Basic Terms and Provisions of Special Education

Understanding the terminology used for special education will help the practitioner to understand and interpret school documents and communicate  with school personnel.

SPECIAL EDUCATION:  The term “special education” means specially designed instruction, at no cost to parents, to meet the unique needs of a child with a disability, including: (1) instruction conducted in the classroom, in the home, in hospitals and institutions, and in other settings; and (2) instruction in physical education.  20 USCS § 1401.


IDEA:  “Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 2004” is a federal law governing the education of students with disabilities.  IDEA 2004 requires that families be informed of their special education rights, including how families and schools can resolve problems.


FAPE:  “Free Appropriate Public Education”   IDEA says that each student a school identifies as having a disability and who needs special education and related services to benefit from their education is entitled to FAPE.  FAPE must be provided in the “Least Restrictive Environment” (LRE), possible, given a child’s educational needs. Therefore, children with disabilities are entitled to attend class and participate in other activities with children without disabilities.  A yearly written FAPE plan, called an “Individualized Education Plan” (IEP) must be developed for each child.


IEP:  “Individual Education Plan”  IEPs are written by the child’s IEP Team, which includes the parent(s).  Parents have “consent rights,” which means they must approve certain actions before the school can act.  Families must receive regular progress reports about their children’s progress toward reaching IEP goals.

The IEP process:
1.   Notice: Parents of a child with a disability will be notified of any evaluation procedures the child’s school proposes to conduct.
2.  Conduct of evaluation: In conducting the evaluation, the child’s school will use a variety of assessment tools and strategies to gather relevant functional, developmental, and academic information.  This includes information provided by the parent to assist in determining whether the child is a child with a disability AND the content of a school-age child’s individualized education program, including information related to enabling the child to be involved in the general education curriculum and the child’s progress, OR the content for a preschool child’s education program, including information related to the child’s participation in appropriate activities;
3.  Determination of eligibility and educational need: After conducting assessments and other evaluation measures, the IEP team will determine whether the child is a child with a disability as defined in 20 USCS § 1401(3).  If so, the educational needs of the child will be determined by a team of qualified professionals and the parent(s) of the child.  A copy of the evaluation report and the documentation of determination of eligibility will be given to the parent.

An IEP includes the following:
1.   Present level of academic achievement and functional performance,
2.  Statement of the specialized aids and services to be provided,
3.  Annual goals stated in measurable terms,
4.  An explanation of the amount of time when the child will not be participating in regular education classes,
5.  A list of accommodations necessary for classes and testing, and
6.  A plan for how the child will participate in the state’s accountability system, including Standards of Learning (SOL) tests.




Age of Eligibility.  Any child with a disability aged 3 through 21 may be eligible for special education and related services under the IDEA (or early intervention services if the child is aged birth through 2 years).  See FAQs


Initial Request for Evaluation.  A parent, a local educational agency (LEA), or another state educational agency (SEA) may make the initial request for an eligibility evaluation of a child for special education and related services under the IDEA.  If a party other than a parent of the child makes this request, the party must obtain parental consent before an evaluation of the child.  This initial consent does not extend to placement of the child or provision of services.  If a parent does not consent to the initial evaluation or does not respond to the LEA’s request for consent, then the agency may still pursue the evaluation as long as it does not violate any State parental consent laws.


Evaluation.  Upon receipt of parental consent regarding the initial request, the LEA typically has a 60 day window within which it must complete an eligibility evaluation of the child in question unless a countervailing state law exists that changes this time frame.  In Virginia the window is 65 business days (Monday-Friday, excluding federal and state holidays).  There are two exceptions to the statutory timeframe. They can be found at 20 U.S.C. § 1414(a)(1)(C)(ii).


Notice.  Before performing an evaluation, the LEA must provide notice and explanation to the child’s parents of what is going to occur.


The Evaluation Team.  This team should consist of a number of qualified professionals and the child’s parent(s).


Procedure.  The evaluation itself must employ a number of different information-gathering mechanisms in order to collect details of the child’s functional, developmental, and academic performance.  Use of only one measure to obtain these results is prohibited.  All of the measures used must be technically sound methods of assessing cognitive, behavioral, physical, and developmental factors.  The evaluation team must ensure that assessments and other evaluation materials are not racially or culturally discriminatory, are provided and administered in the most accurate language of the child, are valid and reliable for the purposes for which they are used, follow the given instructions, assess all areas of suspected disability, provide information relevant to the determination of the child’s educational needs, and, in the case of a child transferring schools within an academic year, are coordinated between those schools.


Requirements for Eligibility.

The child is a “child with a disability” for the purposes of IDEA if:
1.  The child’s disability falls within at least one of the following categories: Intellectual Disability (formerly referred to as Mental Retardation), Hearing Impairments (including Deafness), Speech or Language Impairments, Visual Impairments (including Blindness), Serious Emotional Disturbance (also referred to as Emotional Disturbance), Orthopedic Impairment, Autism, Traumatic Brain Injuries, Other Health Impairments, Specific Learning Disabilities, or Multiple Disabilities.
2.  The child needs special education and related services as a result of his disability or disabilities.


Eligibility Decision.  Regardless of the evaluation team’s decision, the child’s parent is entitled to receive a copy of the evaluation report once the team has made a determination.

If Eligible.  If a child with a disability is eligible under the IDEA, then the child will receive special education and related services tailored to his or her specific educational needs and calculated to promote his or her individual educational achievement and success in life beyond graduation. An IEP meeting must be held within 30 days of this eligibility determination, and the special education and related services dictated by the child’s IEP must be made available to that child as soon as possible thereafter.

Reevaluation.  Parents may obtain a reevaluation of their child upon request, but reevaluation must not occur sooner than 1 year following the previous evaluation. Reevaluation is required by statute every 3 years to determine whether the child is still eligible for special education under IDEA. During reevaluations, team members must review all existing evaluations, assessments, and observations of and all existing information regarding the child in order to determine whether the team needs any additional data before evaluating whether that child is still a “child with a disability” for the purposes of IDEA.  The team must also formulate the child’s present levels of academic performance (PLOP) and looks into any changes that may need to be made to the child’s placement and/or services in order to facilitate the goals in his or her IEP.

If Ineligible.  A child who is ineligible for special education and related services under IDEA (in other words, a child whose disability does not negatively affect his or her educational progress) may still be eligible for “reasonable accommodations” under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 that will provide that child with access to an education equal to that of his or her non-disabled peers.  See FAQs