In working with students with disabilities or who may have disabilities, professionals ask questions and make decisions during each of the assessment steps: screening, referral, determining eligibility, program planning, program monitoring, and program evaluation. Decision points allow the team to use the information to make decisions regarding the needs of the student.
Step 1. Screening
Identifying children and youth who need special education services is a collaborative effort among teachers in the schools and personnel who work in agencies that serve children and families. The assessment question focuses on "Is there a possibility that the student may have a disability?" The purpose of screeningto determine whether students may have disabilities and to refer them for further assessment. Screening is designed to assess large numbers of students efficiently and economically. Based on the information collected during screening, evaluators decide whether to refer the student to the team for further assessment. Screening approaches differ, depending on whether the student is a preschooler or of school age.
Preschool children In many communities, children under age 6 come to the assessment process as a result of Child Find activities. Child Find directs parents to screening services in their community that are open to infants, toddlers, and preschoolers and that are free of charge.
Comprehensive screening of young children includes several components: parent concerns; medical history (often given through parental reports or completed by parents using a checklist); vision and hearing tests; and the use of commercial screening instruments and observation reports in the areas of general development, abilities, and skills. Screening instruments are generally inexpensive and are designed so they may be completed in a short amount of time, 30 minutes or less.
School-age students Children who are entering public school for the first time or transferring to a new school require screening. One or more individuals, such as the special education teacher or general education teacher, conduct the screening, which involves various approaches. An educator often begins by reviewing past work and test scores of the incoming student or by asking the new student a set of questions. In the classroom, teachers observe and collect information about the student's work and performance. Teachers may observe that the student is having trouble seeing a computer screen, understanding and following directions, working with others, reading, or comprehending. Parents utilize screening approaches, too. They may have concerns about their child when they see their child in relation to other children in the neighborhood or when they compare their child to their knowledge about growth and development.
School personnel conduct a variety of other screening activities. The school nurse arranges for students to have regular vision and hearing screenings. Educators review student attendance records and follow up on students who are not attending school on a regular basis. Classroom teachers administer group tests of school achievement and screen student scores to identify those students who show they are having difficulty. When screening flags children, the process moves to the next step.
Step 2. Making a Referral
Prereferral decisions Questions about a student are referred to an assistance team, which usually comprises regular classroom teachers and special educators in the school building. The team may be a student assistance team (SAT), teacher assistance team, or intervention assistance team. In addition to questions about individual student behaviors or academic work, this team enables teachers, both regular and special education, to help one another with general academic or discipline concerns including making accommodations to instruction and assessment. During this stage, response to intervention (RTI) activities, usually occur, depending on the student's needs. When interventions are not successful, teachers document the interventions tried and the student responses in a written referral.
Referral decisions The IEP team, which is different from the assistance team, receives the written referral form. Based on the referral information about the student, the team recommends specific assessment approaches or assessment instruments to be used in determining eligibility.
Step 3. Determining Eligibility
To determine student eligibility for special education services, the assessment questions focus on "Does the student have a disability? What disability does the student have? Does the student meet the criteria for services?" The purpose of this step is to examine the assessment information to make a determination regarding the student's eligibility for special education and related services according to state and federal (IDEA) guidelines for children and youth.
As specified in IDEA, a multidisciplinary team conducts assessment for the purposes of eligibility. Thus, a student's assessment covers all areas related to the suspected disability including, if appropriate, health, vision, hearing, social and emotional status, general intelligence, academic performance, communication, and motor abilities. For example, a student who is nonverbal may have a multidisciplinary evaluation that includes meeting with (1) an audiologist to determine the extent, if any, of a hearing loss; (2) a speech and language pathologist to assess understanding of language (receptive language) and communication skills; (3) a special educator to assess academic and functional skills; (4) a vocational rehabilitation counselor to identify interests and abilities; and (5) a psychologist to determine intellectual functioning. The team will use various approaches, including, for example, observations, norm-referenced instruments, and performance assessments. The team will ask the student's parent(s) to provide information, too. All of these individuals work together to view and analyze the assessment information, with all contributing expertise from their respective disciplines.
Team members share the assessment information during the IEP meeting and determine the student's eligibility to receive special education and related services. As active members of the team, parents may have questions and collect various types of information such as medical records or developmental history.
Because the team bases its decisions on assessment information and data, they must choose and use appropriate assessment approaches carefully. Evaluators must have appropriate training, take responsibility in evaluating the adequacy of the approach, follow professional standards and ethical principles, and be knowledgeable about the limitations of specific approaches. In the chapters that follow we will discuss these approaches in more detail.
Step 4. Program Planning
In program planning, the assessment questions focus on "What should be included in the student's individualized program? If behavior impedes learning, what strategies, including positive behavioral interventions, should the team write in the plan? What supplemental aids, services, and assistive technology does the student need? What types of accommodations and/or modifications should team members make to the curriculum? Where should instruction begin? What supports for school personnel does the student need?" The purposes are to (1) determine the student's current level of functioning and (2) plan the instructional program. Much of the information gathered in Step 4 will be useful in planning the instruction and developing realistic goals.