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Special Education: The Assessment Process

Kit Richert, Ph.D.


A referral to Special Education can be made by a teachers, parents, doctors, or anyone involved in a student’s education. Before a child is placed in Special Education an assessment must be completed to determine their academic level, cognitive ability, adaptive behavior, motor skills, or language processing abilities. The design of the assessment varies according to the suspected area of disability. Assessments are only appropriate when all other classroom interventions have been tried .

The assessment timelines are determined by the states, but usually begin on the day the referral is received by the school. An assessment plan must next be developed that proposes an evaluation process to explore the student’s abilities and suspected area of disability. The assessment plan must be received by the student’s family within a legally determined period of time from the referral date. The parent/guardian in turn has a mandated time frame to consent to the assessment plan.

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Assessments are conducted by trained school specialists and Special Education teachers. They may involve the following evaluations:

Vision and Hearing Screening

Performed by the School Nurse. Loss of hearing or vision must be ruled out as a cause of academic delays.

Cognitive Assessment

Performed by the school psychologist. Typically involves administering an intelligence test, and one or more tests of information processing (auditory, visual, sensorimotor, memory, or attention processing) to explore the student’s cognitive strengths and weaknesses. May also involve classroom observations, informal tests, review of work samples, and interviews with the student, parent, and teacher.

Academic Assessment

Performed by the Special Education teacher. . Typically involves administering a standardized test of academic achievement in reading, writing, and mathematics, as well as a review of work samples.

Developmental, Medical, and School History

Performed by the School Psychologist. Report cards, cumulative records, attendance, and discipline records are studied. Parents, teachers and students are interviewed to understand the health, development, behavior, and social/emotional functioning of the student and its impact on school performance. Observations of social or classroom behavior may also be conducted.

Speech and Language Assessment

Performed by the Speech and Language Pathologist (SLP) . If there is a suspected language processing or communication problem, the SLP will use standardized tests of receptive language (understanding), expressive language ability (quality of spoken language), language pragmatics (understanding idioms and social language), and articulation.

Motor Skills Assessment

Performed by the Occupational Therapist. Assessments of gross and fine motor skills are conducted when there appear to be physical limitations for the child.


The assessment results are presented at the Individual Educational Plan (IEP) meeting to the IEP team, which is usually composed of the child’s parents, a general education teacher, an administrator, and the assessment team. The goal is to understand the student’s strengths and weaknesses, to understand the root causes of their learning difficulties, and to determine their eligibility for Special Education services. When the individual pieces of the assessment are put together, they compose a complete picture of the child and their educational needs. If the child qualifies for Special Education, the assessment information is used to develop an IEP.

Learn more about referring your student for a Special Education assessment

Learn More About IEP’s and How To Be a Part of an IEP Team

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