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Grades don’t tell the whole story about a student’s “educational performance”

It’s hard to believe, but the school year is halfway over. In that time, students have received multiple grades in their classes. What do grades convey to parents or guardians, and how can they respond? The answers may surprise you. 

Low grades can be a symptom of an underlying disability  

A low grade—especially if unexpected—could signal that a student is struggling and needs help. That’s especially true if the student’s lack of effort is excluded as a leading cause for the low grade. There are a host of reasons that a child may be struggling that range from physical impairments (like suffering from poor hearing or eyesight) to intellectual or learning disabilities that impair the student’s ability to learn, understand, or perform in an academic setting. And a child’s struggle might not broadly apply to school in general but could be focused in one discipline like math, reading, writing, or speech.  

But how is a parent supposed to figure out what is impacting their child? The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires each school district to search for students who might benefit from special-education services and to conduct initial evaluations (with consent of the student’s parent/guardian). As discussed below, any parent or guardian may request that the school district conduct an initial evaluation of their child to see if they could benefit from special education or related services.   

“Good” grades don’t necessarily preclude services  

It is a common misconception that a student who has good grades is not in need of special education or related services. See, e.g., G.D. ex rel. G.D. v. Wissahickon Sch. Dist., 832 F. Supp. 2d 455, 466 (E.D. Pa. 2011) (“[A]cademic progress alone cannot serve as the sole ‘litmus test’ for eligibility.” (citing W. Chester Area Sch. Dist. v. Bruce C., 194 F. Supp. 2d 417, 421 (E.D. 2002))); S.H. v. Keystone Central Sch. Dist., ODR No. 25032-20-21, at 25 (Pa. ODR May 13, 2022) (“Districts should not rely on grades alone or subjective observations when weighing if a student’s condition substantially limits a student’s educational performance.”). And for students receiving special-education services, courts should not equate grades earned in special-education classes with those earned in mainstream classes. D.S. v. Bayonne Bd. of Educ., 602 F.3d 553 (3d Cir. 2010).  

The reason that grades, or any other indicator of academic performance, do not by themselves determine whether a student requires special education (or related services) is because federal law requires that a student’s education include more than academics. I.T. v. 21st Century Cyber Charter Sch., ODR No. 22521-19-20, at 23 n.9 (Pa,. ODR Apr. 2, 2021) (“Hearing officers and courts interpret ‘educational performance’ to go beyond grades.” (citing W.H. Clovis Unified Sch. Dist., 52 IDELR 258 (E.D. Cal. 2009))). Indeed, good grades can sometimes mask a student’s disability and struggles that have not yet caused a dip in their grades.   

For example, a child who has an inability to build and maintain interpersonal relationships, exhibits inappropriate behavior or feelings under normal circumstances, has a general or pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression, or tends to develop physical symptoms or fears may be deemed to have a “serious emotional disturbance” warranting special education.  

Any parent can request an evaluation  

Though school districts have the responsibility to evaluate children with suspected disabilities, parents and guardians do not have to wait for the school district. Parents and guardians have the right to request that the district evaluate their child for a disability. The district must grant that request unless the district believes that the child does not have any disability. Because the evaluation process can take weeks, parents and guardians should not delay in making a request for an evaluation, and to do so in writing (email is sufficient).  

The purpose of an evaluation is to determine whether a child has a disability (specifically, one covered under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act). An initial evaluation is not conditioned upon a child being diagnosed with a disability: the law requires districts to evaluate children “who are suspected of [having] . . . a disability.” 34 C.F.R. § 300.111(c)(1) (emphasis added). This is true even if the child is “advancing from grade to grade.” Id. 

As discussed above, grades (particularly, surprisingly low grades) can be a sign that a child may have a disability that impairs their educational performance. There are other clues for parents and guardians to watch for.   

If any of the following circumstances apply, a student may have a disability;  

  • The parent does not believe that their child is developing (i.e. reaching developmental milestones) at a reasonable pace, especially when compared to their peers; 
  • The child has not been progressing as much as the parent believes they should be; 
  • The child does not appear to be learning; 
  • The child has trouble independently processing information; 
  • The child has trouble concentrating in school; 
  • The child consistently has difficulty completing homework on their own or without supervision; 
  • The child suffers from memory loss, whether short- or long-term; 
  • The child excels in reading but significantly struggles with math; 
  • The child excels in math but significantly struggles with reading; 
  • The child has difficulty with oral or written communication; 
  • The child is dealing with the effects of trauma (whether physical or otherwise); 
  • The child displays symptoms of a mental illness like anxiety or depression, which can present by the child crying, constantly worrying or having negative thoughts, quickly becoming angry, not eating, not sleeping, or expressing hopelessness; or 
  • The parent believes that something is “wrong” or “off” or that the child isn’t acting like themselves.

That last bullet point warrants repeating. Parents know their children best. Any parent who believes that their child is not acting themselves, or is struggling, should not delay in seeking an evaluation from their school district.  

Request an evaluation in writing 

There is not a standardized form to request an evaluation, so parents can do so in a way that works best for them. Though a parent could make the request orally, it would be better to do so in writing (email is sufficient) to create a written record.   

Parents should address their written request to the child’s school principal, teacher, or district special-education coordinator. The request for an evaluation should include the following elements, making clear that the parent is requesting that their child be evaluated for special-education purposes and the basis for the request:   

  • The date of the request; 
  • The child’s name and student ID number; 
  • The parent’s relationship to the child; 
  • The parent’s contact information; 
  • The parent’s concerns about the child’s educational performance, including examples; 
  • Information about any pertinent medical conditions or diagnoses; 
  • Any other information that the parent would like the school to consider; and 
  • A request that the school respond to the request for an evaluation, in writing, within 10 days.

A school has one of two options: either the school can agree to an evaluation, or it can reject the request. If the school rejects the request, it must provide the requester with a written explanation of why the school believes that an evaluation is not necessary, responding to the specific concerns that were raised in the request.  

There is one caveat. In agreeing to evaluate a child, the school might not agree with the precise disability (or disabilities) cited in the request. For instance, if the parent or guardian sought an evaluation for attention hyperactivity deficit disorder (ADHD), the school may decline that request but agree to evaluate the child for another learning disability. As with a categorical refusal, the school would be required to explain in writing its reasoning for its decision. 

If a parent is dissatisfied with the school’s response, that parent can challenge the district’s decision by filing a due-process complaint. Doing so will force the district to defend its decision in front of a neutral hearing officer while giving the parent the chance to present evidence of why the district erred in refusing to evaluate the child.  

There is still a lot of school year left. Parents who are concerned about their child’s academic progress, regardless of grades, should speak up. And, if appropriate, parents should request that their child be evaluated by the school district for any disability that may be affecting the child’s educational performance. Doing so is a first, but critical, step in helping each child get the education they deserve to allow them to reach their highest potential.  

Cory S. Winter is the owner of Winter Law Firm LLC, where he regularly represents families and students in special education cases. In addition, he represents businesses and their owners and leaders in resolving legal disputes. He can be reached at 



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