must make their child available for assessments performed by the school district or state agency to secure services. But that doesn’t mean the parent should limit evaluation to those resources.

Many families look to independent assessments for the following reasons:

  1. The school district/state agency is not offering appropriate services or placement, or there is a disagreement about the level or quality of services currently provided.
  2. Child is not making adequate progress.
  3. To track the child’s progress (or the lack thereof) from a third-party perspective.
  4. To investigate disparities between the goals the child has reportedly achieved and the ability to generalize those skills in multiple environments (home, school, community, etc.).
  5. To get help drafting appropriate and challenging goals for the child.
  6. Child needs more specialized attention from a number of professionals (such as child neuropsychologist, behavioral specialist, speech pathologist, occupational therapists, etc.).
  7. Parent is preparing for a due process hearing with their school district or fair hearing with their state or early intervention agency. An independent evaluator who is willing to testify is critical for success in a hearing.

Parents can obtain independent assessments from private agencies, professionals or even autism clinics at universities. An independent assessment can be global (like a neuropsychological educational evaluation) or very specific (like a handwriting assessment). It all depends on the individual child’s identified or suspected areas of disability.

It should also be noted that “school psychologist” is simply a title. The American Psychological Association has provided a waiver for schools to use the title of “school psychologist” although the person holding the position is very rarely a psychologist. A “school psychologist” typically has a master’s degree in education or counseling. Unless your child’s “school psychologist” is a licensed psychologist, he/she is not qualified to diagnose autism or any other disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (also known as the DSM). This is especially important to note if your child’s diagnosis is being disputed by the school district.

A good evaluator will review the child’s educational and medical history as well as previous assessments, perform their own testing, observe at home and at school, and will make final recommendations for appropriate programs and services.

Each evaluation should include: testing, a full report, specific recommendations for placement, service type, level of services and a parent conference to review the results. The recommendations should be specific and unequivocal. The parent should be provided with a draft of the report to review for any errors or oversights before it is finalized.

If an assessment and report will be referenced in an IEP or state/early intervention agency meeting,  it should be provided to all parties in advance. It is important to give all parties ample time to review the assessment report prior to the meeting.

If the independent assessments were privately funded and will be not be referenced at a meeting (nor at any time in the future), parents don’t necessarily have to share a report with anyone.

Reimbursement

Independent evaluations may or MAY NOT be reimbursed by your state agency, school district or health insurance company. Investigate your right to reimbursement before contracting with an private agency or assessor.

Health insurance providers will sometimes cover independent assessments. PPO coverage is more likely to cover these assessments than an HMO. Parents should obtain written authorization from their health insurance provider prior to scheduling an assessment. Without prior authorization, there are no guarantees for reimbursement.

However, when selecting an evaluator, parents should also consider how the assessment will be used. For example, if the report will be given to the school district, it’s essential that the evaluator have educational experience. Otherwise, the district is likely to reject the recommendations because they are medical, not educational. However, using an evaluator who is using a medical model may be appropriate to provide to your child’s state agency/early intervention agency.

Approximate pricing for assessments performed by different types of professionals are listed in the box above. Please note that pricing may vary by geographic area and by each professional’s credentials.

Selecting an Assessor or Agency

Whether the assessment is done in the context of educational or medical recommendations, it’s essential that the evaluator have extensive autism experience. Please do not simply pick an assessor from your insurance plan listing. If your insurance covers an assessment, it’ll typically only cover it once–so don’t waste it.

Ask other parents in your area to recommend an assessor or agency. You can also check your state’s department of education and state agency websites to see what experts have testified on behalf of families in due process and/or fair hearings.

Also see the Provider Directory at www.tacanow.org for a listing of many types of service providers.

Many independent professionals or agencies may have wait lists for therapy and services but sooner availability for evaluations and testing. Be sure to ask to clarify when you call.

Making Sense of Assessment Tools

Stoelting Co., a scientific supplies company, lists most of the standardized tests for special needs children. You can obtain a list of the specific tests of the assessment and testing to be performed from your independent assessor, special education director or state/early intervention staff. You can also review each test’s guidelines with the professional reviewing your child’s case. Stoelting Co. details the content and goals of each test at www.stoeltingco.com/tests/store/viewlevel1.asp.

Legal Help

If there is a major disagreement concerning the child’s program and services, parents may wish to consult with a special education attorney to advocate for their child’s rights and help parents plan their next steps. Ideally, this should be done BEFORE selecting the independent evaluator.

Independent Educational Evaluations (IEE)

When parents do not agree with the school district’s assessment, they can request an IEE. Be sure to make this request in writing. The school district must either agree to fund the IEE or file for due process to prove their assessment is adequate and appropriate “without unnecessary delay.” See Top Ten Tips for Independent Evaluations in this section.

Final Note

For many families, independent assessments are absolutely invaluable. They provide critical insight for shaping a child’s education and services and are often the most potent weapon in prevailing in an IEP meeting or hearing. Moreover, they help parents to understand how to capitalize on their child’s strengths and address challenges that are holding the child back. This enables parents to more effectively advocate for their child as well as select appropriate methodologies and prioritize interventions.

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