Recent recommendations for evaluating students during COVID-19
The COVID-19 pandemic has greatly disrupted the education of students with disabilities. But schools are still required to comply with the IDEA even with these disruptions.
One area of disruption is in evaluations of students with disabilities. When Arizona schools closed in March 2020, some schools asked parents to outright postpone evaluations for the rest of the school year. The IDEA and Arizona law are clear that evaluations must be completed within certain timelines. The COVID-19 pandemic has not changed those deadlines or obligations. But evaluations may look different.
In November 2020, the National Center for Learning Disabilities and the National Association of School Psychologists recently issued some guidance on evaluations with “Navigating Special Education Evaluations for Specific Learning Disabilities (SLD) Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic.”
While the report addresses considerations for specific learning disabilities, it has helpful information for all students with disabilities and can help with discussions with the school.
In the report, NCLD and NASP review a few evaluation challenges and make
recommendations for states to consider to assist students with disabilities and help the schools meet their needs. The Arizona Department of Education has not adopted any of these recommendations or provided recent guidance but it has reiterated the school’s obligations to continue to complete evaluations and provide FAPE to students with disabilities.
Here are some of the challenges the report covers:
1. Interruption to instruction. The report recommends that all schools re-establish core grade level instruction with appropriate supports whether the students are in person, hybrid or virtual. Schools should be assessing all students to determine the impact of the school closures and disruptions. If certain students are further behind, the school should provide more intensive instruction to students who need it.
Keep in mind that the school should be finding out if students already on IEPs have regressed during the school closures and interruptions and should be offering additional services to make up for it. As the COVID-19 pandemic is still ongoing and some schools are switching to all virtual instruction, it may make sense to wait on those determinations or for a school to update an offer it has already made for more services.
2. Administering assessments under new circumstances. The COVID-19 pandemic has likely changed the way many evaluations are being conducted. The standardized assessments used in an evaluation have specific rules that must be followed when giving the assessment in order for the results to be valid. So, the report notes that giving some of these assessment virtually or with face masks on may call some of the results into question.
That does not mean that the tests should not be used or the information obtained is not helpful. But it does mean that, more than ever, additional information should be used to support the test findings. This can include curriculum assessments, work samples, teacher observation, etc.
3. For specific learning disabilities, the COVID-19 pandemic has created some additional challenges particularly for students who are not yet eligible under this category. That is because for SLD, the school has to exclude other factors including lack of appropriate instruction before finding a student eligible.
With significant time missed from classroom instruction, this may be more difficult to exclude. So the more information you have about your child’s needs before and during the school closures, the better. This would be less significant for a student already eligible under that category because the school should already have excluded those factors.
If a school refuses to evaluate your child or does not find them eligible under SLD because they cannot exclude a lack of appropriate instruction, make sure that they begin to take data so that those factors can be assessed soon and interventions can be put into place as soon as possible in order to make that determination. It is a good idea to follow up with the school to make sure they are taking that data so that factor can be excluded without more delay.
Also, only eligibility for SLD requires excluding lack of appropriate instruction so you might consider asking the school to consider eligibility under one of the other categories of eligibility such as other health impairment, if appropriate.
If the school is going to evaluate your child as an initial or re-evaluation during the COVID-19 pandemic, you should ask questions to make sure you know what precautions they intend to take during the assessment and to make sure the data they are gathering is helpful and useful. Some questions to consider are:
Will it be done in person?
If so, will your child need to wear a mask?
Does it need to be done in person? What is the potential impact on the results if the evaluation is not conducted in person?
Will they need to take off their mask for all or a portion of the testing?
Will there be a barrier between the evaluator and your child?
If your child is currently attending remotely due to health or other concerns, can the evaluation be scheduled to avoid contact with other students?
Can the evaluation be conducted outside?
If you have questions about the evaluation process, please contact a special education attorney.