Working together to benefit students

When a child is suffering from learning or behavioral problems at home or in the classroom, the first step for a parent is usually a public school evaluation.  However, while these are convenient and free, they can only begin to scratch the surface of the true underlying problems.

Public School Evaluations

With psycho-education evaluations conducted by a school psychologist, it is determined whether or not a child qualifies for special education intervention using limited testing methods. It is not determined how and why a child can or cannot function properly.

When a public school conducts an evaluation, they use information that may include the following:

  • IQ scores
  • Achievement test scores
  • Grades from report cards
  • Daily classroom performance
  • Curriculum-based probe results

The tests administered focus on intelligence, achievement, and behavioral outcomes as opposed to cognitive origins of problems. They have little diagnostic value and typically do not provide new information. They also do not translate easily into intervention strategies. Every child is unique and their treatment must be approached according to their specific situation. A child with a learning or behavioral disability cannot be grouped into a single category of “needs special education intervention” or “does not need special education intervention.” Instead, they need to be evaluated in accordance with the characteristics of their condition and receive treatment that is tailored to their particular situations.   

Overall, school assessments are typically limited to measures of IQ and achievement, without comprehensive measures.  Generally, they do not diagnose learning or behavior disorders caused by altered brain function or development, but rather classify children by exceptionality in accordance with the data they have obtained.

Independent Educational Evaluations (IEE)

When a parent or guardian feels their child wasn’t properly or accurately evaluated, they have the right to request an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE) at public expense if they disagree with an evaluation obtained by the public agency.

An IEE may include assessments of intelligence or academic achievement, but may additionally be more comprehensive if conducted by a developmental neuropsychologist, and include assessments of attention, executive functions, memory, language, visual/spatial perception, perceptual/sensory motor skills, social cognition, and emotional and psychological well-being.  These evaluations may be referred to as “neurodevelopmental.”  IEE uses multiple, extensive methods for evaluating children, such as:

  • A diagnostic interview with parents
  • Review of the child's academic and medical records
  • Studying their general intellect
  • Testing their achievement skills, reading, math, and spelling
  • Testing their executive function skills-the ability to organize, solve problems, planning, and mental flexibility
  • Studying their attention and inhibition
  • Testing their learning and memory
  • Practicing their speech and language skills
  • Studying their visual-spatial skills
  • Testing their motor coordination
  • Testing their sensory functioning
  • Studying their behavioral and emotional functioning
  • Testing their social skills
  • A feedback session and comprehensive report
  • Observing their motivation, cooperation, and behavior

A neurodevelopmental evaluation takes into account that a child is more complex than simple intellect and achievement. It takes a whole brain to function; therefore, the neuropsychological elements most necessary for a child to succeed academically need to be examined and considered to accurately determine how and why a child can or cannot be successful in the general school curriculum.

Why a neurodevelopmental evaluation?

Most importantly, neuropsychological testing provides a better understanding of the child’s behavior and learning in school, at home, and in the community. The evaluation can guide teachers, therapists, and parents to better help a child achieve his or her potential. In other words, the sooner, the better.

A child would benefit from a neurodevelopmental IEE when he or she experiences:

  • Difficulty in learning and/or a question of dyslexia
  • Concerns regarding an attentional disorder (ADHD)
  • Problems with socialization, emotional control, or a question of Autism
  • A disease or inborn developmental problem that affects the brain in some way
  • A brain injury from an accident, birth trauma, or other physical stress
  • Evaluation of giftedness for advanced educational placement

Federal Special Education Regulations state that if a parent requests an independent educational evaluation at public expense, the School District must do so without unnecessary delay.

The School District has two choices:

  1. Take the steps necessary to ensure that the child gets an IEE at no cost to the parent
  2.  File for due process and try to prove to an administrative law judge that their own assessment is appropriate

However, going to a hearing is typically more expensive and time consuming for a school districts than agreeing to pay for the IEE.

Multi-component evaluations

Instead of these two methods of evaluation being separate—you might even say “conflicting”—the focus should strictly be on the child’s immediate needs. Parents want the best for their child, and educators, are shaping our future leaders. A child who doesn’t receive proper treatment as the result of an inappropriate evaluation may well suffer unfortunate consequences that could easily have been avoided.  Evaluators, both school-affiliated and independent, should work together toward the common goal of establishing an appropriate educational program for each child with needs that are interfering with their academic success.   In other words, the processes of public school evaluations and IEE’s should work together, not against each other.

The state of Pennsylvania has adopted a multi-component evaluation system for teachers that redesigns their program. “Multi-component” means an evaluation that looks at both teacher and teaching quality. The administration recognizes the need for specific skills and personality traits to enhance the teaching process, especially in compartmentalized programs like special education.   With comprehensive information about how a child learns best and what they need to succeed academically, teacher evaluations can help ensure that the individual carrying out the educational intervention recommended is well qualified, informed, and competent to do so.

There are a number of goals on the horizon with the implementation of more rigorous teacher evaluations. First and foremost, improving teacher quality ensures children at all levels of development succeed.  

Pennsylvania is taking steps in the right direction and is an ideal example of what more states should be implementing.  A neurodevelopmental IEE offers the opportunity to reveal the tools needed to help children with disorders learn and grow, and we should be encouraging that every day through a variety of means.

Lee Ann Grisolano, Ph.D.

Dr. Grisolano is a Pennsylvania-based pediatric neuropsychologist who specializes in helping children and their families conquer problems with learning, attention, behavior and emotions. She is also a certified school psychologist who understands the many ways in which neurodevelopmental disorders can create challenges that are barriers to a child’s learning and development. She earned her Ph.D. in School/Pediatric Psychology from the University of Iowa, and completed Post Doctoral Fellowships in Adolescent Health Psychology and in Pediatric/Clinical Child Psychology at the University of Minnesota and Michigan State University, respectively. In addition to her education, Dr. Grisolano has extensive clinical practice in school psychology, neuropsychological evaluation and behavioral assessment. She is an experienced college professor, published researcher and accomplished presenter. All of these credentials and experiences enable Dr. Grisolano understand how the many aspects of cognitive and emotional functioning affect a child’s ability to progress in school, build social and emotional skills, and develop quality relationships with peers and adults.