Ethics Cases and Support

MAY 2023 Topic

Legal case study: How might the 3 Prongs of Special Education impact a court ruling?


Like most cases, the biggest issue to this court hearing is Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). Specifically in this 2017 case, parents questioned if their student received FAPE during his preschool year, despite an Early Childhood evaluation determining that the student did not meet criteria for Developmental Delay (DD). However, this layered case study considers other factors critical to eligibility determinations. It has it all (cue the action movie music): considerations of FAPE, discussion about the comprehensiveness of Early Childhood evaluations, the importance of the 3 Prongs of Special Education, and it explores who is an expert in a lawsuit. 

Key Terms Related to this Case 

  • 3 Prongs of Special Education: 1) The student met criteria for a disability, 2) The disability adversely affects education, and 3) The student demonstrates a need for individualized services 
  • Determination of Eligibility: Section 300.306: Part C: 
    • Procedures for determining eligibility and educational need. “… Each public agency must draw upon information from a variety of sources, including aptitude and achievement tests, parent input, and teacher recommendations, as well as information about the child’s physical condition, social or cultural background, and adaptive behavior…” 
  • Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE): Section 300.101 

McLean et al vs. District of Columbia, 2017 

A student participated in an Early Childhood evaluation at age 5 where the student was determined to not qualify for DD. However, the following year at age 6, a psychologist in the community completed an evaluation and diagnosed the student with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD). The student transitioned to a new school (also age 6), and he was referred by his teacher for a Special Education evaluation. The re-evaluation determined that the student met criteria for Other Health Impairment (OHI) and a Specific Learning Disability (SLD). 

Concerned about the possible loss of education during preschool, the parents filed for a due process hearing against the Early Childhood agency. They argued that the initial evaluation did fully capture the student’s needs. According to the court hearing, there were 2 critical missing pieces to the initial evaluation: teacher input and classroom observations. Thus, the student’s initial evaluation was incomplete and the parents argued that this issue led to a denial of FAPE. The looming questions of this case seemed to be: 1) Would the student have met criteria for Special Education services at the initial evaluation with a more comprehensive evaluation? 2) Did the student need special education services to be successful, via the 3 Prongs of Special Education? 

The initial evaluation included several assessment materials explicitly described in the court hearing, including the Ages and Stages Questionnaire and the Young Children’s Achievement Test (YCAT). The Ages and Stages Questionnaire is a rating scale that assesses 5 areas of development: Communication, Gross Motor, Fine Motor, Problem Solving, and Personal Social. The YCAT is a measure that provides standardized scores about a student’s language, general knowledge, math, reading, and writing. According to the court hearing documents, it is presumed that the Ages and Stages Questionnaire was completed by a parent rater, but not a teacher. Note: the editions of these measures were not disclosed in the court hearing. 

Two expert witnesses testified in court to help address concerns and reviewed the educational evaluations. One witness was a psychologist from the community described as an expert in school psychology (Expert A) and the other witness was a psychologist in the community without any specific educational background (Expert B). Expert A and Expert B both agreed that the initial evaluation lacked teacher input and classroom based observations. The experts wondered if these limitations discredited the evaluation findings. Expert A and Expert B also agreed that that re-evaluation was sufficient, that the student met criteria for OHI and SLD, and that the student was in need of an Individualized Education Plan. 

 The initial evaluation likely had enough information to consider the 3 Prongs of Special Education and the 2 experts had differing opinions. Expert A argued that the student did not demonstrate a need for Special Education services. The student’s YCAT results showed academic scores in the Below Average and Average range, which Expert A described as mostly comparable with same-aged peers. Further, the student’s report card indicated that the student’s behavior was comparable to peers and that the majority of the individual behavior items were “meeting expectations.” The one social emotional item on the report card that was rated lower was sufficiently supported through assistance when solving peer conflicts. 

On the other hand, Expert B argued that an IEP was necessary to address social emotional concerns observed in preschool, and that it was inappropriate to deny a student extra help if necessary. Expert B agreed with the ADHD diagnosis. Expert B also argued that if the student had an IEP during preschool, the student would presently be “approaching grade level in both reading and math…” and he would have a “reduction in behavior referrals.” Expert B argued that “(the student) is normal achievement wise, which is not that hard to do,” which led to consideration if the YCAT scores were a valid indicator of academic skills. 

Court Ruling. The court ruled in favor of the Early Childhood agency and determined that the student did not demonstrate a need for Special Education services at the time of the evaluation. Therefore, compensatory educational services were not recommended to the parents. The court also highlighted the importance of teacher input and observations for a comprehensive educational evaluation. But, the parents disagreed with this outcome, and stated that the hearing officer did not sufficiently document or account for Expert B’s testimony. Plot twist! The court ruling ends with recommendations to re-open the case and provide further consideration about if the student’s ADHD could have affected his learning during the time of the initial evaluation. There was no other related court rulings or information about the follow up of this case to provide in this legal case study. 

The 3 Prongs of Special Education. The 3 Prongs of Special Education are critical to an evaluation, referral, and legally important based on IDEA standards. Yet, little guidance about these educational prongs exist in state and federal laws, which may help explain how Expert A and Expert B arrived at different conclusions with the same data. Hypothetically, if Expert B’s testimony holds more weight in this case, it begs the question: How do school psychologists determine need for support? Other questions to consider in your own practice are as follows. 

Ethical Considerations: Questions to Practice 

“Standard II.3.6 Variety of Sources of Data: A psychological or psychoeducational assessment is based on a variety of different types of information from different sources. No single test or measure is used to make broad determinations regarding disability identification or services needed.” 

“Standard II.3.7 Comprehensive Assessment: Consistent with education law and sound professional practice, school psychologists ensure that students with suspected disabilities are assessed in all areas related to the suspected disability.”

  • If the student was diagnosed with ADHD and ODD at a later date, are the school psychologists ethically responsible for evaluating signs of ADHD and ODD in an Early Childhood evaluation? 
  • How does this case compare to practices in your school for students exploring DD, OHI, or other educational eligibility categories? 
  • How could teacher input or observations have changed the outcome of the initial evaluation?


Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA): 

McLean vs District of Columbia Case: 

National Association of School Psychologists. (2010). Model for Comprehensive and Integrated School Psychological Services, NASP Practice Model Overview. [Brochure].

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