Special education evaluations (Full Individual Evaluations [FIE]) are provided at no cost to parents for the purposes of determining (1) whether the student has a disability, as defined by IDEA, and if so (2) whether the student needs specialized instruction as a result of the disability. Some disabilities, such as “emotional disturbance” and Autism, involve psychological functioning. Thus, some FIEs will include comprehensive psychological evaluations. The quality and thoroughness of these evaluations varies tremendously (as do clinical evaluations).
Some school districts employ doctoral-level psychologists. School psychologists may or may not include diagnoses of mental disorders (often called DSM diagnoses or axial diagnoses) in their FIEs. Such diagnoses are not required by law. Most FIEs, which are usually NOT conducted by doctoral level psychologists, will include ONLY eligibility recommendations pertaining to disability categories, as defined by IDEA. This can be very confusing for parents. For example, the IDEA has a specific definition for “Autism” as an educational disability. However, psychologists and psychiatrists use a different clinical definition, called “Autistic Disorder.” The psychologists’ clinical definition is found in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual) and/or ICD (The International Classification of Diseases). Because there are different taxonomic systems (IDEA v. DSM) and because there are often different reasons for evaluation (FIEs determine education needs; clinical evaluations determine presence of mental disorders and inform treatment), the content and findings in FIEs and clinical evaluations can be quite different.
While many FIEs will be inadequate for private psychological/behavioral treatments, FIEs can also have important strengths, especially when conducted by well-trained school psychologists. FIEs are conducted in schools, where psychologists can observe students in natural settings and where problems typically manifest. They can observe students interacting with peers and responding to a variety of demands. School psychologists have access to rich data. While clinical evaluations must sometimes rely on parent report and clinical (artificial or de-contextualized) observations, school-based FIEs can solicit data from students, parents, teachers, administrators, and natural observations. Finally, because school psychologists are typically paid by salary, they are less restricted regarding the instruments and time investment. The hours invested by some school psychologists in FIEs would be prohibitively expensive for many parents if they were required to pay.
There are other important differences between FIEs (free special education evaluations) and private psychological evaluations. If you need more information, you might consult with a psychologist who has experience working in schools or with a student advocacy group. If you think your child may need an FIE, the administrator at your school (counselor or assistant principal) will be able to advise you. It is important for parents to know that schools are not required to provide FIEs to students on parent demand. Important factors are considered when schools respond to parent requests, such as the student’s current educational performance, response to intervention attempts, type of referral concern, etc. Having a diagnosis by an outside provider does not guarantee provision of an FIE or eligibility. The IEP team (committee, including parents, who decide eligibility after an FIE) must consider outside reports, but they are not required to accept them as adequate or appropriate.
Dr. Nomura provides special education consultation services for parents whose children do not attend CFISD schools. For students not attending CFISD, Dr. Nomura can advise parents about obtaining FIEs and whether an FIE would appropriately address their concerns.