Tennessee's new Special Education Standards reflect PALS input

Shortly after PALS launched last year, Executive Director Anna Caudill attended a Proposed Rulemaking Hearing in Nashville. Hosted by the Tennessee Department of Education (TDOE) and the State Board of Education, the hearing sought feedback on proposed changes to the State’s Special Education Standards. More than 80% of the organizations and parents in attendance represented Gifted and Talented students. PALS was the only participating organization that spoke on behalf of students adopted internationally!

After hearing input from a variety of sources and undergoing further revision, TDOE released its new Standards for Special Education Evaluation and Eligibility, which went into effect July 1, 2017, for the new school year.

PALS is pleased to report that of five recommended changes to advance the education rights of children adopted internationally, TDOE implemented THREE! Specifically, the new Standards for “Functional Delay,” “Emotional Disturbance,” and “Specific Learning Disability” reflect changes recommended by PALS. PALS will continue to advocate for State guidance concerning the unique language acquisition needs of adoptees as well as stronger support for those international adoptees with language impairment. Caudill notes, “This is great news for adoptive families! These new standards represent crucial advancement of the civil rights of thousands of Tennessee’s internationally adopted children.”

The Details

So, what were those three areas that changed for the good of children adopted internationally?

*Functional Delay

For students diagnosed with “Functional Delay,” PALS joined other disability rights organizations in asking TDOE to replace “Mental Retardation” terminology with “Intellectual Disability.” TDOE made this change! While seemingly minor, the change reflects the evolution in diagnosis from being merely a reflection of an IQ below 70, or a cognitive deficit, to include the broader learning processes and functional capacities in daily life. Congress made the change in terminology in 2010 with “Rosa’s Law,” and it was supported further by the Social Security Administration in 2013. In Tennessee schools, the change in terminology allows schools to support students’ functional needs in the school setting, in addition to their academic needs.

*Emotional Disturbance

PALS requested that TDOE amend its definition of students diagnosed with “Emotional Disturbance” (ED). TDOE defined ED somewhat narrowly, indicating that students affected must have “Inability to learn which cannot be explained by limited school experience, cultural differences, or intellectual, sensory, or health factors” among other considerations. PALS cautioned that using limited school experience and cultural differences to curb services might automatically discriminate against children adopted internationally, who typically have little to no access to school prior to adoption and whose ED often directly results from spending critical developmental years in institutionalized settings, such as orphanages and medical group homes. TDOE removed “limited school experience” and “cultural differences” from its final language, protecting adoptees and affording them access to greater behavioral supports at school!

This is tremendous in keeping adoptees safe! It means that your child's trauma background and resulting behaviors can't be dismissed by your school saying, "She was in an orphanage and didn't get to school much, so this isn't Emotional Disturbance--she just needs time to acclimate." This news should encourage parents to request Functional Behavior Assessment and evaluation for Emotional Disturbance when their children are facing trauma-based behavioral issues!


*Specific Learning Disability (SLD)

PALS strongly affirmed TDOE’s changes to “Specific Learning Disability.” When Response to Intervention (RTI) was introduced, TDOE required intervention in all tiers of a student’s deficit area before eligibility determination. This could take months, causing a student to fall behind. This language was removed in the proposed revisions. Equally significant for adoptees is the change in an evaluation’s scope. Under 2014 standards, a child was often assessed only in the “area of suspected disability,” meaning that if a parent or teacher was concerned about a student’s reading, the evaluation was limited to reading. The federal Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act indicates that evaluations should broadly assess ALL areas, whether they are usually linked to a suspected disability or not. So a thorough evaluation of a kid who might have a reading disability could potentially turn up other issues requiring special instruction and related services.

This is wonderful news for students adopted internationally. Now, if a parent requests an evaluation for her child, TDOE supports the school’s compliance with IDEA in allowing the school to do a thorough evaluation of all areas the first time. In Tennessee, a school has 60 calendar days to complete an evaluation—the change means a student isn’t stuck waiting 60 + 60 + 60 days for separate assessments in individually requested areas! This prevents adoptees from falling behind rapidly in their first year of school post-adoption.





Anna Caudill