Qualifying students for special education

The referral
Parents who suspect or know that their child has a problem making adequate school progress should request an evaluation from their local school district. The request, called a "referral for evaluation," should be initiated in writing. The referral should be addressed to the principal of the local public school or the special education coordinator for the district, and should provide the child's name, date of birth, address, current school placement (if applicable), and the suspected area of disability or special need. Referrals can also be made by general education teachers or guidance counselors. Upon receipt of the referral, the school district will contact the parent to set up a meeting time in order to explain the process and obtain written consent to perform the necessary evaluations. To prepare for this meeting, parents should be able to describe their child's problems in depth, providing examples of their child's difficulties in the classroom. Parents can request any evaluations they feel are needed to add to the picture of the child's specific educational needs, such as speech and language testing, occupational therapy testing or neurological testing. All evaluations needed to provide a full picture of the child's disabilities must be provided by the school system at no cost to the family.

The evaluation
After the referral process, the district will begin the evaluation. The law requires a comprehensive school evaluation involving all areas of suspected disability. Testing must be in the native language of the child (if feasible). It must be administered by a team of professionals, which must include at least general education teacher, one special education teacher, and a specialist who is knowledgeable in the area of the child's disability. Testing must be administered one-to-one, not in a group. Any tests or other evaluation materials used must be administered by professionals trained and qualified to administer them; i.e., psychological testing must be conducted by a psychologist trained to administer the specific tests utilized. Teachers also document any interventions they have already being using in the classroom. In addition, teachers will use tests such as DIBELS (Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills),DRA (Developmental Reading Assessment) or the WIAT (Wechsler Individual Achievement Test) to see if they are on grade level or below. Anything a teacher or committee member can bring with them to help see the students whole academic picture (e.g. grades) is extremely helpful. In addition to testing, an observation of the child either in school or in a comparable situation is required for an initial evaluation, and often at later stages as well. It is through the observation that the child can be assessed while interacting with his peers and teachers. To insure objectivity and cross-referencing, this observation must be conducted by a person other than the child's classroom teacher. The observation need not be done exclusively in the child's classroom, especially when the child's suspected area of disability may become manifest in larger settings, such as the lunchroom, hallways or gym. For children over twelve years of age, vocational testing is required. This requirement is in keeping with the spirit of the IDEA 1997 Amendments that encourage preparation of children for useful employment. The vocational testing should identify areas of interest and skills needed to attain employment after graduation from school. During the testing process, the parent is free to provide any privately obtained evaluative material and reports. Experts may include professionals such as psychotherapists, psychiatrists, neurologists, pediatricians, medical personnel, and tutors. Professionals who have been working with the child over time can often provide the district with a long-term view of the child's needs.

Once all the evaluative material is presented and reviewed at the meeting, the IEP team must first determine whether the child is eligible for special education services. An eligible child will require special education intervention in order to enable him/her to receive the benefits of instruction and an education. If the team finds the child eligible for special education, they must then classify the child in one of 13 categories.

The following are the students in the U.S. and outlying areas aged 6 through 21 who received special education in the 2006-2007 school year.

Disability Students Percentage
Learning disability (LD) 2,710,476 44.6%
Speech or language impairment (SI) 1,160,904 19.1%
Other health impairment (OHI) 599,494 9.9%
Mental retardation (MR) (now known as Intellectually Disabled) 523,240 8.6%
Emotional disturbance (ED) 458,881 7.5%
Autism 224,594 3.7%
Multiple disabilities 134,189 2.2%
Developmental delay 83,931 1.4%
Hearing impairment (HI) 72,559 1.2%
Orthopedic impairment (OI) 61,866 1.0%
Visual impairment (VI) 26,352 0.4%
Traumatic brain injury (TBI) 23,932 0.4%
Deaf & blindness 1,472 0.0%

The IDEA allows, but does not require, school districts to add the classifications of Attention- Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD) at their discretion.