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Masters of Special Education with Academic Instruction Certification

Eligibility Assessment - Topic 8

What is it?

Eligibility for special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires the school to establish a causal link between a student’s documented disability and impaired functioning. The procedures for determining whether a student is eligible for special education includes three key steps: (a) referral—the school district, parents, or the state request evaluation and obtain parental consent; (b) evaluation—school professionals evaluate the student and determine the presence of a qualifying disability; and (c) eligibility—school professionals and parents meet to determine the child’s eligibility for special education. Although medical professionals typically diagnose severe disabilities, high-incidence evaluations (e.g., specific learning disability [SLD], emotional disturbance [ED]) incorporate standardized tests batteries and input from parents and teachers.

Specific eligibility assessment procedures vary according to factors such as locale and the composition of the evaluation team. Nonetheless, a number of systematic practices are available that encourage educators to use multiple sources of information in the timely determination of special education eligibility.  In addition to IQ tests and other standardized forms of assessment, students with SLD are increasingly identified using Response-to-Intervention models (RTI; Ahearn, 2009) that determine eligibility based on their responsiveness to progressively intensive forms of remediation. Students whose academic performance does not improve following multiple “tiers” of remediation may require special education services. The Systematic Screening for Behavioral Disorders (SSBD; Severson, Walker, Hope-Doolittle, Kratochwill, & Gresham, 2007) represents a standardized method for identifying students with ED across three levels of assessment.  Educators rank students based on the exhibition of problem behaviors (e.g., depression, aggression). Students with severe behavior characteristics are assessed using more detailed measures (e.g., the Critical Life Events Checklist). Students who score below the norm are assessed by outside professionals and, depending on the results, may be referred to special education.


Why is it important?

The identification of students with disabilities is a fundamental role of special education. Additional consideration is warranted due to the numerous ethical issues related to eligibility determination, including: (a) reconciling the needs of students with the necessity of controlling costs, and (b) the long-term consequences of excluding students from special education versus the short-term consequences of including children who fall on the borderline of a disability category. The emergence of empirically valid assessment procedures provides educators with a potentially powerful tool in providing services to students with disabilities.

Ahearn, E. M. (2009). State eligibility requirements for specific learning disabilities. Communication

Disorders Quarterly, 30(2), 120-128.

Severson, H. H., Walker, H. M., Hope-Doolittle, J. Kratochwill, T. R., & Gresham, F. M. (2007).

Proactive, early screening to detect behaviorally at-risk students: Issues, approaches,

emerging innovations, and professional practices. Journal of School Psychology, 45, 193-223.

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