Learn Your Special Education Laws, Special Education Rights, and Share IEP Goal Ideas

Mar 04
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by Jess

This may come as a surprise, but most school psychologists do not know how to identify dyslexia, and if they do identify a reading problem, it is usually mislabeled as an auditory processing disorder. To further complicate the problem, the report may do an excellent job of describing the reading and writing issues and then fall absurdly short in the recommendations section.  Recently, I read a report that did a beautiful job of explaining a young girl’s difficulty with decoding, spelling and fluency. The tests showed a clear deficit in phonological awareness, so what were the recommendations that got my blood boiling and provoked me to throw my arms in the air? Student needs to improve reading. Yes, that’s right. That was the recommendation to the IEP team. So, what is the underlying issue and what do parents and teachers need to know about the testing in order to make appropriate recommendations? Read on for answers.

Problem #1:One size fits all – or does it?

If you have seen one psychoeducational report conducted by a school psyschologist, then my friend, you have seen them all. And herein lies one of the biggest roadblocks to appropriate intervention. When presented with a student who is struggling with reading and writing, most schools will test the following areas: I.Q., Visual Processing (usually TVPS-3), Auditory Processing (usually TAPS-3), academics (usually the Woodcock-Johnson), and an observation that usually does not include a description of what was actually produced during the observation. This sounds good, it looks thorough, it looks complete, but when it comes to assessing a child with dyslexia, there usually are three things missing: a test of phonological awareness, phonological memory and rapid naming (such as the CTOPP-2), oral reading (such as the GORT-5), a spontaneous writing sample and appropriate interpretation of the scores.

**Please notice the careful use of the word, usually, in this article.

Problem #2: The devil is in the details

The final report that only shares the composite scores is an incomplete report.  So, what it a composite score anyway? A composite score is the overall score for any area that is tested. It is made up of subtest scores, subtest scores can vary widely and those variations, if noticed, can be the roadmap to recommendations. So, if you are handed a report that only reports composite (or broad reading, writing and math) scores be sure to request all of the scores in order to get an accurate picture of the student. Additionally, it is common for schools to deny a problem is significant because they are relying on the composite scores, again, ask for the subtests and do a thorough investigation of what they mean. Here is an example for a student who is 7 years 10 months and in 2.4 grade:

Grade Equivalent Standard Score Age Equivalent












The above scores are from the Woodcock-Johnson and the scores that are shared are made up of the following subtests:

Grade Equivalent

Standard Score

Age Equivalent

Letter-Word Identification




Reading Fluency




Story Recall -




Understanding Directions -








Math Fluency








Writing Fluency




Passage Comprehension




Applied Problems




Writing Samples




You can see by the subtests that there is a wide variability in skills. Interestingly, and commonly, in cases of dyslexia, the student scores at or above grade and age level in story recall and understanding directions. This is evidence that they have the capacity to learn and understand, they just cannot access the information via reading.  By looking at the subtests, it also becomes apparent that the intervention should place a heavy focus on writing and spelling. 

Problem #3: To use discrepancy or not to use discrepancy? That is the controversy.

If I heard it once, I have heard it 100 times, “My child did not qualify for special education services because they did not meet with discrepancy requirement.” If you remember nothing else, remember this, as of 2004 a school is not bound by the discrepancy requirement. They are now permitted to use alternative assessments, teacher and parent observations and examples of schoolwork to determine if the student is eligible under the Specific Learning Disability (SLD) and if that disability is affecting their ability to succeed in school. While we are dispelling common myths let’s tackle another pervasive myth: There is nothing prohibiting schools from including the word, dyslexia, in the IEP. It can be anywhere, in the notes, in the addendum, or in the Present Levels. When you get resistance, remind the team that dyslexia has been in IDEA for 37 years, yes 37 years.  Yes, I know schools don’t diagnose and I know that SLD will get the student services, the problem is that dyslexia requires a specific intervention so it is extremely important that it is documented in the IEP.

(Most) school psychologists suffer from the same lack of training and awareness about dyslexia as the well-meaning teachers they support. Therefore, they often do not know what they are dealing with when they interpret their scores. If you believe the scores have been misinterpreted or misrepresented, find an expert to read the report and give you a second opinion.

Problem #4: Parents know best

What do parents know about their children? Everything. And they are almost always right about their suspicion of dyslexia. Every report done by the school should include parent input and it should be more than whether or not the birth was normal and with whom the child resides. This is important for several reasons. First, dyslexia is highly genetic. So, if there is a family history of academic difficulties it is significant in the identification of a child for special education. Second, the amount of time a student is spending on homework is very important as is the degree of difficulty and/or frustration that homework is causing the child.  Is the child receiving intervention outside of school? If so, for how long and what kind of intervention is it? This is important information because the child’s scores may be higher due to intervention. Additionally, how much help is the parent giving the student in order to keep them from failing? I often recommend to parents to stop helping with homework so that the school can see the independent ability of the child.

Do not accept a report that does not include the parent input.

Problem #5: What happened to spelling?

Yes, it is true, some students with dyslexia struggle only with spelling. Yet, spelling seems to perplex even the most savvy teacher and it is almost always completely ignored in the report. I have yet to see a spontaneous writing sample collected for a school report or an artifact collected from a classroom observation. For people with dyslexia, this goes much deeper than a few words. In fact, spelling and writing are often the most difficult skills for them to learn and prevents them from being able to showcase their true, creative, intelligent thoughts in writing. Yes, there is usually one subtest to determine spelling ability and when this is identified as an area weakness, what is the recommendation? Use spell check. Really? Or better yet, call the Occupational Therapist and get a pencil grip. This does not improve spelling, appropriate identification of spelling issues, followed by appropriate intervention does.

Problem #6: Recommendations

Even when a report is thorough and complete, the recommendations seem to fall short to offer real, evidence-based interventions. In order to really describe how absurd these recommendations can be, I offer you these examples:

  • Since child’s identified area of need is in phonological processing, encourage a whole language approach to reading such as the Language Experience Approach. (This is my personal favorite.)
  • Please read more at home.
  • Use “rainbow writing”. Write each word 3 times with different colors for each. On the computer, this can be done with different fonts.
  • As mentioned earlier: student needs to improve reading.

These recommendations illustrate how little is known by (most) school psychologists when it comes to how to remediate children struggling with a phonological difficulty that is the result of dyslexia.

Solution: Get a second opinion, but not on your dime.

I cannot understate the importance of the Independent Educational Evaluation, otherwise known as the IEE. So, what is an IEE anyway? When you disagree with the school’s evaluation you have the right to request that the child be evaluated by an independent expert. An IEE is granted at the expense of the school. Some reasons to disagree and request an IEE: 1) The school did not determine the child was eligible,  2) the school found the student eligible but under a different category than SLD and the goals and services are not responsive to the needs, 3) The report was  incomplete or poorly written/interpreted and, 4) The recommendations do not meet the needs identified in the report.

To get an IEE, you must write a compelling letter to the school that includes why you disagree with the test. You must send this written letter to the school. You will then get a response in the form of Prior Written Notice (PWN) as to whether the school agrees to pay for the test or not. If they agree they will give you a list of ‘approved’ testers and a fee limit. You are NOT required to choose from that list; you have the right to choose your own evaluator. Once the evaluation is complete, a new IEP meeting is held and the results are discussed. The results of the evaluation have to be considered by the school but they do NOT have to accept them. Silly, right? Why spend all that money and not accept the results? I can’t answer that because it still perplexes me. However, in more cases than not, they will accept these results and beautiful IEPs can result from them.

You now have the information you need regarding dyslexia and school testing.  Please take the time to read the report you get from a school with a critical and educated eye. If there is something you do not agree with or do not understand, ask an expert to read the report and give you an opinion. Most experts in dyslexia will do this for free. Then determine what you need from the school psychologist to clear questions up. If questions or concerns remain – request an IEE. You can do this, you have to. The more people who are knowledgeable about how to identify dyslexia in testing the better chance we have of changing the way tests are interpreted for kids with dyslexia.  Dyslexia is real. Can I hear you roar?

Dr. Kelli Sandman-Hurley is the co-founder of the Dyslexia Training Institute (www.dyslexiatraininginstitute.org and www.dyslexiadr.com.) She is currently writing Putting the D in to the IEP and you can read excerpts at www.dyslexiadr.blogspot.com. She received her doctorate in Literacy with a specialization in reading and dyslexia from San Diego State University and the University of San Diego. Dr. Sandman-Hurley a Certified Special Education Advocate assisting parents and children through the Individual Education Plan (IEP) and 504 Plan process. She is an adjunct professor of reading, literacy coordinator and a tutor trainer. Kelli is trained by a fellow of the Orton-Gillingham Academy and in the Lindamood-Bell, RAVE-O and Wilson Reading Programs. Kelli is the Past-President of the San Diego Branch of the International Dyslexia Association, as well as a board member of the Southern California Library Literacy Network (SCLLN). She is a professional developer for California Library Literacy Services (CLLS) as well as a Literacy Consultant for the San Diego Council on Literacy. She was awarded the Jane Johnson Fellowship and the Commission on Adult Basic Education (COABE) scholarship. Kelli has presented at numerous conferences as well as provided professional development for k-12 teachers. She is currently working on her book, Putting the D in IEP: A guide to dyslexia in the school system. Join the Dyslexia Training Institute at www.facebook.com/dyslexiatraining

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6 Responses to “Dyslexia: The deconstruction of school testing”

  1. Thank you for this excellent article!

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  2. This is great information, thanks, we’ve shared on our Facebook page.

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  3. An outstanding article! Thank you for making it so comprehensive. One thing I would add for parents who live in Texas, you do not need to write a letter when you request an IEE. You are not even required to tell the school why you want one, other than to say you disagree with their findings. Also, if you do request an IEE in Texas and decide to choose your own evaluator, that person must meet the qualifications criteria set out by the Texas Education Agency.

    I plan to share this far and wide – thanks again!

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  4. Can you give me some appropriate IEP goals for a child with Dyslexia? or tell me where to find them

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  5. I was surprised to see you recommend Whole language approach

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  6. Great article! Just wanted to make one point,however. Per IDEA regs, parents are NOT legally required to explain why they want an IEE for their child. They only need to state that they disagree with the school’s eval. In practice, when parents give reasons, districts find a million reasons to counter those reasons which, in turn, either delays the IEE or eventually convin es parents to withdraw their request. I tell parents, just keep repeating “We disagree with your evaluation.”

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