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

10 Responses to “The Unpopular Realities of the Eligibility”

  1. Anonymous says:

    I like your website alot. I want to comment that SpEd eligibility criteria is primarily used to protect children so that they are not arbitrarily grouped according to people’s perceptions that they are not succeeding in the general ed classroom. It is a rigorous process to rule out reasons for learning difficulties by continuing to use general ed interventions. Then, only once all interventions are exhausted, consider the possibility of a learning disabilty. It was a lot “easier” to place a child into SpEd when there were no general ed interventions available. SpEd was the only intervention available. Many children respond to specific teaching strategies and exit SpEd. The numbers are bigger in Learning Disabilities and Autism categories, that cause a great concern on how well our general ed curriculum is doing. That’s a different research topic but part of the special education discussion. Thanks.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Interesting essay. However, my experience (as a parent) is that everyone says that my child is on the spectrum. ALL FIVE outside evaluators say he needs services, instruction in social skills to be successful. However ONE school psychologist can over rule this based on his opinion (which out any testing to support it) and decide that my son does not qualify. My Districts eligibility criteria are different from the law. If the kid is disruptive he is placed in an exclusive placement. If he is not disruptive than he is exited without services. I wish I lived in an more enlightened school district, and will be moving soon.

  3. Marcie B says:

    Eligibility can be very subjective. In our experience with LAUSD, the child can have raw test scores that would qualify him for special education services and the school-based IEP team would still determine him to be “not eligible” because the school district does not want to add any more students to its already overflowing, budget strapped special education department. The school district based attorneys and administrators are “banking’ on the idea that most parents will not be able to afford to hire an advocate or attorney and will eventually give up and “go away” from the school, which sometimes results in the child being moved time and again from school to school as the parents try valiantly to find an appropriate placement for their special needs child, with no success because the same district based attorneys and administrators are behind every school the parents try to enroll their child in. There need to be more options in the form of charter schools or public non-profit schools for special needs children, and more parent involvement, not less, in running the schools and the budgets, and hiring the administrators.

  4. Rebecca says:

    Thanks for this post. I wish that Response to Intervention (RtI) would make its way into my district so we can abandon the “wait to fail” model of LD. Early intervention is so important, and our law is structured so we have to wait until they are so far behind. That being said, it is going to be a huge challenge to address fidelity of RtI services.

    Also, to confuse matters, I work in private practice and am always explaining the difference between the DSM-IV and Ed Code. Very confusing for parents, and professionals as well. I explain that a disability alone does not entitle you to SpEd, there has to be a significant educational need as well. That distinction is not always made clear to parents and is often a “grey area” in defining “significant”.

    Sigh.

  5. Anonymous says:

    The law does set up a pretty straightforward criteria, but in such cases as LD leaves room for interpretation. An example would be(in CA anyway) a case where the team can select the option of saying they have determined that a disability does exist, and that the child qualifies for services, even though the student does not meet the “standard” eligibility criteria. Categories such as OHI and ED can also can leave considerable room for reasonable discussion about the appropriateness of special education eligibility for a student.

    Great site and resource, BTW!

  6. I think that the ambiguity described in the post and the Comments is related to the difficulties we have with symptoms, testing, and diagnosis of Developmental Disorders.

    For “normal” medical conditions, the symptoms give clear signs about the diagnosis and this relates directly to a treatment. But, no matter how precise we try to make our diagnostic criteria for Developmental Disorders, there is no treatment for any of them which leads to a cure.

    I suspect that as long as we continue to think that the symptoms are the problem, we will have a mess with respect to special ed, IEPs, and unfair eligibility practices.

    I think we need a new paradigm about all Developmental Disorders.

  7. Pete says:

    Nice site. I agree with Anonymous and Rebecca. I feel that RTI is a good way to help take a more proactive approach to dealing with interventions but you are still going to have to evaluate the student to see if they meet the criteria. I work on the U.S./Mexico border and we deal with even more gray areas than this due to the limited English proficient population. If it weren’t tough enough to sift through and identify possible processing disorders we must also wade through the language factors.

    Pete
    http://educationalconsultingsolutions.vpweb.com/

  8. Penny says:

    This is exactly what I am dealing with right now for my son, age 8, ADHD and LD (dysgraphia). I just wrote about how confused I am with all this on my blog yesterday! (http://adhdmomma.blogspot.com/2010/10/new-level-of-confusion.html). In first grade he was denied special ed even though his teacher, our private caregivers, and I knew he needed it. This year (2 yrs later) we once again all knows he needs it so badly and have started the process again in the hopes it will work this time. He is one of those grey kids though and I have to admit I don’t have high hopes. I feel like he may forever fall through the cracks. I am going to add your blog to my site’s blogroll. thanks so much for sharing your perspective on this process, it will help parents.

    Penny
    {a mom’s view of ADHD}
    http://adhdmomma.blogspot.com

  9. Anonymous says:

    What do I do if I do not want the “school pychologist” testing my daughter due to the fact that he has been against it from day one. However after interventions at home and school I finally got the educational team to agree that yes she does need testing. The meeting did get heated due to his negativity. I am wanting another school pychologist that is in the same county to test my daughter and she has agreed that she would. I just dont know how to go about writing a letter requesting that change. Do I have any rights?? I just do not feel that he will be objective seeing how he is against the testing to begin with. Thanks! Concerned Parent

  10. Anonymous says:

    What do I do if I do not want the “school pychologist” testing my daughter due to the fact that he has been against it from day one. However after interventions at home and school I finally got the educational team to agree that yes she does need testing. The meeting did get heated due to his negativity. I am wanting another school pychologist that is in the same county to test my daughter and she has agreed that she would. i just dont know how to go about writing a letter requesting that change. Do I have any right?? I just do not feel that he will be objective seeing how he is against the testing to begin with. Thanks! Concerned Parent