by David Palmer, PhD
Special Education Testing
Special education law is often complex, and there is variation in the way states and individual districts run their programs. If your child is being tested, you should be given a copy of the current special education laws and parent rights pertaining to your state in language that you can understand. Look this information over carefully and don’t be afraid to ask questions.
Your most basic right is that you have input into any decision that is made regarding your child’s education. You are considered an important member of the school team, not just an observer. The assessment team needs your input in order to do a thorough evaluation and be a better advocate for your child.
For more information:
New Jersey 856-582-7000, www.state.nj.us/njded/specialed
Pennsylvania 800-879-2301, www.pde.state.pa.us/special_edu (scroll to and click: Parents Rights)
When some parents think of high-achieving or gifted students, what comes to mind is a child who shines in every aspect of life, who can be expected to get straight A’s in school, have tons of friends and be a star in sports.
The idea is, if you’re smart, you’re smart, and you should be able to apply your mind and talents to just about anything and do well. This idea just isn’t true. When it comes to academic abilities, most children, even those who are very bright or high-achieving, have a definite set of strengths and weaknesses. We all do.
This fact is consistent with many current views on human intelligence. That is, intelligence should be thought of as a group of distinct abilities, rather than a global or general factor that filters down to everything.
One child might be great at art and reading, but not so great at math or athletics. Another child might be truly creative in the way he views the world or in the way he approaches problem-solving, but have a hard time getting his ideas down on paper. In other words, intelligence is not one “thing” that we can point to.
True Learning Disabilities
For some children, the differences between their abilities are so great that it is difficult, if not impossible, for them to succeed in school just by working harder or through compensating. These children have a true learning disability, a persistent and obvious block when it comes to learning certain types of material.
For some, the problem might involve reading, for others math. Still others might struggle with written or spoken language. These are otherwise capable children who, even though they have had great teachers, help at home, and plenty of opportunity to learn, still don’t seem to “get it.”
Many experts believe that learning disabilities are the result of neurologically based differences in the way that the brain processes information. These differences might have to do with the neural connections in specific locations of the brain associated with the skills needed for reading, math, or whatever task the child is having problems with.
In some cases, there might be an identifiable cause for such brain-based problems, such as a seizure disorder, birth trauma or head injury. However, in most cases there is no obvious explanation.
Some learning disabilities might simply be the result of an inherited difference in the way the brain processes information, a “trait” the child was born with. I’ve heard many parents of such children remark, “I was just like that when I was in school.”
What to Look For
Some signs that your child may have a learning disability are:
• He appears to be trying his best, but is still struggling in one or more subject areas despite having a skilled teacher and support from you at home.
• She shows a big difference in performance between subject areas, for instance consistently doing well in reading and writing, but poorly in math.
• He reverses letters and numbers much more often than others his age, or has a hard time recognizing words that he has seen repeatedly.
• She forgets what she has learned from one day to the next.
• His teachers are concerned about his lack of progress in comparison to other children of the same age or grade, or feel that he is working below his ability.
• Obvious problems with cognitive skills such as attention, memory, understanding language or following directions appear to be getting in the way of school success.
What You Can Do
If your child is struggling in school and shows one or more of these signs, it’s time to call a meeting with the teacher to discuss your concerns. Often, parents and teachers can find solutions together, without having to look any further. A modification of homework assignments, extra tutoring, or a change in ability groups within the classroom are some common solutions.
If you’ve already tried accommodations suggested by your child’s teacher without success, go to the next step and ask for:
• In Delaware, an Instructional Support Team.
• In New Jersey, a Child Study Team.
• In Pennsylvania, a Student Study Team (SST).
Schools typically hold study team meetings when interventions at the classroom level are not working and there is a need to get other opinions about how to best support a child.
The student study team is often made up of the child’s teacher, other experienced teachers at the school, the principal, and sometimes a special education teacher or school psychologist.
The team will listen to your concerns, discuss your child’s strengths and weaknesses, and come up with recommendations that can be put into action by the teacher.
These recommendations might include additional services during or after school, a change in the way your child is grouped for instruction, or enrollment in a structured remedial program designed to help your child catch up on the skills he is missing.
The kinds of remedial programs available to general education students vary by district and sometimes by school. Some schools have a general education learning specialist or special programs and materials available for students who need extra
Some allow general education students to receive informal or “school-based” support from special education teachers. In these programs, students who need extra help are grouped with formally identified special education students for instruction in the areas where the support is needed. The instruction can take place in the general education classroom, or children might be pulled out once or more a week for instruction in a special “resource” room.
The Next Step
If your child is still not succeeding despite the best efforts of the teacher and the school team, and you or your child’s teacher still believe that a learning disability may be present, consider requesting testing for formal special education services.
By law, schools have a certain number of days after receiving a parent’s written request for testing to respond with an assessment plan, outlining what types of tests will be used. The type of tests chosen will likely be determined by a review of your child’s records, observation, teacher comments, and information you provide.
If your child is being tested, be sure to let the school psychologist know what you think the underlying problem might be. For example, if your child is showing signs of a memory problem or a short attention span, speak up now. The psychologist might only test in areas where a deficit is suspected, and your insight will help identify where that problem may lie.
Once the school district assigns and receives the assessment plan, the assessment team (which usually includes a school psychologist, a special education teacher, and sometimes other specialists depending on the child’s needs) has a limited amount of time, typically about two months, to complete the testing and hold a meeting with the parent.
At this meeting they will go over the results and determine whether the child qualifies for special education services. Parents who disagree with their conclusion may appeal.
Educational psychologist David Palmer, PhD is the author of Parents’ Guide to IQ Testing and Gifted Education: All You Need to Know to Make the Right Decisions for Your Child (Parents’ Guide Books, $15.95).