By Amy Shatila and Marysa Enis

The short answer is no, formal testing is not legally required for every triennial special education evaluation. So why do so many districts automatically require it? Does it always help children?

From Our Perspective

Here’s a common scenario, as told by one of our very own school psychs:

Amy sat in the conference room, waiting for her next IEP meeting to begin. The story was a familiar one. It was time for the student’s triennial assessment, and he was doing poorly. He was chronically absent and failing almost every class. When he did come to school, he was sleepy and unmotivated. As Amy waited and team members arrived, the air was thick with anticipation for the conversations to come.

Then, in walked the boy’s mother. She carried a small silver picture frame with a photo of a little boy, about 3-years-old. He was riding in a red wagon and grinning from ear to ear. She placed the photo on the conference table.

“I brought this today to remind us all of who this meeting is about,” she told the group. “I want you all to see the little boy I love, and the joy he has inside him.”

She talked about his sense of humor, his drawing ability, and his kind heart. Soon, teachers began chiming in with their own anecdotes about the child’s witticisms and acts of kindness. In less than five minutes, this group of relative strangers had made valuable connections, all in talking about the boy’s strengths.

As the meeting progressed, the difficult topics of work completion, attendance, and course credits began. Team members went round and round about how nothing worked. It was clear that everyone wanted to help him.

All eyes turned to Amy, the school psychologist. “You’re going to test him, right?”

To Test or Not to Test?

It can be really hard to help children who are struggling. If it weren’t, we’d be out of a job. The problem is, when a child is struggling and there is a school psychologist in the room, the discussion almost always ends with a request for testing.

If you aren’t a school psych, you might be wondering why that’s a problem. We’ll start with the law, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

The Purpose of Assessment

Under the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA), the purpose of Special Education Assessment is:

  1. To determine whether a child is a child with a disability (as defined specifically by IDEA), and;
  2. To determine the educational needs of a child

Right now, school psychologists are beyond spread thin (see a previous article, Hanging on to Your School Psychologist in an Era of Shortages). The current reality is that most of our time is spent completing evaluations. This is especially true in California, where many districts opt to complete full a psychoeducational evaluation for every triennial due date. This begs the question, is testing always needed to make those determinations?

Weighing the Options

It’s not that testing is bad, but it’s not always good, either. To school psychologists, it feels like testing has become the default request – nay, solution – for almost every obstacle. At times, it can actually do more harm than good. Consider the following pros and cons:

Pro: Committees may get answers to unanswered questions.

Con: The answers often exist in previous evaluations, in which case the problem may actually be one of follow-through rather than insufficient data. In such cases, testing can distract from the hard work of developing and implementing plans that work.

Pro: Students get the undivided attention of an expert in child development.

Con: Students will likely never see that expert again. Meanwhile, they have missed valuable time learning from the expert they will see, their classroom teacher.

Pro: Student needs change as they grow and develop over time. Updated testing can provide a snapshot of their current needs.

Con: More than likely, parents and teachers have a far better picture of those changes than any test session can produce. Unless testing is needed to establish eligibility, school psychologists often get the best data through consultation and collaboration with others. In addition, unless the team is ready to recommend dismissal from special education, reevaluation can produce unanticipated results (such as a student no longer meeting IDEA eligibility criteria). 

Tips for Assessment Planning

The fundamental questions come down to what a student needs and how committees can best support those needs. Testing is appropriate if committees are unable to answer one or both questions without it. However, when districts strictly adhere to formal assessment for every triennial, they basically assume that answers will be needed on that exact date. This goes against both the spirit and the letter of the law, which states that updated testing must be considered at least once every three years, and may be considered as often as once a year.

To help kids and stay compliant:
1. Involve your school psychologist early and often. 

It is absolutely appropriate to invite the school psychologist to IEP meetings when there are concerns about a plan, so please don’t wait until the triennial if a child is tanking. We can help committees interpret the data they have, adjust and monitor plans, and request an additional assessment if needed.

2. Discuss upcoming triennial due dates before they’re due, then waive formal assessment if it isn’t needed. 

Plan ahead by inviting your school psychologist to an IEP meeting before the triennial due date. With their help, discuss student needs and determine if there is enough data to develop (or continue with) a solid plan. Districts and states have different methods for documenting this discussion and the decision not to test. We’ll cover those in another article.

3. When additional testing is needed, be specific about why. 

If a formal assessment is needed, the IEP committee should be able to describe their specific questions in detail. School psychologists have a lot of tools at our disposal, so the more information we get upfront, the more thoughtful we can be in choosing the right tools to answer the questions at hand.

Questions to Help Guide Decision-Making:
  • What are the child’s sociological needs?

Are they safe and do they feel safe? Are their basic needs being met? Have there been any changes since the last evaluation? If there is a sociological need, what has the committee done to address it?

  • What are the student’s health and medical needs?

Have there been any changes since the last evaluation? If so, has the committee discussed those changes and considered if they might have an effect on learning?

  • When is the student most successful or most likely to struggle?

Can the committee recreate or avoid those conditions? Is it appropriate? Would it help with learning?

  • What does the student think? 

What do they say is going well? What isn’t working? What would make things better? Has the committee considered these perspectives and used them to enhance plans?

Many times, IEP Teams reach an “AHA” moment when they take time to better understand the whole child. Educators are masters of data collection and analysis. Families provide a wealth of insight and knowledge that can’t be learned in the classroom. And children are the resident experts on their strengths, perceptions, and interests. These supports and interventions can help our children learn and do right now, which is critical for their self-perception and their academic progress. When we find immediate solutions, we should pat ourselves on the backs for our hard work and implement them as soon as possible.