Top 5 Tips for Reviewing School Evaluations: Tip 1

Published on July 8, 2009 by Jennifer Laviano

customer survey or poll with check boxes on blackboard

I am by no means a psychiatrist, psychologist, school psychologist, special education teacher, or related service provider.  I am not licensed or trained in administering any of the test typically given to students with disabilities in our public schools.  However, over the many years I have been representing children with special education needs in my Connecticut law office, I have learned that there are a lot of ways in which a student’s needs and progress can be misunderstood if evaluations are not properly interpreted.

When it comes to reviewing school evaluations, question authority!

The most common times for students with special needs to be evaluated by school districts are 1) when determining initial eligibility under the IDEA, and 2) for “triennial” testing under the IDEA, which is required at least every 3 years for students who have been identified as requiring an IEP.  For parents of those children, reviewing the results of the school district testing can be overwhelming, especially if they do not have any background or experience in reviewing such evaluation results.

In my experience, schools are able to take advantage of a parents’ ignorance on how to interpret evaluation results.

It is therefore essential that you become as  familiar as possible with the different types of evaluation instruments that your school district might use to assess your child, and to be prepared for the ways in which your school district might interpret them differently than you might.  There are thousands of different tests out there that could be used to test a child with disabilities, and no, I don’t expect you to become an expert on all of them.  As a reminder, if you feel that your child’s needs are being dramatically misunderstood by the school staff who are testing your child, it might be time to consider an Independent Educational Evaluation.

In the interim, here are some important things to pay attention to when attending your child’s IEP at which evaluation results are being reviewed:

Tip 1:  Be Wary of Broad or Composite Scores:  Pay Attention to the Subtests


Many instruments will have a number of subtests, which are then added up and averaged to provide a “broad” or “composite” score.  That score can be informative, but it doesn’t always give the full picture.  Many times I will attend an IEP meeting for a client at which evaluations are being reviewed, and the person responsible for reporting the results will “gloss over” subtest results that are of grave concern.  They will call them a “relative weakness,” and sometimes, they won’t even list the subtest results in the written report.

If subtest results are not included in your child’s evaluation results, ask for them.

And even if they ARE included, inquire as to their meaning.  I can’t assure you that the answers you’ll get will be as comprehensive as you might want, but at least you will begin to understand what the school is measuring.  A good way of inquiring about subtest results that are particularly discrepant from other scores is to ask “how would this impact him in a classroom?”  I know that the cynic in me, and maybe you, is thinking that the person who administered the test will say “it doesn’t” or “don’t worry about that one,” but when you ask open ended questions like that of professionals who administer these tests, you’d be surprised at how much information you can get.

All individuals have strengths and weaknesses, but be wary of attempts by your district to “average out” subtests that stand out from the rest.

The best example I can give on this, and one which I’ve seen far too often, is what I have seen happen a number of times in cases in which a reading disability is suspected.  In these cases, the parents are expressing concerns that their child might have dyslexia, as an example, and the school is either taking the position that the student does not have the disorder, or that they do but that they are making great progress with the services being provided by the district.

To assess the situation, the student has been given an academic achievement test, like the Woodcock Johnson or the WIAT.

When a student with a high IQ and a reading disability is given such a test, often I see a profile where the reading comprehension score is high, but the decoding skill is low.  So, let’s say you have a 4th grade student who has a Very Superior IQ, and on the decoding subtest they score at the 1st grade level, but on the comprehension subtest they score as an 8th grader.  To get the average of these subtests you might add 8th grade level to 1st grade level, and divide by two, resulting in a “broad reading” score of 4.5 grade level.  And yet, this is still a fourth grade child who decodes at the 1st grade level.

It might take this kid an hour to read a paragraph, but when he does so, he understands it.

Unfortunately, the way this “plays out” at an IEP meeting is that the person who administered the evaluation says:  “his reading score is actually right on target, he’s solidly within the fourth grade level!  Of course, his decoding is a relative weakness, but we’re working on that.”  What parent would know enough to understand that, in fact, the key deficit of reading decoding remains 3 grade levels behind?

The Devil is in the Details.

5 Responses to Top 5 Tips for Reviewing School Evaluations: Tip 1

  1. Bonnie the Web Designer
    July 9th, 2009 | 12:44 am

    This happened exactly to us. The composite IQ was average, and they tried to gloss over the areas that were below average and say it all evened out in the end. Wish somebody would create a site that helps explain all these assessments so parents could know what is really being measured. Excellent article. Thanks!

  2. Rochelle Dolim
    July 9th, 2009 | 6:50 am

    My autistic daughters top out the parameters of WJIII at grade level 18 for reading comprehension and another of the subtests in that group. Their written expression is at a second grade level … which would clearly indicate output dysfunction.

    The education offered addressed second grade level intellect. Staff somehow didn’t notice that the output continued to be proportionately lower; staff believed the girls would somehow achieve more than trivial educational benefit from being given remedial second grade curriculum while having graduate school level comprehension.

    A laptop was given as assistive technology to help with written expression. Evaluations have not yet been redone utilizing the assistive technology.

  3. Dana Jonson
    July 9th, 2009 | 7:47 pm

    I run into this all the time as well! While I was a special educator and administrator prior to being a special education attorney, I too find that the vast number of evaluative tools out there can be confusing. I also find that school districts often use evaluations to demonstrate the child’s success, when that eval is not even meant to examine the specific area of concern. One resource I have found helpful in this case is the book, The Special Educator’s Comprehensive Guide to 301 Diagnostic Tests by Roger Pierangelo Ph.D. and George Giuliani J.D. Psy.D. While the book does not offer examples from the tests (there would be copy right issues) it does do a nice job of explaining what the evaluations are meant to evaluate, which can be very helpful! Thanks Jen for another great article!

  4. Nancy Henderson
    May 1st, 2011 | 6:43 pm

    I have been teaching in Virginia for over 20 years. I piloted the inclusion program in Virginia Beach over 20 years ago & attended training at William & Mary. My youngest son has an IEP due to the learning difficulties he encounters from ADD/ADHD issues. After working in the inclusion setting for several years, I realized that many students with IEPs have many unidentified talents. I went on to pursue my gifted endorsement from UVA so I could offer higher level thinking skills for those students. I have gone round & round with 2 different school systems about qualifying my now dual identified son (IEP & Gifted & Talented) for SPED services. I really think we need to change the title from special ed to something more pertinent. These students are truly special & wonderful, but the term is demeaning in an educational setting. I think something like “Educational Enrichment” would be more appealling to parents & students…especially at the middle & high school levels where students tend to drop out due to learning difficulties. I found your articles very helpful. Even as an educator, I find the IEP world to be a maze with many obstacles that can be used to baffle everyone involved. I would be interested to hear if anyone has looked into the negative connotation of “special ed” and how it affects the educational environment. I have 2 students in my classroom now that have IEPs, but would rather fail than receive help from the SPED teacher…they will sometimes let me help them, but that puts a strain on the help I am able to give the other students in my classroom that don’t have IEP services. Thanks for providing this information to parents.

  5. Jennifer Laviano
    May 1st, 2011 | 7:12 pm

    Nancy, thank you so much for your comments…it is something I have thought a lot about as well! It breaks my heart when kids don’t avail themselves of services for fear of the perception. Just goes to show we must fight daily to make sure that people understand “special education,” what it means, and what it doesn’t. Thanks again for reading, best, Jen