July 1st, 2015

Bill would set rates for independent evaluations

Currently, children who need testing to determine special education services are left with only one option in Massachusetts – to follow the results and suggestions of evaluations performed by the school district.

That works fine if parents and the student agree with the district’s results. But, under state law, parents have the right to get an independent evaluation and have the costs of those tests and services covered by the district.

“If the family doesn’t agree with that evaluation, they have the right under the law for this independent evaluation, except that the law is meaningless because the amount of money allocated is not adequate,” said State Rep. Tom Sannicandro (D-7th Middlesex District).

To fix this, Sannicandro introduced a bill that would require the state secretary of Health and Human Services to set appropriate rates for independent evaluations by a qualified licensed professional and review those rates at least every three years. The bill does not specify a specific rate.

“It is imperative to establish a reasonable rate structure that is fair to school districts and, at the same time, allows low- and moderate-income parents access to independent education evaluations,” reads the bill.

Currently, the maximum the district will pay for an evaluation is $900, Sannicandro said. A neuropsychological evaluation, a common evaluation to determine a child’s baseline and educational needs, runs at about $2,500, he said.

The neuropsychological evaluation can include intelligence testing and evaluation of how a child learns. “All those things are really critical to understand what is going on with the kid to make sure you are providing the services to get that kid where he or she should be in the educational process,” he said.

Because of the low rate the state pays, parents are not able to find licensed evaluators to perform that evaluation or other tests like speech, physical therapy, behavioral and other evaluations. Or, if parents are able to find an evaluator willing to perform testing for $900, the wait time for getting tested is often long. In the meantime, a child’s educational needs go unmet.

“The other problem that comes up is that because the rate is $900, not only is it hard to get anybody to do it, but if you do find somebody that’s going to do it, they are so overwhelmed with all the work that they can’t keep up,” he said. “It delays the process and that delay can mean a year’s time for a student who is struggling in school.”

Sannicandro said the bill would expand opportunity for psychologists. “It could give them potentially more work where they’d be evaluating more of these kids,” he said. “What is happening right now is that probably lots of these kids are not being evaluated.”

Massachusetts Advocates for Children approached Sannicandro about introducing the bill. The nonprofit educational advocacy organization says the bill is a priority.

“The bill would require that rates be established at a level that allows parents to have a choice of qualified evaluators, as required by the United States Department of Education,” said Julia Landau, senior program director at Massachusetts Advocates for Children, by email. “The bill also requires that rates include observation of the student and other critical aspects of a valid assessment.”

As the law stands, she says, many low- and middle-income parents cannot obtain a necessary independent evaluation.

“This bill helps to level the playing field for low-income and middle-income families,” Landau said.

The legislation, called an act to provide equal access to evaluations for children with disabilities, has not yet been scheduled for a hearing.

By Rivkela Brodsky

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