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NASP Recommendations on IDEA Reauthorization

February 22, 2002

On behalf of the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP), we thank the Department of Education for the opportunity to share our thoughts and recommendations for strengthening the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

NASP represents approximately 23,000 school psychologists in schools and communities across the country.  The NASP mission is to promote educationally and psychologically healthy environments for children and their families by implementing research-based, effective programs that promote healthy behaviors, enhance independence and promote optimal learning.  This is accomplished through state-of-the-art research and training, advocacy, ongoing program evaluation, and caring professional service. We are particularly active in programs and services for school and community‑based violence prevention efforts, including behavioral interventions and strategies to remove emotional, behavioral and academic barriers to learning. 

School psychologists work within many contexts of IDEA regularly.  We provide accurate and comprehensive assessments.  We provide education and professional development for other educators and staff.  We develop and implement individualized education programs and behavioral intervention plans.  We provide community and school-based mental health and psychological services, consult with parents and teachers on strategies to improve academic success, and link students and families to resources within the community.   

School psychologists often act as the bridge between special education and general education programs, school and community-based programs and services, and parents and the school community.  Most importantly, we are specifically trained to link mental health and learning deficits to successful academic interventions.  For these reasons, we are integral players in successful and effective application of IDEA principles and practice.

NASP has received many comments from our members on both the positive aspects resulting from the prior authorization and suggestions for improvements.  We would like to highlight a few of these now, and we look forward to continued dialogue as IDEA reform plans are developed.  

NASP members believe that the core components of IDEA statute represent good public policy in that the law seeks to ensure free and appropriate education for students with disabilities.  IDEA ’97 places strong emphasis on positive results based on the individual needs of students.  We fully support this language and urge that it be maintained and enhanced.  While we agree that there is always room for improvement and that certain changes to the law could refocus attention on outcomes rather than process, we believe that we need better, more uniform implementation of the ’97 reforms before we can know for certain where further reforms are needed.  School districts have had less than two school years to implement the law since the final regulations were released in March 1999.  Most schools are just beginning to make the law fully operational in practice.  NASP believes that more specific guidance and technical assistance to local and state education agencies   are necessary to effectively implement the ‘97 amendments and can help avoid even greater stress on school districts.

NASP applauds the Department’s ongoing efforts to improve implementation through various information and research projects.  NASP has valued its involvement in the IDEA Partnerships and the ASPIIRE Project and hopes to continue working with OSEP on the development and dissemination of resources for recommended practices and implementation.  We strongly encourage the Department to continue these efforts and seek increased funding for Part D to conduct further research on the effectiveness of IDEA services and programs, particularly in the area of how support services remove barriers to learning and increase student achievement.

NASP also applauds the approach the Administration is taking to focus on early identification and intervention of reading and other learning problems.   NASP strongly supports every effort to intervene as early as possible to avoid more costly and extensive services down the road, or even the need to refer to special education at all.  We all know that the “wait and fail” model serves no one.  School psychologists play a key role in this type of early identification and problem solving.  We also support the Administration’s position that schools can and should address many needs of students within the general education curriculum, without having to place them in special education.  This approach can only succeed, however, if adequate services are accessible in the general education setting.  We know that the paradox of IDEA is that you must place in special education students who need additional help in order to get them needed services.  If concerns surround the growing numbers of students in special education, then services -- and the resources to provide these services -- must be offered and available outside of special education.

Mental Health & Behavioral Services

NASP believes this is particularly true for mental health services.  Interventions and services that address emotional and behavioral barriers to learning serve not only to improve the well being of the student, but also to improve academic achievement.  Mental health services should be understood as an educational necessity rather than only a medical necessity.  A mentally healthy student leads to a successful student.  NASP believes that the reauthorization of IDEA provides a perfect opportunity to strengthen the provision of school-based mental health services for all students, and that such services should be more regularly considered when evaluating students, developing IEPs, and providing school-wide interventions.  

Sec. 614  IEP development:  Under “consideration of special factors,” mental health needs should be considered when determining what services are needed.   We recommend that the IEP team determine whether the child under consideration requires school-based mental health services in order to specifically address emotional and behavioral barriers to learning.  This consideration supports the provision that the initial evaluation of students should be in “all areas of suspected disability,” and would ensure that students receive services that will enable them to learn more effectively.  This critical provision ensures that students receive the most appropriate special education and related services, based on their individual needs rather than on a disability label.  Determination and delivery of appropriate services is necessary for students to benefit from their education.

Functional Behavioral Assessments (FBA) are currently used only after a discipline infraction is committed.  We believe this is an ineffective use of this intervention tool.  Making the FBA part of an initial assessment and evaluation when mental health and behavioral issues are suspected is a more effective means of addressing a behavior and/or establishing a behavioral intervention plan (BIP).  According to IDEA Statute, evaluations should involve “a variety of assessment tools and strategies to gather relevant functional and developmental information.”

Preventive behavioral supports are more cost-effective for the school than dealing with discipline problems later.  They are more beneficial to the school environment and classroom management capacity and help teachers and students to focus on academic achievement.  Moreover, it is more cost-effective to society in the long term to prevent behavioral problems and address mental health needs early, than it is to ignore problems and issues that can later lead to juvenile delinquency, social maladjustment, and adult crime or violence.

Coordinated Services

Although NASP asserts that schools must play a stronger role in mitigating negative behaviors before they worsen, we understand that schools cannot and should not do it alone.  We believe the Department could do a better job of emphasizing systems of care and the implementation of interagency agreements and coordinated services (Sec. 300.142 Methods of Ensuring Services).  States and school districts should be encouraged to enhance this coordination/collaboration and states must indicate how local education agencies will implement these agreements.  It is important that the Department identify and disseminate models of best practices to states and LEAs.  Additionally, mental health and juvenile justice agencies should be explicitly included in coordination efforts.

New provisions in IDEA ’97 allowed school districts to use funds provided for school-wide programs under Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act for both students with and without disabilities.  This provision of “incidental benefit” provides the mechanism for coordination of education programs and service delivery.  We urge that this provision be maintained and enhanced.  We also hope to reinforce that these benefits are not merely “incidental” but an intentional result of services, reaching more students in the most cost-effective manner. 

Effective Discipline

NASP strongly opposes cessation of services.  Ceasing educational and other services for students as a means of disciplining them does not improve school safety or effectively address the behavior.  Any student with violent or disruptive behavior must have their needs addressed through the provision of appropriate and effective services, such as positive behavioral supports.  When education and services are denied, students are more likely to become involved in illegal activities.  School dropout rates and delinquency will increase and communities will be less safe.  Furthermore, loss of educational progress due to lack of services is particularly difficult to recoup for students with disabilities. 

Schools need a greater ability to provide positive behavioral supports and other effective behavioral interventions to prevent behavioral problems.  As mentioned above, when possible, functional behavioral assessments should be conducted before a discipline infraction takes place.  There must then be consideration of a behavioral intervention plan (BIP) and follow-up to provide educators with tools for classroom management. 

Administrators, teachers, and other staff must have more training to recognize mental health needs.  In order for teachers and other staff to have realistic expectations, they need to understand that effective behavioral training takes time.  Again, individual needs should be considered.  Students with behavior disorders and emotional disturbance will not necessarily require the same services, nor should they be provided services together.  This can actually have negative results considering the different manifestations of behavior and emotional vulnerability.   Further, we strongly suggest that the definition of Emotionally Disturbed (ED) be reexamined in light of the current estimates of need.  As highlighted in the Surgeon General’s report on children’s mental health, only one in five children who need mental health services actually receives them.  

Learning Disabilities

In preparation for the Reauthorization IDEA, the NASP and partner organizations comprising the National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities (NJCLD) were invited to provide recommendations for revision of current regulations. Specifically, NASP was asked to address the identification process and eligibility criteria. The following summary statements on Identification Process and Eligibility Criteria were synthesized from the input provided by NASP members and leaders and submitted to the NJCLD roundtable workgroup. These summaries are intended not only to approximate consensus, but also to maximize consistency with NASP position statements and with rigorous research in the field of learning disabilities. 

Recommended Identification Process, Learning Disabilities

Multidisciplinary teams need to use multiple methods of assessment, selected on an individualized basis, that relate to referral concerns and that are linked to potential intervention strategies, both instructional and non-instructional (behavioral, motivational, social-emotional).  Curriculum-based assessment and other functional and authentic assessment methods should routinely be included.

School psychologists should selectively and judiciously use standardized measures of cognitive skills that generate educational information of value.  Specific objectives in using cognitive measures include:

  • Evaluating for disabilities other than LD (e.g., mental retardation);
  • Identifying strengths and weaknesses on marker variables (e.g., phonological processing, verbal short-term memory) known to be related to reading or other academic areas;
  • Establishing general expectations for academic achievement, with the understanding that other factors also influence these expectations.

Current research falls short of identifying marker variables that predict learning disabilities in all areas of academic achievement throughout the entire developmental range.  Nevertheless, "marker variables" (e.g., phonological processing, short-term memory) that have been identified as predictive of, and related to, acquisition of academic skills (e.g., reading) should be core components of assessments—especially brief assessments that are repeatedly administered to identifying students in need of supportive instruction in early grades. 

Future research is likely to better distinguish and define types of LD and to identify indicators for better assessing deficit areas.  For example, there is already mounting evidence to suggest that the definition of LD be expanded to include deficiencies in verbal fluency. 

Recommended Changes in LD Eligibility Criteria

Eligibility must be interdependent upon instructional supports and other interventions provided through general education.  First and foremost, IDEA should ensure that high-quality, research-based instruction that accommodates individual differences is provided for all students.  This would require a substantially new emphasis upon pre-service and in-service training of school personnel.

Early intervention: In the primary grades, students who are achieving at a low level and who demonstrate deficits on periodically-administered assessments of critical pre-reading and reading skills should be provided with intensive, supportive instruction.  (Torgesen [2001], in the final draft of his full LD Summit paper, suggests providing early intervention for the lowest 20 percent in order to eliminate most false negative errors.)  Given the similarity in their educational needs, there is no reason to differentiate between low achieving students and students with "real learning disabilities" (i.e., having an intrinsic disorder).  As indicated by research, most students who have failed to develop essential early literacy skills will benefit from the same type of instructional intervention, and may experience long-term failure if it is not provided in a timely manner.  Services for this group could be provided by mandating this specific use of the developmental delay category, or some similar classification (e.g.,"early learning delay"), for students up to age 9.  This expansion of special services would require increased funding for IDEA, combined funding measures, or some alternative funding method (e.g., Medicaid).

Emphasis on response to intervention: At age 9, students continuing to qualify or newly qualifying as having a disability would have to meet more stringent criteria.  In addition to the requirements of low achievement and (where established by research) deficits on marker variables, eligibility determination would also require that the student is failing to achieve at the level expected given his/her cognitive abilities, instructional history and other environmental factors such as attendance, language background and motivation.  This requirement of achievement below expectations would not be established through a discrepancy formula, but rather through the collaborative clinical judgment of the multidisciplinary team based on a comprehensive array of data.  Thus, it would be relegated to similar status as the qualifying condition of “adverse effect on educational performance" in the federal definition of emotional disturbance.  Another requirement would be, as per current federal regulations, that the student needs specialized instruction. 

An instructional support team, or early intervention (aka "pre-referral") model, using a systematic individualized data-based problem-solving process, would be a required component under IDEA.  This might be tied to the flexible funding for the early literacy services described above; that is, only school districts that universally implement a pre-referral model would qualify for special funding to provide instructional intervention on a non-categorical basis in the early grades.  Specific principles or standards could be established for pre-referral systems. Their effectiveness could be monitored by tracking such data as the percentage of requests for assistance that are successfully resolved without referral to special education.  In this model, much of the data required to establish eligibility would be collected in the course of testing out interventions within general education.  When a student who appears to have a disability fails to makes progress despite the implementation, adaptation and monitoring of multiple interventions—or when the interventions that prove to be successful are so specialized or intense interventions that they cannot reasonably be provided within general education—a referral to special education should be initiated.  [Note: defining which interventions are so intense or specialized is a potential task for the NJCLD organizations working on Intervention.]

The instructional support team model could also serve students in the primary grades that are receiving intensive instructional intervention, as described above, but not making adequate progress.  Although the student is already receiving special services on a non-categorical basis, the outcome of this process may be referral to the IEP team to consider the need for additional IEP services or components.

Support for noncategorical models: IDEA currently allows implementation of noncategorical models of service delivery as long as students are identified as having a disability according to regulations. There is a growing body of research indicating positive outcomes for such models when they incorporate Problem Solving and Instructional Support Teams. In its reauthorization, IDEA should encourage states and districts to expand the use of noncategorical models.  This would reduce the considerable amount of professional time that is unproductively spent on efforts to apply specific eligibility criteria to LD and other high incidence disabilities, and redirect these precious resources to educational outcomes. Further, funding should be available (through a grant process) to encourage evaluation of noncategorical models.

Other Points of Concern

Personnel preparation is another area of critical importance that deserves greater federal investment and attention.  The shortage of special education teachers is only one symptom of the personnel shortage problem.  Incentives must be offered to assist in recruitment and retention of special educators and related services personnel, such as school psychologists.  Furthermore, ongoing professional development is crucial for these professionals, as well as general educators and administrators.  An effective IEP has limited value if the general education teacher does not understand the types of modifications or accommodations that should be made, or how to make them, or the types of behavioral interventions that can be used to strengthen classroom management.

According to our members, one of the most beneficial aspects of the 1997 reauthorization is the flexibility to waive the formal requirement for triennial evaluations when "no new data are needed."  Often a student does not require formal collection of new information because existing data and careful review of the IEP provide adequate documentation of disability, current progress and ongoing needs for service.   At any point when concerns about progress or placement arise, or at transition points, such as moving into middle school or high school, teams should consider the need for gathering new and more formal data in order to determine the most appropriate services to insure continued progress and development.

Another benefit of IDEA mentioned by our members is the increased involvement of parents.  All interventions are more successful with the active support of the student’s parents.  School psychologists can and do play an important role in explaining the nature of a disability to parents and the expectations for particular services.  They can also strengthen the trust between parents and schools.  However, a greater effort needs to be taken to ensure parents understand the documents and procedures that are involved in the process. 

To ensure adequate resources for effective implementation of the law, NASP supports full funding of Part B of the IDEA, as well as significant increases in funding for Part C and the Preschool program.  In addition, Part D personnel preparation grants, which have been cut or level-funded over the last five fiscal years, should be increased.  Personnel preparation grants are crucial to ensuring an adequate supply of qualified, trained related services personnel and to reducing excessively high caseloads and staff-student ratios.

Finally, NASP strongly supports the Administration’s focus on promoting greater accountability for education spending that ensures maximum focus on academic achievement.  However, we assert that recognition of student well-being has a dramatic impact on student achievement.  By addressing mental health and behavioral needs, removing barriers to learning, and enhancing classroom management, the provision of mental health services will result in higher graduation rates and improved educational performance – not to mention social and safety outcomes. 

Again, thank you for the opportunity to share our thoughts with you today.  We look forward to working with you throughout the reauthorization process and will be providing more specific recommendations in the near future.

Submitted by,

Susan Gorin, CAE  Libby Kuffner Nealis, MSSW
Executive Director  Director of Public Policy