What Parents and Learning Support Students Need to Know (and What Your High School Might Not Tell You!)
Entering college is a challenging transition for all students, but it can be particularly demanding for students who have benefited from a learning support Individualized Education Program (IEP) in high school. The IEP likely includes accommodations that have helped the student acquire and retain the curriculum, as well as enhance his or her ability to demonstrate that knowledge. Students with specific learning disabilities can greatly increase their chances of success in college if they continue their accommodations at the college level. However, most parents are unaware that it is necessary to obtain an independent evaluation in order to do so.
With very few exceptions, a current psychoeducational evaluation is required to confirm that the student will continue to need learning support accommodations in college. When students graduate from high school, they are no longer under the protection of the IDEA—the federal law that guarantees a free and appropriate public education to all students regardless of learning, developmental, or health challenges. If accommodations for a learning disabled student are needed after age 18 in college, the student must be evaluated and recertified under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Essentially, upon graduation from high school, the student loses entitlement under education law and must prove eligibility under civil rights law. This evaluation must provide a formal diagnosis from the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition) and explain the functional limitations of the disability as well as why accommodations are still necessary for the student to succeed. To be valid, the evaluation must be administered within three years of the individual starting college. Evaluations from earlier in childhood, even with a learning disability diagnosis, are not acceptable.
Taking proactive steps before graduation is the best strategy. An updated, comprehensive evaluation will not only provide documentation required by the college to allow accommodations/support services, but it will also help the student better prepare for the transition. The following are answers to some commonly asked questions:
Q. Will the high school provide this evaluation?
A. No. There is no law requiring high schools to do so. Some parents have challenged school districts and even initiated lawsuits, contending that the evaluation should be provided as part of the student’s Transition Plan. However, it is the overriding opinion of education attorneys that the school district is not responsible for providing the evaluation as it does not affect the current IEP, is not relevant to graduation requirements, and is for use by the student and a third party after graduation. Furthermore, the evaluation cannot be requested as an IEE (Independent Educational Evaluation) because it will not be used to redirect the IEP. Even so, schools may be reluctant to inform students and parents of the need to be reevaluated for fear of litigation or being billed for outside testing services. Families need to accept that the evaluation is just one of many expenses they will encounter during the college application process.
A. While two-year colleges will sometimes accept the ER and IEP, four-year colleges are becoming increasingly stringent about having an updated evaluation that meets documentation requirements established by the ADA. The ER and IEP will be helpful in establishing the student’s history of needing support/accommodations, although the evaluation must present current data and utilize the most recent standardized testing instruments appropriate for the student’s age.
Q. Who should perform the evaluation?
A. Only a state-licensed and school-certified psychologist who is familiar with the most current testing instruments and mandated report format should be consulted. Choosing an evaluator who is unfamiliar with the requirements has often resulted in a costly and time-consuming waste of resources. Colleges are not required to accept inappropriate or insufficient documentation.
Q. When should the evaluation be administered?
A. Anytime after the student reaches his or her sixteenth birthday, as an adult intelligence scale is required. Ideally, the evaluation should be administered during junior year of high school and no later than fall of the senior year. This will identify areas that need to be strengthened and give the student time to work on the recommendations generated, including any assistive technologies. Postponing the evaluation until the summer before the student enrolls in college is not recommended.
Q. When should the evaluation be presented to the college?
A. Once the student has been accepted and a tuition deposit has been made to the college of choice, the evaluation should then be forwarded to the college support services office. The evaluation should not be sent with the student’s application for admission unless it is specifically requested.
Q. What about students who have Chapter 504 service plans? Do these students need an updated evaluation as well?
A. Yes. Under the ADA, regardless of health impairment or physical disability, the student must initiate the process to receive accommodations and present current documentation of need. For those students who carry a service agreement for attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, documentation is becoming increasingly stringent and requires an extensive developmental history with the evaluation to differentiate between ADHD and possible emotional disorders. Students with a psychiatric diagnosis must have the evaluation performed less than six months before starting college.
Q. Aside from documenting the need for accommodations, what else can the evaluation provide?
A. Depending on the types of tests administered, the evaluation can help students understand their learning styles, strengths and weaknesses of executive function, personality variables, and vocational interests. Having this information available prior to college can help clarify career goals, provide strategies to enhance productivity, and assist with course selection.
In addition, students needing accommodations and possibly support services in college often benefit greatly from transition coaching. Most students have only a vague awareness (or even pronounced misperceptions) of the differences between high school and college. A qualified transition coach or group counseling experience can make a significant difference in helping students understand the impending changes and their need to adapt in advance. Research has confirmed that students who utilize their documentation, have a thorough understanding of their disability and the self-advocacy skills to discuss it, and knowledge of how to successfully navigate the changes in their learning environment stand a significantly greater likelihood of degree completion.
On a final note, be sure to obtain copies of your student’s records upon graduation. Surprisingly, high schools are required by federal law to keep records for only three years after the diploma is granted. Some districts will save records on microfilm while others do not. This has caused considerable frustration for students who seek accommodations a few years after completing their secondary education.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Paul Meschter, M.S., CSP, is a Pennsylvania-licensed and school-certified psychologist with over 30 years of professional experience serving the needs of preschoolers through college-age adults. In addition to a long-standing association with the Radnor Township School District, his services as an evaluator have been recommended by The Baldwin School, Delaware Valley Friends School, Germantown Academy, and The Woodlynde School, as well as Ursinus College and Villanova University. Since 1999, he has devoted the majority of his practice to assisting learning support students document their need for continued accommodations at a reasonable cost.
A complimentary consultation regarding your student’s individual requirements is invited by calling 610-489-2177 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Further information is available at www.collegelearningsupport.com.