4 Assessment Practices for Special Populations to Address Backlogs and Burnouts

Key Points

  • Assessments for special education came to a halt when the pandemic struck and didn’t resume until several months later.

  • Implementing best practices can help practitioners take a more strategic approach to address the backlog of assessments. 

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By: Dr. Geremy Grant

When the fall 2021 school year began, we hoped to regain some normalcy and address the learning needs that emerged from remote and hybrid learning in the years before. However, within a few months, we were faced with further upheaval as the Delta and Omicron variants of COVID-19 quickly spread. A high percentage of students and staff testing positive and going into quarantine further hindered in-person learning.

The constant uncertainty has been weighing heavily on education professionals. About 40% of those working in K-12 education have considered changing jobs because of anxiety, stress, depression and burnout resulting from the pandemic, the National Education Association noted. But what may not be as apparent is the impact on clinical practitioners who work in the schools. A 2021 American Psychological Association survey found that 46% of practitioners felt burnout, and more than half have sought support to manage it.

The increasing backlog of assessments for students who may qualify for special services is, perhaps, one of the greatest sources of stress for school clinical practitioners, who spend almost 60% of their time assessing and serving students with special needs.

It’s a nationwide problem, as these assessments for special education virtually came to a halt when the pandemic struck in March 2020, and didn’t resume until several months later. About 73% of school districts noted that the pandemic has made it more challenging to accommodate students with disabilities, according to the American Institutes for Research. So it’s not surprising that tens of thousands of students in Boston, Austin and virtually every school district around the country have been in limbo, waiting inordinately long times for assessments and the steps that should follow.

While the uncertainty about whether in-person school is happening factors into these delays, there is also a lack of communication and advance notice between the schools and clinical practitioners, who may be prevented from doing assessments on the days they planned because of in-school priorities. Not to mention, some districts will not allow remote testing, which eliminates one of the ways the backlog could be addressed.

So, how can clinical practitioners ensure that students are getting the assessments they need in a timely manner, while addressing their own struggles with the current educational environment? Here are four best practices that can help efficiently and effectively reduce the backlog of assessments, easing stress on practitioners and putting students on the right path:

The increasing backlog of assessments for students who may qualify for special services is, perhaps, one of the greatest sources of stress for school clinical practitioners.

Dr. Geremy Grant

1. Consider a selective testing model based on the referral concern – Due to time constraints, practitioners may opt to give the same battery of tests to each student who has been referred for assessment, rather than being targeted in their test selection. Consider being selective by focusing on specific tests that address the referral concerns. For example, if a student presents with, and only has a history of, difficulties in reading, it may not be required to administer all of the math-related assessments. Time needed to test is particularly important if access to each student is limited to only a couple of periods during the school day, and the clinical practitioner is assigned to multiple schools.

2. Focus on a core selective evaluation process – Practitioners are tasked with sifting through large amounts of data and analyzing it  to determine a student’s needs. Often, patterns emerge early in testing that can be used to better guide further assessment. Some test batteries have “core tests” that can be administered to inform an initial investigation of a student’s strengths and weaknesses. Then, more selective testing can be done based on performance on those core measures and the referral concerns. Being deliberate in test selection ensures that the most crucial data is derived for review purposes.

3. Apply a triage method to prioritize assessments and reduce risk of burnout – Every student is on a different timeline. Based on the IDEA, initial assessments must be done within 60 days from the date a parent submits a formal written request, unless the state has its own established timeline. It is recommended that practitioners check with the Division of Special Education in their State’s Department of Education or Public Instruction to find out the timeline they must adhere to. Those who receive special services must complete a triennial evaluation no later than three years from their last evaluation. Practitioners may benefit from developing a spreadsheet to organize students’ timelines. One scheduling strategy could involve focusing on completing the initial assessments first, while sprinkling in the triennial re-evaluations to ensure students’ needs are met in a legal and timely manner.

4. Seek opportunities for collaboration and professional development Practitioners are strongly encouraged to seek opportunities for collaboration with colleagues and peers. Collaboration lends itself to continued learning regarding the latest advancements in assessment, and useful strategies those in the field are using to manage their caseloads. Many test publishers and national associations, such as the American Psychological Association (APA), National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) and  National Education Association (NEA), offer clinical professional development that can serve to enhance a practitioner’s skills.

The pandemic will continue to present challenges for the education community, particularly clinical practitioners who are charged with evaluating special needs students. These tips can help practitioners take a more strategic approach to addressing the backlog of assessments, reducing the additional stress they’ve been under for the past two years and ensuring that students have timely access to the services they need.

Dr. Geremy Grant is a clinical assessment support expert at Riverside Insights. Geremy is a Nationally Certified School Psychologist with a Doctorate in School Psychology from Teachers College, Columbia University. Geremy has spent the last several years training in both educational and clinical settings. He most recently completed his clinical postdoctoral fellowship at Middlesex Health and is eligible for licensure as a Psychologist.

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