Friday, November 16, 2012

PSYCHOLOGICAL EVALUATIONS: WHAT EVERY PARENT SHOULD KNOW

By Andrea Canter, PhD, NCSP


Minneapolis Public Schools
The prospect of a psychological evaluation can cause a great deal of anxiety on the part of parents.
When school personnel or physicians recommend such an evaluation, parents might imagine strange
and intrusive procedures followed by diagnoses that further increase their apprehension. No one wants
to hear that their child may have a disability, mental health disorder, or behavior problem. Yet, when
conducted by qualified school-based or community professionals, psychological evaluations can be
invaluable tools in understanding and addressing the learning and mental health needs of individual
students and can positively affect the student’s schooling and family life.
Sometimes, however, evaluations are conducted for the wrong reasons, using inappropriate
methods, or with little regard for how parents and school personnel may use the results. Even competent
psychological evaluations, if ignored or misunderstood, can lead to serious disagreement between
parents and school personnel. Inappropriate or inadequate supports for student learning and/or
behavior may result.
Psychological evaluations are much more useful when parents understand the purpose, strengths,
and limitations of the various procedures, and if they have realistic expectations for the value of the
results. Parents who understand the nature of psychological evaluations will be less apprehensive and
better able to effectively participate in both the evaluation and any resulting services for their child.
Planning the Psychological Evaluation
Purpose of the evaluation. A psychological evaluation is a set of procedures, often including tests,
that is administered by a licensed psychologist or credentialed school psychologist to obtain information
about a student’s learning, behavior, or mental health. In school settings, evaluations can be requested
by parents, school personnel, and older students who are of majority age. School psychologists most
often conduct evaluations as part of the special education team’s determination as to whether a student
has a disability and is eligible for special services. However, they might also conduct evaluations to help
develop teaching or behavior plans for students, to identify significant mental health concerns, or to
determine eligibility for gifted programs or school readiness.
Due process. When school teams consider special education services, evaluations must be
conducted according to due process procedures—requirements that parents of minor students be
notified of the need for an evaluation, invited to a planning meeting, and give their consent for the
evaluation. Any psychological evaluation conducted for other purposes also requires parent consent.
Students who have reached the age of majority must be included in planning the evaluation and give
their own consent.
Involvement in planning. You should always be invited to a school conference to discuss the need
for a psychological evaluation and should be given ample notice of the date and time of a meeting. You
should feel comfortable in asking any questions about the reason for the evaluation and how the results
will be used to help your child. Sometimes it helps to bring a trusted friend or family member to the
meeting for moral support as well as to help clarify questions and answers. After all, two sets of ears are
better than one. Always remember that you must give permission before an evaluation can begin. If you
do not understand all of the issues, or if you need more time to think about it, you have the right to ask
for more time before making a decision.
Community evaluations. The same considerations apply to evaluations conducted in the community.
If your physician recommends an evaluation, be sure you understand why and how the evaluation will
help your child. Set up an appointment with the person who will conduct the evaluation in order to ask
questions and to feel comfortable with the process. Be sure to check with your health care provider
regarding what services are covered by your insurance
and what costs might be incurred if you will be
responsible for paying for all or part of the evaluation. If
the evaluation is to address a school-related problem,
you should first find out if your child is entitled to
receive the evaluation through the school district, which
would be a free service. With community evaluations, it
is crucial that you understand who will receive a report
of the results. Remember that only you, the parent, can
give permission to share these results with others. (The
exception would be a court-ordered evaluation.)
Limitations of Psychological Evaluations
It is important to recognize what psychological
evaluations do and do not provide. Psychological
evaluations can provide estimates of intellectual ability.
Psychological evaluations also document the presence
or absence of both positive and negative characteristics,
such as strengths in reasoning or vocabulary or
weaknesses in memory, self-confidence, or depression.
However, psychological evaluations seldom give
guidance in selecting specific methods for teaching or
determining appropriate class assignment or grade
placement, generally cannot provide information about
the quality of instruction, and rarely provide insight
regarding why certain characteristics or problems exist.
Findings may help professionals develop ideas regarding
the “why,” but answering such questions (if possible)
typically requires a much broader set of information than
what is gleaned from a psychological evaluation alone.
Often the cause, if known, is not relevant to finding a
solution because it is not a factor over which the school,
family, or student has any control.
Sometimes you may want to request that a school
provide an evaluation for a situation for which such
requests might be impossible or inappropriate to honor.
For example, you might want to seek an evaluation to
assist with college admissions or eligibility for
vocational training after graduation. Most school
districts are not adequately staffed to provide those
services, because the services are not directly relevant
to the provision of a public school education. In those
instances, schools will typically refer you to an
appropriate resource elsewhere in the community.
Psychological Evaluation Procedures
Psychologists use different procedures or
combinations of procedures depending upon the reason
for the evaluation. In the case of special education
evaluations, some types of procedures may be required
by law to determine eligibility for service or if a
student’s challenging behavior is related to a disability.
For example, these procedures might include measures
of ability and achievement to identify a possible
learning or cognitive disability. Generally, psychologists’
evaluation procedures fall into the following categories.
Standardized tests. Psychologists often use
standardized tests of various abilities in order to
compare an individual’s performance to an appropriate
peer group. These tests are developed and normed
(given to many individuals to determine how typical
individuals perform) under standard conditions—using
prescribed instructions, materials, scoring—to assure
consistent and accurate results. Some common
examples include the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for
Children (WISC), the Woodcock Johnson Psycho-
Educational Battery, and the Kaufman Tests of
Educational Achievement.
Rating scales. Rating scales are most often used to
determine if certain behaviors or skills are present or
typical of the student. Ratings depend on the perceptions
and opinions of the rater. The rater(s) must be very
familiar with the student in order to provide useful
information; using multiple raters helps reduce the
influence of biased perceptions. Ideally the rating scales
are normed (developed) on similar student populations
so that results indicate if a student’s skill, behavior, or
emotional status is “typical” or significantly different
from peer groups. Examples of commonly used rating
scales include the Behavior Assessment System for
Children (BASC) and Vineland Adaptive Behavior Scales.
Self-report scales. Older students are often asked
to provide ratings of their own behavior and skills.
These measures are similar (or even identical) to other
rating scales, often are used in conjunction with teacher
or parent rating scales, and often have been normed. It
can be useful to compare how students perceive
themselves relative to how others perceive them.
Observations. Psychologists can gather information
about students’ learning and behavior by directly
observing the students in natural settings, such as
during class or social interactions. Observations not
only address what the students are doing, but how
others in the setting interact with them.
Interviews. Direct interviews with students enable
the students to provide information about their histories,
their interpersonal relationships, their concerns, their
goals. As students mature, they are more likely to provide
reliable and insightful information about themselves. The
psychologist typically will summarize key information
obtained through the student interview, as well as
relevant information learned by interviewing others who
know the student well (usually teachers and parents).
Comprehensive evaluation. The psychologist
selects those procedures and tools that will help answer
the referral concerns (such as poor reading skills, low
S2–54 Psychological Evaluations: What Every Parent Should Know
self-esteem, frequent fighting). The information
gathered should include a review of what is already
known, new information about areas of concern from a
variety of sources, and verification of life factors
(language or economics) that may affect the evaluation
or the student’s learning and behavior.
Factors That Influence Evaluation Results
Psychologists must take into account a number of
factors than can influence the accuracy and usefulness of
an evaluation, and thus affect how the evaluation results
are used to change or support the student’s school
program. These factors include the student’s familiarity
with the test materials and tasks, the student’s fluency in
English, the quality of the test and materials (in terms of
fairness to the student and characteristics that determine
if a test is accurate and reliable), the student’s attention
and motivation during the evaluation, the match between
what is tested and what has been taught, and the
student’s level of comfort during the evaluation.
How Evaluation Results Are Translated Into
Useful Information
Parents and teachers should expect all reports of
psychological evaluations to provide clear information
and recommendations that are relevant to and feasible
within the school system. To be useful, summaries of
evaluations do not need to be long and detailed.
Effective evaluation reports succinctly summarize the
purpose, process, limitations, results, and
recommendations resulting from the evaluation.
After the Evaluation: Digesting and Using
the Information
The psychologist and other professionals involved
in the evaluation usually provide both a written and a
verbal report. They should also be available to answer
your questions.
It is important that you feel comfortable asking the
psychologist or others to further explain the results and
what these mean for your child’s education or mental
health. Questions to consider might include:
• How will the school use this information to help
my child?
• How can I use this information to help my child?
• Who else (if anyone) will receive this information?
• How long will the report of this evaluation remain in
my child’s school record?
• How can we be sure this information is accurate and
fairly represents my child’s abilities or personality?
• Are these results surprising or consistent with my
observations of my child?
• Do the results of this evaluation help address my
concerns about my child?
The evaluation can provide much information that
can be difficult to digest all at one time. Often it is best
to schedule a second meeting with school personnel to
decide on any actions, services, or placements based on
the evaluation rather than trying to decide what is to be
done on the spot.
Before the next meeting read over the psychologist’s
report, contact the psychologist to clarify anything that
is confusing, and, depending on your child’s age,
discuss the results and what they mean at an ageappropriate
level.
Older students can often gain insight into their own
school problems from a review of the evaluation and
may have ideas for resolving their difficulties once they
have this information.
What if You Disagree With the Evaluation
Sometimes you may disagree with the results of an
evaluation. It is important that you have the opportunity
to discuss your concerns with everyone involved and try
to come to some consensus about either the evaluation
or the recommendations.
You may identify factors that alter the interpretation
of the results. Sometimes there are circumstances that
school personnel do not know about, such as a divorce
or death in the family. Stress on children in these
situations can influence their response to evaluation.
Sometimes there is an error that influences the results,
such as an incorrect birth date. And sometimes you and
school personnel will simply disagree on how to
interpret the results of the evaluation.
Special education regulations allow you and others
to document dissenting opinions and promote
consideration of second opinions. You can obtain
another evaluation and include that report in the record.
Although it is sometimes tempting to do so, it is
rarely appropriate to request that the psychologist
change statements or recommendations in the report
unless there has clearly been an error or circumstances
that seem to discredit the results of the evaluation.
Summary
Psychological evaluations are an everyday part of a
school’s student support system. When you understand
the purpose, strengths, and limitations of these
procedures and hold realistic expectations for their
value, you will be better prepared to help your child and
work effectively with school and community resources.
Helping Children at Home and School II: Handouts for Families and Educators S2–55
Resources
Wodrich, D. L. (1997). Children’s psychological testing: A
guide for nonpsychologists (3rd ed.). Baltimore:
Brookes. ISBN: 1557662770.
Wright, P. W., & Wright, P. D. (2001). Wrightslaw: From
emotions to advocacy—The special education
survival guide. Boyne City, MI: Harbor House Law
Press. ISBN: 1892320088.
Websites
National Association of School Psychologists—
www.nasponline.org
PACER Center (Parent Advocacy Coalition for
Educational Rights)—www.pacer.org
Andrea Canter, PhD, NCSP, is a school psychologist in the
Minneapolis Public Schools and is Editor of the NASP
Communiqué and consultant for special projects for
NASP. This handout is adapted from an article submitted
on behalf of NASP to the Teachers First website (posted
September 2003).
© 2004 National Association of School Psychologists, 4340 East West Highway,
Suite 402, Bethesda, MD 20814—(301) 657-0270.
S2–56 Psychological Evaluations: What Every Parent Should Know
The National Association of School
Psychologists (NASP) offers a wide
variety of free or low cost online
resources to parents, teachers, and others
working with children and youth through
the NASP website www.nasponline.org
and the NASP Center for Children & Families website
www.naspcenter.org. Or use the direct links below to
access information that can help you improve outcomes
for the children and youth in your care.
About School Psychology—Downloadable brochures,
FAQs, and facts about training, practice, and career
choices for the profession.
www.nasponline.org/about_nasp/spsych.html
Crisis Resources—Handouts, fact sheets, and links
regarding crisis prevention/intervention, coping with
trauma, suicide prevention, and school safety.
www.nasponline.org/crisisresources
Culturally Competent Practice—Materials and resources
promoting culturally competent assessment and
intervention, minority recruitment, and issues related to
cultural diversity and tolerance.
www.nasponline.org/culturalcompetence
En Español—Parent handouts and materials translated
into Spanish. www.naspcenter.org/espanol/
IDEA Information—Information, resources, and advocacy
tools regarding IDEA policy and practical implementation.
www.nasponline.org/advocacy/IDEAinformation.html
Information for Educators—Handouts, articles, and
other resources on a variety of topics.
www.naspcenter.org/teachers/teachers.html
Information for Parents—Handouts and other resources
a variety of topics.
www.naspcenter.org/parents/parents.html
Links to State Associations—Easy access to state
association websites.
www.nasponline.org/information/links_state_orgs.html
NASP Books & Publications Store—Review tables of
contents and chapters of NASP bestsellers.
www.nasponline.org/bestsellers
Order online. www.nasponline.org/store
Position Papers—Official NASP policy positions on
key issues.
www.nasponline.org/information/position_paper.html
Success in School/Skills for Life—Parent handouts that
can be posted on your school’s website.
www.naspcenter.org/resourcekit