If your child is struggling in school or you feel like they are not making the progress that you would expect, you may want to have them evaluated by a psychologist. A psychoeducational evaluation includes formal assessments of cognitive or learning abilities, assessment of the child’s skill in academic areas such as reading, writing, and math, and in some cases, assessment of social-emotional and behavioral functioning. This information can be used to determine what the child’s strengths and weaknesses are and to select the type of interventions or treatments that will work best. This information is also necessary for determining eligibility for special education services.
What is your end goal for the evaluation?
As you are beginning your decision-making process as it relates to evaluation for your child, begin with the end in mind. Are you seeking an evaluation with the end goal of getting special education services in place or for use in asking for different a different type of classroom or service to be provided to your child? Are you seeking an evaluation because you would like to determine if any specific diagnoses apply to your child? These are two different goals with two different sets of criteria at the end. Therefore, it is important to decide ahead of time what your goal is so that you get what you need out of the evaluation.
The primary purpose of school-based evaluations is to determine if the student meets the eligibility criteria to receive special services. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) includes 13 categories under which students can receive special education services. Each state, and in some states each district, further clarifies the criteria for eligibility for services under each category. School psychologists conduct evaluations to be used by the eligibility committee to determine if the student meets eligibility criteria under one or more of the special education eligibility categories. School psychoeducational evaluations do not result in diagnoses.
Private psychologists conduct evaluations to determine if a student meets the criteria for diagnoses listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition: DSM-5. A diagnosis from a private psychologist could result in a diagnosis of a specific condition such as Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), autism, or anxiety. Information from a private psychoeducational evaluation could be used to determine if a student is eligible for special education services. However, the results of a private psychoeducational evaluation do not guarantee eligibility for special services.
If your primary goal is eligibility for school services
In some cases, DSM-5 diagnostic criteria and school eligibility criteria line up nicely which makes things easy. However, sometimes they don’t which can lead to a tricky situation. For example, in a private psychoeducational evaluation, it may be determined that a student meets DSM-5 diagnostic criteria for Specific Learning Disorder or dyslexia.
However, the evaluation results may not align exactly with the school’s eligibility criteria under Specific Learning Disability, and the child could be ineligible for special education services.
While schools are required to consider the results of an outside evaluation, they are not required to fully accept those results in lieu of their own evaluation. Many districts accept private evaluation reports and use that information in the eligibility decision-making process. If the private psychoeducational evaluation addresses all areas needed to consider eligibility, it is possible that no further formal evaluation would be needed. However, some districts have policies that require an evaluation by their school psychologist. If that is the policy of your district, you could provide them with a comprehensive evaluation report and your child would still have to participate in another evaluation to determine eligibility for special education services.
Another important factor to consider is the fact that eligibility for school services is not based solely on the results of a psychoeducational evaluation. While the psychoeducational evaluation often accounts for a large portion of data that is discussed as a part of the eligibility decision, other pieces of information are considered as well. Examples include report card grades, scores on standardized tests, and attendance information. Many states and districts rely heavily on data collected during the Response to Intervention (RtI) or Multi-Tiered System of Support (MTSS) process. The special education eligibility process has many moving parts with testing, data collection, consent, and meetings. The process of how to get an IEP can be confusing.
If your primary goal is a medical diagnosis, private services, or qualification for government programs
If your primary goals for the evaluation are related to private services or therapies, government benefits, or medication, you may need an official diagnosis. For example, let’s say you are seeking Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) services for your child with autism. In order for insurance to pay for ABA therapy for your child, they may require an official medical diagnosis and a school evaluation report may not suffice. As another example, in a school psychoeducational evaluation, it may be determined that a student meets eligibility criteria to receive special education services under the category of Emotional Behavioral Disorder (EBD). However, the school is not able to assign a psychiatric diagnosis such as anxiety, depression, or bipolar disorder. This information would be needed to develop an effective treatment plan or to determine appropriate medication for the child.
Who do you want to conduct the evaluation?
As defined by the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP), “school psychologists are uniquely qualified members of school teams that support students’ ability to learn and teachers’ ability to teach. They apply expertise in mental health, learning, and behavior, to help children and youth succeed academically, socially, behaviorally, and emotionally.” The entry-level requirement for school psychologists is typically a specialist’s degree which includes an internship. School psychologists are certified by the state organization that certifies teachers. School psychologists work with school eligibility criteria as it is their primary framework.
The entry-level requirement for a licensed psychologist is a doctoral degree. Prior to graduation, the candidate is required to complete a year-long internship. Additional requirements for licensure exist after graduation with a doctoral degree. All states require an individual to pass a national examination. Many states also require an additional year or more of supervised post-doctoral training prior to granting a license to independently practice psychology. While some school psychologists may hold a doctoral degree and be certified by the state educational certification organization, they must meet these additional requirements to be licensed to practice psychology independently outside of the school setting. Private psychologists are familiar with DSM-5 diagnostic criteria as it guides their practice.
There is more to the equation than just degrees, certification, or licensure. Many school psychologists have extensive training and experience in evaluations and are very good at what they do. However, they sometimes experience constraints from the school district, such as overwhelming caseloads or limited access to assessment materials which limit the work they can do. While the district has fulfilled the requirement to conduct an evaluation that determines eligibility, there could be additional assessment information that could be helpful in determining what type of curriculum or services would work best for your child.
Just because an individual has a doctoral degree or is a licensed psychologist, it does not mean that they are the best person to evaluate your child. Psychology is a broad field with many different areas of specialization. If you are considering an evaluation by a private psychologist, confirm that they specialize in psychoeducational evaluations for children.
My personal preference is an evaluation by a person who is dually credentialled. That means that they are both a certified school psychologist and a licensed psychologist. Such an individual will likely be familiar with school special education eligibility criteria as well as DSM-5 diagnostic criteria.
Some families have negative experiences with schools when they request special services or request changes in their child’s program such as a different placement or a new or different type of service. Parents who have had these negative experiences may be concerned about potential bias from school district employees. Having the evaluation conducted by a person independent of the school district may bring some peace of mind related to that issue. If you have an evaluation conducted by the school and you do not agree with the results, you can request an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE). If approved by the school district, an independent evaluator would evaluate your child.
What level of control do you desire related to the privacy of the information?
If your child’s evaluation is conducted by the school, the evaluation will be a part of the child’s official school record. Conversely, if you choose to have the evaluation conducted by a private psychologist, you can decide whether or not you would like to share the results. If you choose to complete a private psychoeducational evaluation, the evaluator may request or require input from your child’s teacher to complete the evaluation.