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IEP Assessments 101

IEP Assessments 101

Published: Nov. 10, 2020Updated: Mar. 5, 2024

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Understanding your child's unique needs and strengths is the heart of crafting a truly effective Individualized Education Program (IEP). It's not just about filling out forms or ticking boxes (although those are important, too!) — it's about getting to the root of what your child needs to thrive in their educational journey. Whether your child has minimal challenges or more complex needs, an accurate, strength-based assessment paves the way for an IEP that's as unique as they are. This isn't just paperwork; it's a roadmap to their access and success.
3 key takeaways
  1. Assessments help the IEP team (including parents) understand a student's abilities and challenges in many different areas.
  2. Highlighting both strengths and areas of need can help the IEP team understand the results of an assessment report.
  3. Parents have options if they disagree with an assessment's findings or feel that an important area was missed.

How are students assessed for an IEP?

To qualify for an IEP, a student must receive an initial full assessment. A full assessment is a multidisciplinary set of assessments conducted by a school psychologist, special education teacher, and any additional service providers that are relevant to the student’s disability (these can include speech, occupational, behavioral, vision, and physical therapists).

A parent can request an assessment of their child at any time. (Here's a sample letter parents can use to request an assessment for an IEP.) It is important to indicate any specific area of concern, such as autism or auditory processing.

If a student qualifies for special education services, a full re-assessment must be conducted every three years (called a triennial assessment) to ensure that they still qualify.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that the initial full assessment include a variety of assessment tools and strategies to determine information about a child’s level of developmental and academic function. No one measure or assessment can be used alone to determine eligibility. Assessments must also be administered in the child’s first language or mode of communication so that the assessments accurately reflect their achievement level. The assessment includes assessments to measure health, vision, hearing, social and emotional status, intelligence, academic performance, communication, and motor abilities.

Consenting to assessments

Dr. Sarah Pelangka, special education advocate and owner of KnowIEPs, reminds us that California is a dual consent state, which means that districts aren’t allowed to assess students without consent from a parent or guardian. On the other hand, districts have a responsibility to assess for all areas of suspected disability, and an IEP cannot be developed without some kind of valid assessment, so it may be better to discuss alternative methods of testing than to withdraw consent for testing. For example, if the district wants to do IQ testing and parents disagree, she tells us, “Parents can request assessment in processing areas in lieu of IQ tests to see how their child processes and learns best.” Hear more of her tips related to IEP assessments in this event recap.

Note that consenting to an assessment is more than just signing a form. It should be a conversation with the school psychologist who is usually putting together the whole assessment.

  • Ask specifically what kind of tests they will do and what the results show.
  • Make sure you speak up about any additional areas of concern — e.g. hearing, behavior — because they might not test for something if you do not mention it.
  • Make sure you provide up-to-date medical information such as any hearing or vision test performed by a physician. If your annual IEP is coming up, schedule medical appointments prior to the IEP so that you’ll have updated records.
  • Check alternate forms of assessment. You can ask for the assessment to consider authentic testing such as looking at work samples or videos of your child.

Under the IDEA, once the parent consents to the assessment, it must be conducted within 60 days.

Common types of IEP assessments

Here are some of the most commonly used categories of assessments:

  • Hearing and vision
  • Psychological testing
    • Assessments for cognitive development
    • Autism
    • Anxiety, OCD
    • Attention
    • Auditory/visual processing, phonological processing, dyslexia, dysgraphia
  • Development (for early childhood) and adaptive behavior
  • Academics
    • Academic Performance Assessments
    • School wide tests such as CAASPP, CAA, MAP testing
    • Reading
  • PT and adaptive PE, gross motor
  • OT, handwriting, sensory, fine motor
  • Speech and language, communication

Tests that might be part of an IEP but are not typically used for eligibility:

Neurodiversity-affirming assessments

Thankfully, “neurodiversity-affirming” is a term and practice that we’re hearing more often. Did you realize this approach can be applied to IEP assessments and the entire IEP process? Breea Rosas, school psychologist and founder of ND Affirming School Psychologist, explains, “Neurodiversity-affirming really means that we accept a child for who they are, that their brain is valid, even though it's different, that's completely acceptable. And we value their unique strengths, and their unique support needs, and we're not trying to change them to make them fit into the neurotypical world. We just accept them for who they are. And so through that lens, we can conduct assessments that really speak to who the individual is, their strengths, the beautiful things about their brains, and also the things that we can do best to support them.”
“A neurodiversity-affirming assessment is really going to highlight the things that the child can do well and the things that support the child when they need that extra additional support to do well.”

Requesting a neurodiversity-affirming assessment from the school

Rosas says, “If a family is seeking a neurodiversity-affirming assessment, I think it's really important to keep in mind that some of your providers have been practicing the way that they've been practicing for a really long time. And it doesn't mean that they're not skilled providers, just because they aren't doing neurodiversity-affirming assessments. But you can definitely start broaching it with your teams.” She has this advice:

  • Write a parent letter before the IEP that talks about the neurodiversity-affirming lens your family uses with your child
  • Prepare a brief (one-page or less) explanation of neurodiversity acceptance that you can share with your IEP team
  • Request neurodiversity-affirming trainings for teachers, admin, and providers
  • Write a neurodiversity-affirming consultant into the IEP (This might seem like a stretch, but if your child isn’t being accurately represented, then the team may need guidance.)

See our article about strength-based IEPs for more ideas and resources to help your whole IEP team see the benefits of using this approach.

What to expect from the assessment process

Typically, assessments will take place at the school in different settings. The professional administering the assessment may or may not want you to sit in; they want to explore what your child can do.

The psychologist or other professional will likely bring your child to their testing room, which can be a strange and unfamiliar environment. When you discuss the assessment plan, you can talk about what might make your child feel at ease or how to build rapport, such as giving the professional insights about your child’s favorite things.

Rosas offers this advice to prepare kids, parents, and assessors:

Parent questionnaires

A lot of assessments include a parent questionnaire that asks questions about what your child can do. These can be difficult — how do you answer whether your 3-year-old can prepare a snack? Answer each question realistically. Can your child do the activity independently? If the situation has never come up, answer that you’re not sure.

We like to be positive about our kids’ abilities, but it’s also vital that you provide an accurate description of your child’s challenges. The IEP team needs to understand the impact of their disability. For any question you are not sure how to answer, ask the assessor for guidance.

Can accommodations be used during assessments?

The use of accommodations depends on whether the assessments are standardized or curriculum-based. Dr. Pelangka tells us that standardized measures help us understand how we learn, which is why standardized IEP assessments can’t include accommodations. “The scores wouldn’t be standardized,” she says. “Those tests are given to students in the absence of accommodations so that the evaluator can determine if there is a delay or deficit. This helps guide us and discern what the student’s needs are; it helps us to understand what goals and accommodations the student would benefit from.” For example, she says, “if we give students accommodations on processing measures, then we may not have detected their processing deficit, and we wouldn’t understand how their brain truly processes information.”

Curriculum-based assessments and other tests, on the other hand, can include accommodations because that levels the playing field. Dr. Pelangka explains, “It wouldn’t be fair for a teacher to downgrade a student on tests when the student can’t fully access that test. Now that we know how the student learns (from the standardized measures), we can accommodate and afford the student access to show us what they know, taking into account their needs. For example, if a student struggles with reading comprehension but their listening comprehension is a strength, they can have the passage read aloud. This doesn’t change what is being asked of them, it just changes how they are accessing what is being asked of them.”

Reviewing an IEP assessment: the two-marker method!

At first glance, the results of an assessment can be intimidating — you could be looking at a 20-page document! Remember that there is supposed to be someone at the IEP meeting who can explain the results.

Dr. Pelangka recommends that you use at least two different colored highlighters as you go through the assessments: use one color for strengths and one color for areas of need. Learn more here:

How to look for areas of need

When you review an assessment, you should take note of any areas of relative weakness. Often, tests are broken down into subtest scores, which are averaged together for an overall score. Sometimes, a child will have a low score in one subtest but will test in the average range in other subtests, so the low score can get lost in the overall average. Even if the overall score may be acceptable, you can request a goal specifically to work on the area(s) of weakness.

How to think about areas of strength

Although we tend to focus on areas of weakness, obtaining accurate areas of strength from assessments is possibly even more important. Areas of strength can show a child’s potential and help the parent argue for more ambitious goals.

In this clip, Rosas explains how a neurodiversity-affirming assessment that focuses on a child’s strengths can transform how the IEP team uses the results to write goals and accommodations into the IEP:

Sometimes, districts will dismiss relative areas of strength as “splinter skills,” or abilities in a specific area that do not generalize into other areas. In this instance, even if the child cannot generalize their skill to other areas, they can still have an area of strength to help build self-confidence, make connections with others who also have that skill, and be recognized and celebrated for that skill. (Check out our article on strength-based IEPs to learn more about how important it is to approach the whole IEP process with our kids’ strengths in mind.)

Undivided’s Education Advocate Lisa Carey has this advice when it comes to reviewing assessments: “When you're reviewing an assessment, the first thing I always ask a parent is, does this feel like your kid? Was there anything surprising? Were you shocked? Were you surprised? As you're going through it, if you have questions on the assessment, I always say put questions in the margins right next to where it came up, so when they're going through the assessment during the IEP meeting, you remember the question at the right time when the report is reviewed.”

Understanding standardized test scores

Dr. Pelangka warns against school districts using test scores as justification for placing your child in a more restrictive learning environment. She says, “Test scores alone cannot be used to dictate placement.”

Psychologists often put a bell curve graphic in the report so that parents can use it to see where their child is compared to the average student, but it’s not always clear how to interpret what the chart means. Some assessments end up with T scores, some percentiles, some with age equivalency. The bell curve for any standardized test (for speech, academics, IQ, etc.) uses 100 as the average, or mean. This explainer video, though specific to IQ tests, can help you understand how to read the bell curve.


At the end of the report, there should be a section for recommendations. However, just because the assessor recommends something based on the results, such as placement, it doesn't mean that's what the IEP team will decide. It's a good idea to ask the assessor what data in the report led to these recommendations.

What to do when you disagree with the school’s assessment

In All About Assessments, here's what Dr. Pelangka told us: “If you’re reading this assessment, and this report doesn’t sound like your child or sound like the person you know, because at the end of the day, you know your child better than anyone. A lot of these assessors, especially if it’s in the very beginning of an initial assessment, don’t know your child at all, aside from this very little time they’ve spent assessing them. However, it’s possible for your child to perform differently in different settings. Have you sent anyone to observe? Have your videos if you have a lot of questions. I definitely recommend that. Other things that determine the validity are: how long did they actually spend with your child? I actually had one this week where collectively the psychologist and therapist spent 40 minutes with the child. You obviously can’t really discern much with 20 minutes with a student.”

You know your child best, and you're a valuable member of the IEP team. If the district performs an assessment of your child and you feel it does not accurately reflect their strengths and needs, it’s probably not a thorough assessment. Dr. Pelangka says, “You have the right to disagree. California is a dual consent state, so [the school] can’t move forward with anything without your consent unless they file due process and they win. If you disagree and really feel strongly that they got it wrong, you have the option to request more testing. Maybe there were pieces that were missing.”

Lisa Carey says that parents don't need to explain why they disagree with the assessment; they can simply state that they disagree.

If you disagree with the results, you have the right to an Independent Educational Evaluation, or IEE, at public expense. You can read more about IEEs and how to request one in our article Independent Educational Evaluations (IEE) 101.



How are students assessed for an IEP?

Common types of IEP assessments

Neurodiversity-affirming assessments

What to expect from the assessment process

Reviewing an IEP assessment: the two-marker method!

What to do when you disagree with the school’s assessment

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Undivided Editorial TeamStaff

Reviewed by

  • Brittany Olsen, Undivided Content Editor
  • Karen Ford Cull, Undivided Content Specialist


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