The Unpopular Realities of the Eligibility
The eligibility criteria for special education services is black and white. (I’m not talking about the color of skin.) Either the student fits the criteria or does not fit the criteria. The committee comes together with all the test data and then reviews the criteria for each disability. Either the student is eligible or not. They meet the criteria or they do not meet the criteria. Sounds easy, right? The kids who obviously fit the criteria easily qualify for special education services. The kids who clearly do not fit criteria for special education do not qualify for special education services. It should just be that easy. Sometimes it is.
I’ve been in the field long enough to see that eligibility is not always this magical process that determines special education from regular education. Sometimes eligibility decisions are a nightmare. What about all the gray kids that aren’t clearly black or white?! For some kids, determining if they meet the criteria is tough. The black and white criteria makes it difficult to know what to do for the gray kids. The most difficult eligibility meetings are the ones where some members feel the student meets criteria and other members do not. These can lead to heated discussions. There are sometimes different ways to look at data and opinions of how to look at it may vary. Remember that the real issue the student who is cared about by school staff and especially parents which makes the decision emotional. It can be hard to be objective at times. It is not uncommon to hear “but they need it,” even when the data does not support it.
There are kids who qualify for special education services at one point, then are found ineligible at another time. Sometimes this happens because the student has made improvements and no longer requires special education services to be successful. Other times this happens because criteria has changed, the criteria is slightly different in a new different school system, or because test data is slightly different after a few years. In my opinion, this is when the system and criteria fails. I’d like to see ways to address the students who at one time fit the criteria, no longer fit criteria, but still require services.
Why is the criteria so rigid? The main reason is because special education is funded by the government and they keep a tight reign on eligibility criteria. School staff is pressured by the administration, who is pressured by the State, who is pressured by the Federal government. There is a call for identification to be accurate to ensure that funds are properly spent. The only way the government can determine if the funds are being used appropriately is to enforce that schools are using clear criteria guidelines for identification.
All that being said, I believe in the process (for the most part). However, it’s created by humans meaning there will be errors. If I had a say, I’d make some changes. I do believe there needs to be criteria. No matter who sets the criteria there will always be those gray kids that are just right on the border of eligible or not eligible. The worst mistake that can be made in my opinion is telling a family that the child has a disability when in fact the child does not. The child grows up with the belief that he or she has a disabling condition, when that could have been prevented. Disability identification can be life changing for a person. That is why I believe we need criteria. A strong opinion by a teacher or parent that “she needs it” is not enough data for me to look a child and say they are struggling because of a disability.
Want to learn more about the eligibility process?
Eligibility Process FAQ
What every parent needs to know about the referral process
Ineligible for special education