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Special education programs in the United States were made mandatory in 1975 when the United States Congress passed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA) in response to discriminatory treatment by public educational agencies against students with disabilities. The EHA was later modified to strengthen protections to people with disabilities and renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The IDEA is found in Title 20 of the United States Code, starting at section 1400.

The two most basic rights ensured by the IDEA is that every student is entitled to a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment (LRE). To ensure a FAPE, a team of professionals from the local educational agency (ie public school) and parents meet to determine the student's unique educational needs, develop annual goals for the student, and determine the placement, program modification, testing accommodations, counseling, and other special services that the student needs through the development of an Individualized Education Program (IEP). The educational agency (ie school) is required to develop and implement an IEP that meets the standards of federal and state educational agencies.

Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE)[]

For more details on this topic, see Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE).

Generally speaking, a Free Appropriate Public Education is one which:

  • costs the parents of a disabled student the same as what parents of nondisabled students pay,
  • results in a reasonable level of educational benefit for each individual, and
  • allows the student to attend a government-run school.

Least Restrictive Environment[]

For more details on this topic, see Least Restrictive Environment.

The LRE mandate requires that all students' educations be with their nondisabled peers to the greatest extent possible, while still providing FAPE. The LRE requirement is intended to prevent unnecessary segregation of students with disabilities, and is based on Congress' finding that over twenty years of research and experience demonstrates that education of students with disabilities is more effective by having high expectations of the students and ensuring their access to the general curriculum to the maximum extent possible.

Related services[]

Some special education services (such as speech and language therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy, etc) may be provided within the mainstream class (i.e. inclusion) or in a separate classroom if this is decided to be the LRE. Students receive individualized services to meet their goals, and these services are outlined in each child's IEP. Special equipment may be used, such as a standing frame, to encourage inclusion and achieve multiple IEP goals at once (i.e. standing while working on speech). A transition plan is also an important part of Special Education students' schooling process, which focused on their life after school, and is first developed starting at age 16. The transition plan focuses on the learner's goals for the future, addressing living and employment.

Placement and inclusion[]

For more details on this topic, see Inclusive classroom.

Most educators also believe that children with disabilities and nondisabled children should be taught together whenever possible. Isolating children with disabilities may lower their self-esteem and may reduce their ability to deal with other people.[How to reference and link to summary or text] The practice of integrating children with disabilities into regular school programs is called mainstreaming, or inclusion. Students with disabilities attend special classrooms or schools only if their need for very specialized services makes mainstreaming impossible. Many children with disabilities attend regular classes most of the school day: They work with a specially trained teacher for part of each day to improve specific skills. These sessions may be held in a classroom called a resource room, which may be equipped with such materials as braille typewriters and relief maps for blind students. Other students with disabilities attend special classes most of the day but join the rest of the children for certain activities. For example, students with mental retardation (MR) may join other children who do not have MR for art and physical education.

Although the place where instruction occurs (the setting) is seen as important in the field of special education, the types of curricular modifications and interventions may be a more important area to focus on in the future. Special education programming is influenced by behaviorism to a larger extent than general education.[How to reference and link to summary or text]

History of special education in the US[]

Until the passage of PL-142 in 1975, American schools educated only 1 out of 5 children with disabilities. More than 1 million students were refused access to public schools and another 3.5 million received little or no effective instruction. Many states had laws that explicitly excluded children with certain types of disabilities, including children who were blind, deaf, and children labeled "emotionally disturbed" or "mentally retarded." [1]

In the 1950s and 1960s, family associations began forming and advocating for the rights of children with disabilities. In response, the Federal government began to allocate funds to develop methods of working with children with disabilities and passed several pieces of legislation that supported developing and implementing programs and services to meet their needs and those of their families. Two laws provided training for professionals and teachers who worked with students with mental retardation ( PL 85-926 in 1958 and PL 86-158 in 1959). In 1961, the Teachers of the Deaf Act (PL 87-276) provided for training of teachers to work with the deaf or hard of hearing. In 1965, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (PL 89-10) and the State Schools Act (PL 89-313) granted funds to states to help educate children with disabilities. In 1968, the Handicapped Children’s Early Education Assistance Act of 1968 (PL 90-538) funded early childhood intervention for children with disabilities. Several landmark court decisions established the responsibility of states to educate children with disabilities (in particular, Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Citizens v. Commonwealth (1971) and Mills v. Board of Education of the District of Columbia (1972)). [2]

Rehabilitation Act of 1973[]

Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act guaranteed civil rights for the disabled in the context of federally funded institutions or any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance. It required accommodations in affected schools for the disabled including access to buildings and structures and improved integration into society.

Education for All Handicapped Children's Act of 1975[]

In 1975, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA) Public Law 94-142 established the right of children with disabilities to receive a free, appropriate public education and provided funds to enable state and local education agencies to comply with the new requirements. The act stated that its purpose was fourfold:

  • To assure that all children with disabilities receive a free appropriate public education emphasizing special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs
  • To protect the rights of children with disabilities and their parents
  • To help state and local education agencies provide for the education of all children with disabilities
  • To assess and assure the effectiveness of efforts to educate all children with disabilities [3]

In 1986 EHA was reauthorized as PL 99-457, additionally covering infants and toddlers below age 2 with disabilities, and providing for associated Individual Family Service Plans (IFSP), prepared documents to ensure individualized special service delivery to families of respective infants and toddlers.

Americans with Disabilities Act[]

Providing Americans with disabilities similar protections against discrimination against as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) barred discrimination in employment (Title 1), public services and transportation (Title 2) public accommodations (Title 3), telecommunications (Title 4) and miscellaneous provisions (Title 5). It was a great step in normalizing the lives of the disabled. Title 3 prohibited disability based discrimination in any place of public accommodation with regard to full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, or accommodations. Public accommodations included most places of education.

EHA becomes IDEA[]

In 1990 EHA's name was changed to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) PL-101-476. It added individualized transition plans (ITP) for transitioning individuals from secondary school to adult life or post secondary education. Special education coverage was extended to the categories of autism and traumatic brain injury (TBI). In 1997 IDEA was reauthorized as PL 105-17 and extended coverage to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), functional behavioral assessments and intervention plans were added, and the ITP's were integrated within IEP's. An additional reauthorization was made in 2004 (below).

No Child Left Behind[]

For more details on this topic, see No Child Left Behind Act.

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 2001 (ESEA) PL 107-110, more popularly known as the No Child Left Behind Act required accountability for the academic performance of all school children, including those with disabilities. It called for 100% proficiency in reading and math by the year 2012.

The Assistive Technology Act of 2004 (ATA) PL 108-364 provided support for school-to-work transition projects and created loan programs for the purchase of assistive technology (AT) devices.

The 2004 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act reauthorization PL 108-446 changed learning disability identification procedures, required high qualification standards for special education teachers, stipulated that all students with disabilities participate in annual state or district testing or documented alternate assessments, and allowed in response to activities related to weapons, drugs or violence that a student could be placed in interim alternative educational setting.

Some student disability protections not covered by IDEA may be still covered under Section 504 or ADA due to a broader definitions of what constitutes a disability.

Qualifying students for special education[]

The referral[]

Parents who suspect or know that their child has a problem making adequate school progress should request an evaluation from their local school district. The request, called a "referral for evaluation," should be initiated in writing. The referral should be addressed to the principal of the local public school or the special education coordinator for the district, and should provide the child's name, date of birth, address, current school placement (if applicable), and the suspected area of disability or special need. Upon receipt of the referral, the school district will contact the parent to set up a meeting time in order to explain the process and obtain written consent to perform the necessary evaluations. To prepare for this meeting, parents should be able to describe their child's problems in depth, providing examples of their child's difficulties in the classroom. Parents can request any evaluations they feel are needed to add to the picture of the child's specific educational needs, such as speech and language testing, occupational therapy testing or neurological testing. All evaluations needed to provide a full picture of the child's disabilities must be provided by the school system at no cost to the family.[4]

The evaluation[]

After the referral process, the district will begin the evaluation. The law requires a comprehensive school evaluation involving all areas of suspected disability. Testing must be in the native language of the child (if feasible). It must be administered by a team of professionals, which must include at least one teacher and a specialist who is knowledgeable in the area of the child's disability. Testing must be administered one-to-one, not in a group. Any tests or other evaluation materials used must be administered by professionals trained and qualified to administer them; i.e., psychological testing must be conducted by a psychologist trained to administer the specific tests utilized. In addition to testing, an observation of the child either in school or in a comparable situation is required for an initial evaluation, and often at later stages as well. It is through the observation that the child can be assessed while interacting with his peers and teachers. To insure objectivity and cross-referencing, this observation must be conducted by a person other than the child's classroom teacher. The observation need not be done exclusively in the child's classroom, especially when the child's suspected area of disability may become manifest in larger settings, such as the lunchroom, hallways or gym. For children over twelve years of age, vocational testing is required. This requirement is in keeping with the spirit of the IDEA 1997 Amendments that encourage preparation of children for useful employment. The vocational testing should identify areas of interest and skills needed to attain employment after graduation from school. During the testing process, the parent is free to provide any privately obtained evaluative material and reports. Although sometimes costly, private evaluations can be very valuable in providing the Special Education Committee with the expertise of specialists trained in the area of the child's disability who may have a more objective view than school system personnel. Experts may include professionals such as psychotherapists, psychiatrists, neurologists, pediatricians, medical personnel, and tutors. Professionals who have been working with the child over time can often provide the district with a long-term view of the child's needs.[5]


Once all the evaluative material is presented and reviewed at the meeting, the IEP team must first determine whether the child is eligible for special education services. An eligible child will require special education intervention in order to enable him/her to receive the benefits of instruction and an education. If the team finds the child eligible for special education, they must then classify the child. The classifications include:

The IDEA allows, but does not require, school districts to add the classifications of Attention- Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD) at their discretion.[6]

Developing the Individual Education Program (IEP)[]

For more details on this topic, see Individualized Education Program.

The Individual Education Program is developed by a team (sometimes referred to as the Committee on Special Education) that must include:

  • A representative of the school district (not the child's teacher) who is qualified to provide or supervise special education.
  • The child's teacher(s). If the child is in a general education class and receives special education services as well, both teachers are required to attend.
  • If the program to be recommended includes activities with general education students, even if the child is in a special education class in the school, a general education teacher is required to attend.
  • One or both of the child's parents. Consistent with the IDEA's stated policy, parents should expect to be treated as equal participants with school personnel in developing the IEP.
  • The child should attend the meeting whenever the parents think it is appropriate.
  • Professionals who are qualified to explain the results of the testing. Usually this requires at least the presence of a psychologist and educational evaluator.
  • Parents may bring with them any others involved with the child who they feel are important for the IEP team to hear; for example, the child's psychologist or tutor.
  • Parents may elect to bring an educational advocate and/or lawyer knowledgeable in the IEP process.
  • Although not required, if the child is receiving related services (such as speech therapy or occupational therapy), it is valuable for related service personnel to attend the meeting or at least provide written recommendations concerning the services in their area of specialty .
  • In some localities additional members are required. For example, New York State requires the presence of a parent member. A parent member is the parent of a child with a disability (not the parent of the child for whom the IEP is being developed) who has had special training in the workings of the IEP process.

Parents must be notified of the meeting in writing. The notification must indicate the purpose, time and location of the meeting and list the people who will be in attendance, including the name and position of each person. If parents are unable to attend at the appointed time, the meeting should be rescheduled to accommodate the needs of the family.[7]

The Individual Education Program[]

The IEP must include:

  • A statement of the child's present levels of educational performance, which describes the effects of the child's disability on all affected areas of the child's academic and non-academic school performance.
  • A statement of annual goals including short-term objectives. Annual goals must describe what the child is expected to accomplish in a 12-month period in the special education program. Short-term objectives should describe the steps required to achieve the goals. Goals and objectives are specific in all areas in which the child is receiving special education services.
  • A statement of the specific special education and related services to be provided to the child and the extent to which the child will participate in regular education programs .
  • The projected dates for the initiation of services.

Determining the appropriate placement[]

After the IEP meeting the parents must be given written notice of exactly where and how the services will be provided for their child. Most often, the suggested program will be located within the public school system in the district. When a student's disability is such that his or her needs cannot be met in the district, the school district may suggest a placement in an out-of-district program. These programs can include a Day Treatment Program, a Non-public Special Education School, a Residential School or Home Instruction. In all cases, parents should visit the sites that are recommended to observe the program to determine if the program is appropriate for their child.[8]

Procedural safeguards[]

  • Notice of procedural safeguards
Required content
  • Parental participation in process
Right to participate in all meetings, including identification, evaluation, placement, and all discussions regarding the educational plan.
  • Parent right to review all educational records
  • Parent right to an independent evaluation
  • Prior written notice
Prior written notice when a school proposes to initiate a service, conduct an evaluation, change a placement, or modify an IEP; or when the school refuses to provide a parent-requested service, identificaiton, evaluation or change of placement or IEP
Content of prior written notice
  • Right to submit a complaint to SEA
  • Mediation
Voluntary mediation to be provided by SEA at no cost to parents
  • Impartial due process hearing

Impartial hearing/mediation[]

Parents may disagree with the program recommendation of the school district. In that event, parents may reject the district's recommendations by notifying the school district in a clear and concise manner of the reasons for the rejection of the IEP recommendation. This notice must be given in writing within 30 days of receipt of the program recommendation.

The IDEA provides for two methods of resolving disputes between parents and school districts. These include:

1. Mediation that may be a viable means to review small disagreements with the IEP, such as the number of sessions for a related service or the size of a special education class.

2. Impartial Hearing which is a due process-based formal proceeding that allows the parents to challenge the district's individual education plan in whole or in part.[9]

Student conduct and discipline[]

A student that has engaged in behavior that is in violating of student conduct codes that is punished with a suspension or change in placement exceeding 10 days must be given a Manifestation Determination Hearing.


For more details on this topic, see Psychoeducational assessment.

Tests of general intelligence[]

Reading tests[]

Gray Oral Reading Diagnostic Test (GORT)[How to reference and link to summary or text]

The Gray Oral Reading Test is a norm-referenced, individually administered test for readers ages six to eighteen. It takes 15-45 minutes to administer. Its purpose is to identify students who need help with oral reading and to identify their strengths and weaknesses. It is also used to document progress and for research purposes. The student is asked to read aloud for one minute and the administrator tracks errors, after which the student answers five multiple-choice comprehension questions. Mean standard score is 100, with a norm sample representative of the US school-aged population. It is considered reliable both for internal consistency and test-retest.

Woodcock diagnostic Reading Battery (WDRB)[How to reference and link to summary or text]

The Woodcock Reading Mastery Test is a norm-referenced test applicable to readers in kindergarten through age 75. It consists of six individually administered tests to identify strengths and weaknesses in visual-auditory learning, letter identification, word identification, word attack skills, word comprehension, and passage comprehension. during the test, the reader must pronounce words in isolation, read nonsense words, identify synonyms, antonyms, and analogies. The scores from these sub-tests are almost always clustered to derive basic skills or comprehension scores. The norm sample is representative of US School-aged population and the test is reliable for internal consistency with ranges from .8 upward, with most .9 or above.

Stanford Diagnostic Reading Test(SDRT)

The Stanford Diagnostic Test is a group-administered measure of phonetic analysis, vocabulary, comprehension, and scanning. It is given to readers grades 1.5 through 13. It takes 15 to 45 minutes to administer. The scores can be transformed into progress indicators, percentile ranks, stanines, grade equivalents, and scaled scores. Norm-referenced scores can be used to identify weaknesses and strengths, evaluate progress, and identify trends and class, school, and district levels. The test is norm-referenced to represent US school-aged population. It is considered reliable for both internal consistency and alternate form, making it sufficient for making decisions about individual students.


The STAR (Standardized Test of for the Assessment of Reading)is a criterion-based test, not a norm-based test. It is used to provide instructional reading levels for individual students for the purpose of planning initial instruction. During the test, the student will identify correct word choices to place in a sentence with a missing word. The choice must have both the correct meaning and be correct syntactically. Its reliability for instructional reading level ranges from .79 to .91 It comes on software and can produce immediate scores.

See also[]


  1. Back to School on Civil Rights: Advancing the Federal Commitment to Leave No Child Behind," a report published by the National Council on Disability on January 25, 2000.
  3. Education for All Handicapped Children’s Act of 1975
  4. Understanding Special Education and the Law; The referral; URL accessed March 24, 2006.
  5. Understanding Special Education and the Law; The Evaluation; URL accessed March 24, 2006.
  6. Understanding Special Education and the Law; Classification; URL accessed March 27, 2006.
  7. Understanding Special Education and the Law; The IEP; URL accessed March 27, 2006.
  8. Understanding Special Education and the Law; The Individual Education Program; URL accessed March 27, 2006.
  9. Understanding Special Education and the Law; Impartial hearing/mediation; URL accessed March 27, 2006.
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