In this fourth installment of our Back to School (Virtually!) series with special education lawyer Grace Clark, we turn our attention to the question of assessments and evaluations — a subject that’s prompted quite a bit of concern since in-person assessments were halted by the pandemic in March. Last week, L.A. County gave the green light for districts to resume in-person assessments, which has many of us feeling hopeful. But what happens if our district is unable to reopen campuses for assessments? What if we’re not comfortable bringing our children back in person? What are the best strategies for moving forward? 

 

                    Here are 5 things you should know right now:

  • Now that districts are allowed to proceed with assessments, they are required to provide them.
     
  • Districts that are unable to provide in-person assessments will have to consider contracting with private services.
     
  • Standardized testing has always been modified for kids with disabilities. Just as there are ways to make in-person testing safer (masks, face shields, being outdoors, maintaining distance, etc.), there are ways to make virtual assessments work for some kids.
     
  • Regardless of when and how you proceed with an assessment, maintaining good progress monitoring strategies is essential. 
     
  • You know your child best — so prioritize what they need and figure out the safest, most effective way for them to be assessed or evaluated for that need.

 

Overview

SpEd attorney Grace Clark tells us that school districts use psychoeducational assessments both to address parents’ and teachers’ concerns and to inform the foundation of the IEP team’s decision about a child’s eligibility for special education, needs, goals, services, and placement. The contents of an assessment are heavily regulated by federal, state, and local rules and regulations (even during a pandemic).To pinpoint a student’s specific strengths and challenges and form a plan to address any issues, it’s crucial that an assessment is accurate and thorough.

So how do we go about conducting them during a pandemic?

 

What does the law say about assessments now?

During a recent webinar presented by NAVLaw, attorney Jodi Bynder said that the California education code has always been clear that an assessment plan must be developed within 15 calendar days after a request for an assessment has been made. Once a parent consents to that assessment plan, the district has 60 days before that assessment must take place. When the pandemic began, Senate Bill 117 brought all assessments and IEEs (independent educational evaluations) to a halt — but SB 117 expired on July 1st, and the new bill, SB 820, does not block obligations for assessments. Ms. Bynder said there has been a lack of compliance among districts since SB 117 expired, and that some families have chosen to conduct assessments with private psychologists and then present the results to the district for reimbursement.

Grace Clark agrees: Now that districts are allowed to proceed with in-person assessments, they are required to do them — somehow. If a district doesn’t have the resources to proceed with the assessment, they can contract with private services. Note that a district will never force an assessment to take place in person if the family or child is uncomfortable or medically compromised, and they will do as much as they can virtually in these cases (but see below for some caveats). 

UPDATE: On September 28, the Department of Education and the DOE's Office of Special Education Programs issued updated guidance on school operation during the pandemic. DOE now says that where an assessment requires an in-person component that is not possible due to social distancing measures, schools should make a good faith effort to conduct the assessment virtually, to the extent that it can be administered by trained personnel in conformance with the test producer’s instructions. Alternatively, parents and the school can agree to postpone testing until it can be done safely in person. You can read more here.

 

Are virtual assessments a good idea for kids who already aren’t doing well with distance learning?

We’ll hand the mic back to Grace Clark here:

“During the pandemic, some educational psychologists are providing assessments in a modified way over video conference. These virtual assessments won’t fully comply with many legal requirements, though. Among these, psychoeducational assessments in California require a classroom observation to determine whether any behaviors observed would impact academic or social functioning. This obviously is not possible during distance learning.  

“Likewise, many of the actual tests are designed to be given in person so the assessor can monitor the integrity of the student during the exam, and this is impossible in a video conference format. For instance, if a child cannot stay engaged in the exam, the assessor may not know if it’s because the child has trouble paying attention, or because the child’s WiFi connection is poor, or because there is a distracting noise in the next room.”

Many advocates and psychologists agree. Special education advocate and educational consultant Lori Mintzer is concerned about the implications of what gets lost in translation over Zoom: 

“An assessor needs to look at the school environment and see how the child is functioning both in the classroom and out of the classroom. If you have concerns about task initiation in a classroom setting, you need to see them in action. The testing environment is very different from the school environment — without seeing them on the yard or socializing, looking at that social-emotional component of play, then you’re just looking at academics. Additionally, if a child has tracking issues, you need to be able to watch their eyes track as they follow along — a virtual assessor won’t be able to see those things.”

Grace agrees, and points out that in addition, “an incomplete or incorrect assessment is not only unlawful and won’t withstand a challenge in court, but it can also be harmful to the child. Using inaccurate and incomplete information to form an IEP may end up providing the wrong kinds of supports and services for a child.” 

 

But what if your family’s medical needs mean a virtual assessment is the only option, and you don’t want to wait until you can safely do one in person again? 

We reached out to Dr. Rita Eichenstein, who waded into the virtual assessment quagmire soon after the pandemic began. She told us that “virtually all publishers have put their testing materials online because they recognize that this isn’t a 30-day problem — this is an ongoing reality and it’s unlikely to change.” Dr. Eichenstein has devised some ways around the issues raised by Ms. Mintzer and others:

  1. Dr. Eichenstein has all parents and districts she works with sign a COVID waiver agreeing to the changed circumstances for testing. The waiver states that because these tests were designed to be administered in person, families who proceed with virtual assessments or even an IEE must do so knowing that it has not yet been possible for publishers to establish the validity of their tests when done online. 
     
  2. To combat some of the issues inherent with not being in the same room with a child, Dr. Eichenstein asks parents to place a camera behind the child so she can see their body in the chair and how they work: how they point to the screen, use a pencil, etc., to provide an added layer of information. 
     
  3. Most tests are already adapted for kids with disabilities. Dr. Eichenstein tells us she has adapted tests such as the nonverbal RIAS-2 for Zoom by adding numbers to the pictures she holds up so that kids can both point to the object on the screen and tell her the number for the answer. She also reminds us that some tests, such as the WISC-V IQ test, require manually moving blocks to imitate a pattern, and it’s a timed test — so whether it’s administered in person or virtually, psychologists already adapt the test so that results are valid and tested according to a child’s fine and gross motor abilities. She continues, “As with in-person testing, when you’re adapting for disability, there are already some ways in which you have to deviate from standard. For example, for kids with speech apraxia, you have to take the best guess as to the sound they are making and the intention behind it.” (The same goes with children who are pre-readers, and are allowed to dictate responses rather than hand-write them.) 

 

Conclusions 

Grace Clark reminds us that regardless of when — and how — you are able to get an assessment, maintaining good progress monitoring strategies is essential. You can read about a few ways to monitor your child’s progress at the link above (some are easier than you’d think!). And check out this short video from special education advocate Dr. Sarah Pelangka for tips on recording data to track your child’s progress, as well as this awesome goal tracker template

We also found it comforting to hear from Dr. Diana Fannon, CCUSD’s director of special education, that each district has the flexibility to work with families to decide whether an assessment should be performed in person or virtually. She also reminded us that “we’re already deviating from standard procedures by having kids wear masks and having Plexiglas up, and that’s already potentially compromising results that we’re getting. There are a lot of pieces to assessments we can do virtually, like interviewing parents, using rating scales, and looking at previous assessments if there’s enough information; if we can’t, we’ll write up what we can do and do the best we can, and we’ll document why we can’t complete the assessment at that time.”

Finally, to quote attorney Valerie Vanaman, “in a pandemic, everything has a twist.” In other words, this is a time for flexibility, open communication, collaboration, and creative thinking to figure out how to meet our children’s needs as best we can.

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