Dr. Stein's Psychology Blog
My thoughts on mental health counseling, therapy, neuropsychology, collaborative divorce and more.
As parents, we tend to trust in our child’s school system, with the notion that its priority is our children’s educations. However, these days, thanks to state and federal policies, most school districts are in a cash crunch. Sometimes it seems like they may care more about saving money than discovering how to meet students’ individual educational needs better. That means in-school evaluations may be shortchanging your child’s learning potential.
Over the course of my years in practice as a Neuropsychologist in Monmouth County, New Jersey, I have completed many educational evaluations. As part of that process, I’ve reviewed hundreds of evaluations for children of all ages that were completed by specialists employed full-time by school districts. Unfortunately, some of these have not been as valuable as they should have or could have been. Simply put, in-school evaluations may fall short in several important areas and provide only partial information. Why is this limitation a significant problem? That is because time is of the essence in terms of a child with special learning needs. Specifically, the longer a child with special learning needs waits for proper academic or behavioral interventions or accommodations, the further he or she will fall behind. Below are some of the restrictions of an in-school evaluation compared to a private psychoeducational evaluation.
1. So Many Students, So Little School Time: In-school specialists have large caseloads of students and a narrow amount of time and resources to spend on each of them. This can severely limit the breadth and depth of their evaluations. While an in-school evaluator may be afforded two hours of time to complete testing, enough for a basic intelligence test and perhaps an academic battery, an independent neuropsychologist is free from those restraints. A thorough evaluation can take 10 hours of face-to-face interaction with a student and his or her parents/guardians. Discovering what specific problems a student is having in school, why he or she is having those difficulties, and what can be done to help simply cannot be accomplished in a two-hour evaluation. Learning problems are complex and intricate. Most often, a student has more than one learning struggle and maybe even a co-occurring psychological issue with external stressors at home or in his or her social life. When I complete an evaluation, I gain a comprehensive understanding of a student’s personal strengths and weaknesses. I use this data to provide very specific recommendations and accommodations that are tailored to meet the individual needs of the child rather than the school’s financial needs.
Also, there is a long process that teachers and parents are required to go through before schools agree to evaluate students. Sometimes just getting the wheels turning can take up to nine months while the student flounders. Once the process begins, schools have a legal time frame they are required to stick to, but sometimes they purposely take the entire time allotted in order to stall the process or save money. Using an independent evaluator tends to be not only more effective, but also more efficient.
2. Educational Evaluations Require A Lot Of Detective Work: An educational evaluation is a mystery to be unraveled. In order to come to the right conclusion, every clue must be followed until the student’s problem(s) can be correctly identified and solved. But in-school evaluations typically are “once size fits all.” That means that all students get the same tests and the same evaluation. This is discouraging; an effective educational evaluation should be specifically tailored to each and every student.
For instance, I have seen many in-school evaluations note a student’s difficulty with attention and focus. But, they simply stop there, and draw conclusions. Identifying whether or not a child can pay attention in class is only the first step. Attention is a very broad skill; there are many different types of attentional abilities including visual, verbal, simple, complex, sustained, selected, alternating and more. An evaluator must identify the specific type of attentional difficulty in order to determine the correct type of intervention to implement. A second example of the limitations of a school evaluation is when the report identifies the student struggles in reading. Reading is a broad ability made up of many other skills including visual perception, phonetics, short-term memory, lexical abilities, and comprehension. Simply identifying a reading problem, like many in-school evaluations do, is like a plumber coming to your house and telling you there is leak, but not bothering to find out where it can be found. There is no real help in that. In contrast, an independent neuropsychologist can provide the full range of necessary insight.
3. It’s a Challenging Puzzle to Piece Together: Completing an effective comprehensive educational evaluation requires a deep breadth and depth of knowledge and abilities across many areas. Some in-school evaluators lack this expertise and are not able to comment in-depth about a student’s cognitive abilities, academic skills, neuropsychological functioning, and social skills. Having this expertise and knowledge base is essential in taking large amounts of information gained in an evaluation, understanding the interaction of cognitive skills and academic functioning, and distilling this information into a cohesive and understandable report that will benefit the student. Too often I have seen a school’s computer printouts of intelligence tests or academic batteries used as ineffective, “cookie-cutter” reports that do not clearly explain a child’s strengths and weaknesses to a parent.
4. Privacy Concerns: Although your child has a confidential school record, the results of an in-school evaluation can be seen by anyone who has a right to look at those records. You might not feel comfortable with that. However, the school staff only sees a private evaluation if you decide to release it to the school. Also, even though an in-school evaluation would take place in the somewhat familiar setting of the student’s school, he or she would likely be pulled out of his or her regular schedule for the testing process. This sometimes makes students feel stressed out or embarrassed. Your child may prefer the privacy of a Neuropsychologist’s office outside of school.
5. Freedom Of Expression: School evaluators are part of a school’s team. You can’t select them. Plus, their suggestions may be influenced by school concerns, such as resources. As someone who does not work for a school district and who is independent, I am free to make any and all recommendations that I see fit to benefit the academic, social, psychological, and cognitive functioning of a student. Additionally, since my evaluations are conducted in a methodical and scientific manner, those recommendations are easily supported and defended.
In conclusion, although it is always important to keep an eye on one’s budget, psychoeducational evaluations may not be the place to cut economic corners. A child who is struggling in school does not deserve to be shortchanged; the student needs his or her parents and teachers to get as much understanding into the situation as possible to maximize learning prospects. If you think your child might need a psychoeducational examination, call me for a free, 15-minute, consultation where we can discuss it. In certain circumstances, the relief that appropriate learning accommodations and interventions can give are priceless, and only a comprehensive evaluation can provide the information you need. 732-747-8818
I'm a clinical psychologist and neuropsychologist with a private practice in Red Bank, NJ.