Contributed by Paul Meschter, PA Licensed and School Certified Psychologist
Entering college is a challenging transition for all students, and one that is particularly demanding for learning support and health impaired students who have benefited from a learning support IEP of Chapter 504 service plan. The IEP or plan includes accommodations that have helped the student access and retain the curriculum, as well as enhance their ability to demonstrate their knowledge. Students with specific learning disabilities will greatly increase their chances of success in college if they continue their accommodations at the college level. However, most parents are unaware that the student will need an independent evaluation in order to do so.
With a few exceptions, a current psychoeducational evaluation is required to confirm that the student will continue to need learning support accommodations upon entering college as an adult learner with a continuing disability. When students graduate from high school, they are no longer under the protection of the I.D.E.A. – the federal law that guarantees a free and appropriate public education to all students regardless of learning, developmental or health challenges. If accommodations as a special needs student are required after age 18, the student must be evaluated and recertified under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Essentially, upon graduation, 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 – 5th Edition), explain the functional limitations of the disability and why accommodations are still necessary for the student to succeed. The evaluation must be administered within three years before starting college to be valid. Evaluations from earlier in childhood, even with a learning disability diagnosis, are usually 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 will help the student prepare for the transition. As many of the same questions arise, the following may help clarify the issue:
Q. Will the high school provide this evaluation?
A. No. There is no law requiring the school 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 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) as it will not be used to redirect the IEP. Even so, schools may be reluctant to inform students and parents of this necessity for fear of litigation or being billed for outside testing services. Families need to accept that the evaluation is one of many expenses that will be encountered by college-bound students. This one just happens to be the first.
Q. Won’t colleges accept the recent ER and IEP as proof that continued accommodations are needed?
A. While two-year colleges will sometimes accept the ER and IEP, most four-year colleges are becoming increasingly stringent about having an updated evaluation that meets documentation requirements established by the ADA. The IEP and ER will be helpful in establishing the student’s history of needing support/accommodations although the evaluation must present current data and utilize the most recently 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 their 16th birthday, as an adult intelligence scale is required. Ideally, the evaluation should be administered during junior year 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 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 for health issues? 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 sometimes 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 no earlier than six months before starting college.
Q. Aside from documenting 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 to the ADA format evaluation, students needing accommodations, and possibly support services in college, will greatly benefit from transition coaching. Most students only have 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 by having students understand impending changes and their need to adapt in advance. Research has confirmed students who utilize their documentation; have a thorough understanding of their disability and 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, make sure you obtain copies of the student’s records upon graduation. Surprisingly, high schools are required by federal law to only keep records for 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, he is an evaluator recommended by Albright College, Delaware Valley Friends School, Germantown Academy, Ursinus College, Villanova University and The Woodlynde School. Since 1999, he has devoted much of his practice to assisting learning support students document their need for continued accommodations at reasonable cost. He provides evaluation/consultation services in his 18th-century farmhouse outside of Collegeville, PA and has assisted over one hundred graduates go on to succeed after high school.
A free consultation regarding your student’s needs is invited by calling 610-489-2177 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Further information is available at www.collegelearningsupport.com and at https://therapists.psychologytoday.com/rms/state/PA/Collegeville.html.