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Assessing Children For The Presence Of A Disability

by Betsy B. Waterman, Ph.D.
State University of New York at Oswego



National Information Center
for Children and Youth with Disabilities


Introduction to Assessment

Methods of Gathering Information

Parents' Role in the Assessment Process

Assessing Students Who Are Culturally and Linguistically Diverse

Primary Areas of Assessment

Putting It All Together: Interpreting Results and Summary

References and List of Publishers


Learning and Other Disabilities

Related Articles

Questions Often Asked About Special Education Services

Testing Students with Disabilities

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Public Law 101-476, lists 13 separate categories of disabilities under which children may be eligible for special education and related services. To determine if a child is eligible for classification under one of these areas of exceptionality, an evaluation, or assessment, of the child must be conducted. Every year, millions of children, ages 3 and up, are assessed for the presence of a disability and are found eligible for special education and related services because they are in need of support in order to achieve success in school.

This News Digest focuses upon the assessment process -- the ways and primary skill areas in which school systems collect information in order to determine if a child is eligible for special education and related services and to make informed decisions about that child's educational placement and instruction. By law, this process must involve much more than just giving the student a standardized test in the area of his or her suspected disability. Valuable information about the student's skills and needs can come from many sources, including parents, teachers, and specialists, and by using a variety of assessment approaches, such as observations, interviews, testing, and methods such as dynamic assessment or ecological assessment. In this way, a comprehensive picture of the student can be obtained and used to guide eligibility decisions and educational programming.

In this issue, we describe what federal law requires in terms of assessing school-aged children with disabilities and explore what thorough assessment involves. The various skill areas in which children are often assessed -- intelligence, language, perception, achievement, and behavioral and emotional/social development -- are described, so that readers may gain an understanding of how a child's abilities and disabilities in each skill area contribute to his or her learning and educational performance. The issue concludes with an extensive reference list and a brief list of organizations that may be able to provide information on the assessment of specific disabilities. Two, more extensive bibliographies of additional resources on assessment -- one for families and one for schools -- are available separately from NICHCY upon request.

Introduction To Assessment

Stacey is in danger of failing second grade again. She appears to have difficulty following directions, completing assignments on time, progressing in reading and spelling, and interacting with her peers. Her teacher believes that Stacey may have a learning disability and has made a referral to the Committee on Special Education.

Joe has spina bifida and uses a wheelchair. He has recently moved into the community and enrolled in the local high school. His parents are concerned that Joe is not developing the mobility and daily living skills that he needs now and in the future. They request that the new school system evaluate Joe to identify his special needs.

Bob has become severely withdrawn in the last year. His grades have been declining steadily, he is starting to skip school, and when the teacher calls on him in class, he responds rudely or not at all. The teacher is worried that Bob may have an emotional disorder. She makes a referral to the special education department.

While these children are different from each other in very many ways, they may also share something in common. Each may be a student who has a disability that will require special education services in the school setting. Before decisions may be made about what those special education services will be, each child will require an evaluation conducted by specially trained educational personnel, which may include a school psychologist, a speech/language pathologist, special education and regular education teachers, social workers, and, when appropriate, medical personnel. This is true for any child suspected of having a disability.

Assessment in educational settings serves five primary purposes:

  • screening and identification: to screen children and identify those who may be experiencing delays or learning problems;

  • eligibility and diagnosis: to determine whether a child has a disability and is eligible for special education services, and to diagnose the specific nature of the student's problems or disability;

  • IEP development and placement: to provide detailed information so that an Individualized Education Program (IEP) may be developed and appropriate decisions may be made about the child's educational placement;

  • instructional planning: to develop and plan instruction appropriate to the child's special needs; and

  • evaluation: to evaluate student progress. (Berdine & Meyer, 1987, p. 5)

This News Digest focuses upon the assessment process for determining if a child is eligible for special education and related services and for diagnosing the nature of his or her special needs. In Section One, a definition of assessment is presented, along with a brief discussion of what the IDEA mandates in terms of assessment. Section Two provides an overview of some of the methods used to gather information about a child with a suspected disability (e.g., reviewing school records, observations, interviews, standardized tests, curriculum-based assessment). In Section Three, the parents' role in the assessment process is briefly discussed. Section Four provides an overview to the issues associated with assessing students who are culturally or linguistically diverse. Section Five addresses in detail the various skill areas that are typically the focus of assessment. These are: intelligence, language, perception, achievement, and behavioral and emotional/social development. In Section Six, interpretation of results is discussed. This News Digest concludes with the reference listing of readings on assessment. More extensive NICHCY bibliographies on assessment are available separately upon request.

Defining Assessment

There is sometimes confusion regarding the terms "assessment" and "testing." While they are related, they are not synonymous. Testing is the administration of specifically designed and often standardized educational and psychological measures of behavior and is a part of the assessment process. Assessment, also known as evaluation, can be seen as a problem-solving process (Swanson & Watson, 1989) that involves many ways of collecting information about the student. Roth-Smith (1991) suggests that this information-gathering process involves:

  • observing the student's interactions with parents, teachers, and peers;

  • interviewing the student and significant others in his or her life;

  • examining school records and past evaluation results;

  • evaluating developmental and medical histories;

  • using information from checklists completed by parents, teachers, or the student;

  • evaluating curriculum requirements and options;

  • evaluating the student's type and rate of learning during trial teaching periods;

  • using task analysis to identify which task components already have been mastered and in what order unmastered skills need to be taught; and

  • collecting ratings on teacher attitude towards students with disabilities, peer acceptance, and classroom climate. (Roth-Smith, 1991, p. 307)

Clearly, gathering information about the student using such a variety of techniques and information sources can be expected to shed considerable light upon the student's strengths and needs, the nature of his or her disability and how it affects educational performance, and what type of instructional goals and objectives should be established for the student. More detail about many of these methods of collecting information about the student will be presented throughout this News Digest.

How Students Are Identified for Assessment

There are at least two ways in which a student may be identified for assessment. The first is that the school suspects the presence of a learning or behavior problem and asks the student's parents for permission to evaluate the student individually. Schools routinely give tests to all students in a particular grade; when a student scores too far below his or her peers, this alerts the school to a potential problem. Alternatively, the student's classroom teacher may identify that a problem exists --perhaps the student's work is below expectations for his or her grade or age, or the student's behavior is disrupting learning --and so the teacher refers the student for assessment.

The student's parents may also call or write to the school or to the director of special education and request that their child be evaluated. They may feel that the child is not progressing as he or she should be, or notice particular problems in how the child learns. If the school suspects that the child, indeed, may have a disability, then the school must conduct an assessment.

If school personnel do not feel that the child has a disability, they may refuse to assess the child, but must inform the parents in writing as to their reasons for refusing. If parents feel strongly that their child does, indeed, have a disability that requires special education, they may request a due process hearing, where they will have the opportunity to show why they feel their child should be evaluated. Due process proceedings are beyond the scope of this News Digest; more information about parents' due process rights is available in another NICHCY publication: Questions and Answers About the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Assessment and Federal Law

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Public Law 101-476, lists 13 separate categories of disabilities under which children may be eligible for special education and related services. These are:

  • autism: a developmental disability significantly affecting verbal and nonverbal communication and social interaction, generally evident before age 3;

  • deafness: a hearing impairment that is so severe that the child is impaired in processing linguistic information, with or without amplification;

  • deaf-blindness: simultaneous hearing and visual impairments;

  • hearing impairment: an impairment in hearing, whether permanent or fluctuating;

  • mental retardation: significantly subaverage general intellectual functioning existing concurrently with deficits in adaptive behavior;

  • multiple disabilities: the manifestation of two or more disabilities (such as mental retardation-blindness), the combination of which requires special accommodation for maximal learning;

  • orthopedic impairment: physical disabilities, including congenital impairments, impairments caused by disease, and impairments from other causes;

  • other health impairment: having limited strength, vitality, or alertness due to chronic or acute health problems;

  • serious emotional disturbance: a disability where a child of typical intelligence has difficulty, over time and to a marked degree, building satisfactory interpersonal relationships; responds inappropriately behaviorally or emotionally under normal circumstances; demonstrates a pervasive mood of unhappiness; or has a tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears;

  • specific learning disability: a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, which may manifest itself in an imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do mathematical calculations;

  • speech or language impairment: a communication disorder such as stuttering, impaired articulation, a language impairment, or a voice impairment;

  • traumatic brain injury: an acquired injury to the brain caused by an external physical force, resulting in total or partial functional disability or psychosocial impairment, or both;

  • visual impairment: a visual difficulty (including blindness) that, even with correction, adversely affects a child educational performance

To determine if a child is eligible for classification under one of these areas of exceptionality, an individualized evaluation, or assessment, of the child must be conducted.

The IDEA specifies a number of requirements regarding evaluations of children suspected of having a disability. While a more complete description of these requirements is available in NICHCY's Questions and Answers About the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, these requirements are briefly summarized as follows:

  • Before a child is evaluated for the first time, the school district must notify parents in writing. Parents must give written permission for the school system to conduct this first evaluation (known as a preplacement evaluation).

  • Evaluations must be conducted by a multidisciplinary team (e.g., speech and language pathologist, occupational or physical therapist, medical specialists, school psychologist) and must include at least one teacher or specialist who is knowledgeable about the area of the child's suspected disability.

  • The assessment must thoroughly investigate all areas related to the child's suspected disability.

  • No single procedure may be used as the sole criterion for determining a child's eligibility for special services or for determining his or her appropriate educational placement. Rather, the evaluation process must utilize a variety of valid assessment instruments and observational data.

  • All testing must be done individually.

  • Tests and other evaluation materials must be provided in the child's primary language or mode of communication, unless it is clearly not feasible to do so.

  • All tests and other evaluation materials must be validated for the specific purpose for which they are used. This means that a test may not be used to assess a student in a particular area (e.g., intelligence) unless the test has been designed and validated through research as measuring that specific area.

  • Assessments must be conducted in a nondiscriminatory way. This means that the tests and evaluation materials and procedures that are used may not be racially or culturally discriminatory (biased) against the child.

  • The evaluation team must ensure that any test used is administered appropriately by a person trained to do so, that the test is being used for the purposes for which it was designed, and that the child's disability does not interfere with the child's ability to take any test measuring specific abilities (e.g., the child's visual impairment affects his or her ability to read and correctly answer the questions on an achievement test). [34 CFR Sections 300.530-300.532]

Appropriately, comprehensively, and accurately assessing a child with a suspected disability clearly presents a significant challenge to the assessment team.

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Volume 4, Number 1, 1994

> News Digest is published three times a year; single copies are provided free of charge. In addition, NICHCY disseminates other materials and can respond to individual requests for information. All services and publications are free. For further information and assistance, or to receive a NICHCY Publications List, contact NICHCY, P.O. Box 1492, Washington, DC 20013. Telephone: 1-800-695-0285 (Voice/TT) and (202) 884-8200 (Voice/TT).

NICHCY thanks our Project Officer, Dr. Sara Conlon, at the Office of Special Education Programs, U.S. Department of Education, for her time in reading and reviewing this document and, as always, for her commitment to the Clearinghouse. We would also like to express our deep appreciation to the following individuals, who reviewed this document and offered many valuable and insightful suggestions for its revision:

Dr. Harold Dent, Center for Minority Special Education, Hampton University, Hampton, Virginia;

Dr. Stanley Klein, Exceptional Parent, Brookline, Massachusetts; Kris Schoeller, PACER Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota; and Deborah Leuchovius, also of the PACER Center.

And lastly, we would like to thank the author, Dr. Betsy Waterman, State University of New York at Oswego, for dedicating her time and efforts to the creation of this News Digest.

Project Staff

Project Director: Suzanne Ripley
Deputy Director: Richard L. Horne, Ed.D.
Editor: Lisa Kupper
Author: Betsy B. Waterman, Ph.D.

This fact sheet is made possible through Cooperative Agreement #H030A30003 between the Academy for Educational Development and the Office of Special Education Programs. The contents of this publication do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Department of Education, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products or organizations imply endorsement by the U. S. Government.

The Academy for Educational Development, founded in 1961, is an independent, nonprofit service organization committed to addressing human development needs in the United States and throughout the World. In partnership with its clients, the Academy seeks to meet today's social, economic, and environmental challenges through education and human resource development; to apply state-of-the-art education, training, research, technology, management, behavioral analysis, and social marketing techniques to solve problems; and to improve knowledge and skills throughout the world as the most effective means for stimulating growth, reducing poverty, and promoting democratic and humanitarian ideals.

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