By Lynne Arnold and Lisa Ackerman
Many parents can gain a better understanding of their child’s needs through independent assessments, rather than solely relying on evaluations by an early intervention agency or school staff.
In fact, independent assessments are the answer to what we call the “90 Percent Rule” on IEP questions: 90 percent of parent questions about 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 services. In school district evaluations, recommendations are rarely seen in reports.
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:
- 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.
- The child is not making adequate progress.
- Desire to evaluate the child’s progress (or the lack thereof) from a third-party perspective.
- To investigate disparities between the goals the child has reportedly achieved and the child's ability to generalize those skills in multiple environments (home, school, community, etc.).
- To get help drafting appropriate and challenging goals for the child.
- The child needs more specialized attention from a number of professionals (such as child neuropsychologist, behavioral specialist, speech pathologist, occupational therapists, etc.).
- The parent is preparing for a due process hearing or mediation with their local school syste. 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 may not be a licensed psychologist. A school psychologist typically has a master’s degree in education or counseling, but unless the school psychologist is licensed, 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 and any previous assessments. The evaluator will perform their own testing, should gather information from home and 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.
Independent evaluations are not automatically reimbursed by your state agency, school district or health insurance company. Investigate your right to reimbursement before contracting with an private agency or assessor.
If there is a major disagreement with your school district concerning the child’s program and services, parents may wish to consult with a special education attorney before selecting an independent evaluator. When parents do not agree with the school district’s assessment, they can request an Independent Educational Evaluation (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.
Alternatively, 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.
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 will typically only cover it once, so don’t waste it.
Ask other parents in your area to recommend an assessor or agency.
Many independent professionals or agencies may have wait lists for therapy and services but sooner availability for evaluations and testing. Be sure to clarify this when you call.
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 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 prioritize interventions.