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Your Struggling Reader Has Been Evaluated. Now What?

Part two of a Q&A with Dr. Michael Hart

Obtaining an outside evaluation is often an important step for parents to get an objective assessment of their child’s learning challenges, especially in cases when dyslexia is suspected. But turning the evaluation into action once the child is back in school may require some finesse, or even outside help. 

We recently spoke about the role of outside evaluations in a child’s special education journey with Dr. Michael Hart, a child psychologist with 25 years of experience in the diagnostic assessment and treatment of students with learning differences, including dyslexia and ADHD. In part one, Dr. Hart shared key considerations when obtaining evaluations for struggling readers. In part two, you will gain an understanding of next steps for parents once they decide to pursue an outside evaluation.

Q: What are examples of what a psycho-educational evaluation might uncover in cases where a reading disability is identified?

Dr. Hart: There are four key components to an educational evaluation: information gathering, intellectual testing, academic testing, and an assessment of cognitive and language processing. 

The main purpose in gathering information is to provide a fuller picture of the child through a variety of means, including in-person meetings with the parents and evaluator(s), questionnaires filled out by those who work with the child in a variety of contexts, including teachers, specialists and parents, and often, classroom observations. 

Second, an evaluation often includes intellectual, or IQ, testing. In the last several years, the inclusion of IQ testing in a complete evaluation has come under some scrutiny. Some professionals say that traditional intellectual tests (e.g., Wechsler scales) are critical while others say it is an outdated way to assess a child’s overall intellectual functioning.  The situation is complex. In the US, a full evaluation that includes standardized intellectual testing is usually mandated by law at least during the triennial evaluations required by IDEA for special education determination. However, an argument can be made that after many administrations of the traditional IQ tests over several years, continuing to test in this area does not provide enough informational value. IQ testing is also quite expensive. However, there are now several tests that measure overall cognitive functioning that may legitimately provide the clinical picture necessary to guide remediation. The bottom line is that we need periodic assessment of a child’s verbal reasoning abilities, nonverbal reasoning, fluid reasoning, working memory and processing speed. Each of these areas may now be evaluated with more cost-effective standardized measures. 

Third, an evaluation includes academic testing. This provides a snapshot of where the child is regarding reading, written language and mathematics at the time of testing. This is an important area of testing but often children with learning differences need more specific processing testing to provide proper intervention guidelines.  

Lastly, an evaluation should assess the child’s cognitive processing, particularly in the area of language processing. This component of an evaluation is arguably the most critical and will reveal information about the child’s ability to process language across multiple skill levels. For instance, at the most basic level can they sound out and decode words? The evaluation may often uncover that children with reading difficulties have weaknesses in their ability to understand “sound-symbol relationships.” That means they may not be able to readily distinguish or identify the sound attached to each letter, or grouping letters, and, therefore, may have trouble reading words. Testing may also reveal they have difficulty with what’s called “rapid automatic naming” — their capability to readily name letters, numbers, or colors. Weakness in this area is a strong predictor of difficulty learning to read. 

Since the vast majority of children with learning differences have language processing issues, a proper evaluation should go beyond testing for sound-symbol relationships and rapid automatic naming. It should also include evaluation of higher order language processing including morphology, syntax and semantics. Since most psychologists do not have the appropriate training to conduct the higher order language processing testing, they should obtain the assistance of a speech and language specialist.

Q: What does an evaluator do next upon completion of testing? 

Dr. Hart: After completing testing and reviewing all the information, the evaluator will meet with the family to go over the results, and this may include an age-appropriate discussion of key findings with the child. When meeting with parents to discuss results, the evaluator should explain results in a manner that is clear and understandable. This discussion will provide an overview of the strengths and weaknesses that constitute the child’s learning profile, as well as the social-emotional impact a reading disability may have on a child. At this conference, the evaluator will also make recommendations and suggest a treatment plan based specifically on the results of the child’s testing.  Parents should ask lots of questions to ensure they leave with a full understanding, and if questions arise later, they need to be able to follow-up with the evaluator. Parents can also ask if the evaluator would be available to accompany them to a subsequent meeting with the school team.

Q: How should parents share the findings of their outside evaluation with the school, and what can they expect their child’s school team to do in response? 

Dr. Hart: Parents should strive to have a productive, collaborative relationship with their child’s school team. Ideally, this relationship starts early and parents should feel comfortable communicating frequently and openly with team members. Parents can set a tone for this type of open collaboration by writing a letter to the teacher to provide an introduction to their child. This letter can lead with the child’s strengths and then discuss areas where the child is facing challenges. When it comes to sharing results of their child’s evaluation, parents may want to provide an informal summary for the teacher and should be fluent enough on the results so they can help interpret them.

Additionally, parents will formally submit the complete evaluation to the child’s school team and request a meeting to discuss the results. At least one parent (preferably both) should be present and should be regarded as not only an equal member of the child’s team, but also a key decision-maker for the child. At this meeting, the school team may determine whether the child meets criteria for receiving special education services. However, parents don’t always see eye-to-eye with faculty and staff. It’s recommended that parents document all their conversations with the school team as that paper trail will be important in cases where parents later seek out the advice of an education advocate or a lawyer.

Q: What can parents do if the school team disregards the findings of their outside evaluation, or it conflicts with evaluations conducted by the school district? 

Dr. Hart: If the school team disagrees with the evaluation or disregards the results and recommendations, parents ought to promptly seek out the help of an education advocate. They can use their resources and network to find someone who is highly skilled and able to engage the school in a way that reduces the likelihood of conflict. If parents aren’t in touch with others who can provide referrals, they can also try leveraging their social media network and seek out connections with other parents of struggling readers (e.g., through the local Decoding Dyslexia chapter). With the help of an educational advocate, parents should feel empowered to take next steps since these specialists may be able to accomplish more than what parents can do on their own. In addition, parents can find lots of helpful information and explanations of the special education process on the Wrightslaw website. 

Since schools aren’t necessarily staffed or resourced to provide all the support a child may need, parents may also opt to augment their child’s school-based services with outside help. This additional expense may make the difference between their child suffering or making progress. 

Importantly, throughout this process of sharing evaluation results and seeking additional services, parents should remember to take care of themselves. They need to prepare themselves emotionally in order to have the wherewithal to take care of and support their child.

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