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What You Need to Know about Evaluations and Evaluators
by Robert K. Crabtree, Esq.

Know Your Rights

Your school district, under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and your state special education law, is required to fully evaluate any child who may need special education services "in all areas related to the suspected disability, including, if appropriate, health, vision, hearing, social and emotional status, general intelligence, academic performance, communicative status, and motor abilities." (34 CFR Sec. 300.304)

Before the school can evaluate, and before providing or changing special education services, it must notify you in writing. For the first evaluation and placement, the school must also obtain parental consent.

Parental Consent

IDEA's requirements for parental consent vary, depending on whether the school district is seeking consent for an initial evaluation or a reevaluation and on whether the parents affirmatively respond to a request for consent or they do do not respond or cannot be located.

An Initial Evaluation

For an initial evaluation, if the parents do not respond to the district's requests for consent, the district cannot go ahead with the evaluation without taking additional steps. If the district could not obtain parental consent because the child's parents cannot be identified or located, the district could request that an educational surrogate be appointed (see 20 USC 1415(b)(2)) or it could seek an order from the due process agency (presumably, this would be a "matter relating to the identification, evaluation, or educational placement of the child" and thus within the agency's jurisdiction.)

If the parents respond but refuse to consent to the initial evaluation, the LEA can seek an order from the due process agency to permit the evaluation. (34 CFR 300.300(a)).

Wrightslaw: Special Education Law, 2nd EditionIDEA, 20 U.S.C .Section 1414(c), p. 97.

Federal regulations, 34 CFR 300.300 and 300.322, p. 238 and 247.

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A Re-evaluation

IDEA provides that a school district must "obtain informed parental consent . . . prior to conducting any re-evaluation of a child with a disability, except that such informed parent consent need not be obtained if the district can demonstrate that it has taken reasonable measures to obtain such consent and the child's parent failed to respond." (20 USC Sec 1414(c)(3))

Thus, while a school district may re-evaluate a child without obtaining parental consent, the district must be able to show documents such as records of attempts to call the parents, correspondence to and from the parents, and/or records of visits to the parents' home or place(s) of employment. (34 CFR 300.322(d))

If the parents respond, but affirmatively refuse to consent to the district's re-evaluation, the district would have to seek an order to override the parents' refusal to consent. (34 CFR 300.300(a)).

Your Never-ending Role

As a parent, you must make sure that all areas of possible need are assessed as quickly as possible. While some parents would rather not allow their school system to evaluate their child, a refusal to cooperate at this stage of the process can backfire if you need to ask for more or for different services later. It may also affect your ability to have the school system pay for an independent evaluation.

Due Process

After the evaluations are completed, your child's team (includes parents, teacher, related service providers, school and independent evaluator, chairperson, child if appropriate, and other individuals who have knowledge or special expertise regarding the child) must meet to decide what special education services should be provided, and to write an Individualized Education Program (IEP).

Your school should provide you with copies of its written assessments before the meeting. Ask for explanations of anything you don't understand in the assessment reports before the team meets.

If you have concerns about the evaluation results or the team's recommendations about your child's program, you can request an independent educational evaluation (IEE) at the district's expense.
In some states, like Massachusetts, the law allows parents to obtain an independent evaluation in an area the school system has not assessed, as long as it relates to an area of suspected need. There is a good argument that this is true under IDEA as well. (34 CFR 300.502)

Selecting an Independent Evaluator

Selecting an independent evaluator is one of your most important decisions. Parents rarely succeed at due process hearings without the testimony of expert witnesses who are competent, experienced, and credible.

Here are a few rules of thumb to help you make that decision.

  • If the school district disputes your right to have an independent evaluation at their expense, don't wait until that dispute is resolved before you schedule your evaluation. In the long run, the question of who pays for the evaluation is less important than getting the evaluation done.
  • Some school districts will give you a list of "approved independent evaluators." Your choice is not restricted to the evaluators on that list. Be sure to choose an evaluator with the right licenses and/or other credentials.
  • Ask organizations involved with your child's type of disability, your pediatrician, other parents, advocates, parent organizations, and special education lawyers about experts who are well-respected in your child's area of disability. It is important to find evaluators who can demonstrate objectivity and expertise in your child's disability.
    Evaluators with a reputation for being "hired guns" or for always recommending the same program will not be as effective in supporting their recommendations at a team meeting or in a hearing.
  • Find out about an evaluator's willingness and availability to follow through on her recommendations. Will the expert observe your child's program? Attend a team meeting? Observe and evaluate alternative placements or services? Testify at a hearing (and cooperate in preparating for that hearing)? Often, the experts who work outside of hospital facilities are more available and willing to do these things.
  • If you are referred to a hospital facility, check out the group of evaluators within that facility. There are often great differences in approach, quality, and follow-through from one group to another.
  • An evaluator should be able to write a convincing report, and to "sell" the recommendations in that report. A good evaluator has "people" skills and can speak with school personnel without antagonizing them -- while sticking to her recommendations.
  • The best evaluators are in great demand. Be prepared to wait -- for an appointment for testing, for a written report, and for anything else you may need.

Working with Your Evaluator

Once you have an excellent evaluator (or team of evaluators), stick with them. The more an expert sees of your child, the more convincing her recommendations will be. (Remember that the school district's experts -- the classroom teachers and related service providers -- see your child every day, while the independent evaluator typically sees your child for the time it takes to test her.)

Don't ask an independent evaluator for legal advice. Unless she has studied the decisions issued by courts and hearing officers and the rules and regulations that govern the special education process, she can't advise you reliably on your options and strategies.

Be skeptical -- even of your independent evaluator's findings and recommendations. You know your child best.

An evaluator will see your child for brief, though intense, periods of time, so can only get a snapshot. The evaluator's advice is only as good as the information available to her. For example, if the evaluator suggests a particular program that she thinks would be a good fit for your child, find out how well the evaluator really knows the program. Has she seen it recently? Does she know what the program's population and/or staffing and/or approach is like?

A Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE)

The special education law requires the school district to provide a "free appropriate public education" in the "least restrictive environment" (LRE), to the maximum extent appropriate.

Some independent evaluators are quick to assume that no school district can provide the kind of program she is recommending. Despite the evaluator's opinion, you will have to seriously evaluate the services available within the district before you have a chance to win an outside placement at a hearing. You should work with the evaluator to assess how much can happen within your child's school district. In some cases, school districts contract with outside evaluators /independent experts to provide training for teachers, create a new program, or update an existing program.

Keep an open mind and work toward creative solutions to meet your child's unique needs.

More Articles by Bob Crabtree

The Paper Chase: Managing Your Child's Documents. "If you have kids with special educational needs, you can be overwhelmed with paperwork in no time at all . . ."

Discipline: Suspension, Expulsions and IEPs. In this article, parent attorney Robert Crabtree teaches you about functional behavioral assessments (FBAs), behavior intervention plans (BIPs), long-term suspensions and expulsions, the child's rights, and what parents can do to protect these rights. Learn how to request a behavior assessment, an expedited hearing, and how to invoke "stay put."

What You Should Know About Evaluations and Evaluators. As a parent, you must make sure that all areas of possible need are assessed as quickly as possible. While some parents would rather not allow their school system to evaluate their child, a refusal to cooperate at this stage of the process can backfire . . . " Read article

Mistakes People Make: Parents. Because the stakes are so high, it is difficult for parents of children with special educational needs to advocate calmly and objectively for the educational and related services their children need. To learn about mistakes parents make, read this article.

Mistakes People Make: School Districts.What makes parents angry? Parents are angry when school personnel take actions that undermine trust, create a negative climate that destroys peace of mind, and deliver inadequate services to the child. Read article

Mistakes People Make: Independent Evaluators. To make their case for services or a specific program for their child, parents usually need a competent, credible independent evaluator. Serious mistakes by evaluators can make undermine their credibility or render their opinions powerless. To learn about mistakes independent evaluators should try to avoid, read this article.

Mistakes People Make: Advocates. Because the non-lawyer advocate plays an extremely important role in the special education process, advocates must be mindful of the power of their role and the trust parents place in them. The more serious mistakes advocates make are generally ones of excess . . . Read article

Meet Robert Crabtree

Bob Crabtree is a partner at Kotin, Crabtree, and Strong, LLP, a general practice law firm in Boston, MA. Among other areas of practice, Bob concentrates in special education and disability law. This article was originally published by the Family Education site at

Contact Info
Robert K. Crabtree
Kotin, Crabtree & Strong, LLP
One Bowdoin Square
Boston, MA 02114-2925

Phone: 617/227-7031
Facsimile: 617/367-2988

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