IEP Assessments 101
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.)
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 for special education services.
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.
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. 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.
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:
- Assessments for cognitive development
- Development (for early childhood)
- Academics (including state standardized CAASPP, CAA, MAP testing)
- Auditory/visual processing, phonological processing, dyslexia, dysgraphia
- Psychological testing
- Adaptive behavior
- Functional Behavioral Assessment
- PT & adaptive PE, gross motor
- OT, handwriting, sensory, fine motor
- Speech assessments
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
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.
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.
Tips from Dr. Sarah Pelangka
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:
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 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.”
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.