Measuring Success: Evaluating the Effectiveness of Special Needs Programs

It is impossible for a parent to choose the most appropriate special needs education for their child, or for staff to decide whether their program needs to be modified and improved, if there is no way to evaluate the program’s success. Observations, ratings, reviews and testing all have a role to play in assessing whether students are learning effectively.

Different ways to evaluate special needs programs

Students may struggle with communication or concentration, or they may experience anxiety during testing, so alternative forms of assessment mean there is more opportunity to make an accurate evaluation of strengths, progress and challenges.


Observations involve a teacher or other expert watching a student or class. Systematic observations measure specifically defined behaviours, non-systematic observations are more general and note anything that seems significant, and standardized observations use a formal framework that can be used across schools and programs. Observations allow the assessment of the classroom environment as a whole throughout the day, which can provide context for the performance of each student. This can then provide the information needed to make any recommendations for adjustments or improvements.

Standardized rating scales

Ratings are a quick and simple way to evaluate performance and measure progress, but they can be too narrow to provide a comprehensive assessment. Each behaviour (whether it’s positive or challenging) and skill is given its own number on the scale based on a questionnaire completed by teachers, parents or other relevant individuals. These ratings can be useful guidelines to identify strengths or areas of concern but should not be viewed too rigidly.

Record reviews

Record reviews can be more time-consuming to compile, but they do provide a comprehensive view of every aspect of the student’s performance. Data may come from student projects or portfolios, the school’s own records, former schools, personal and family documents, medical history and any other relevant source, including anecdotal evidence. These need to be analyzed and contextualized to create a full picture of the student’s progress or lack thereof.


Testing also comes in several forms and can measure different things. Standardized achievement tests are perhaps the most familiar and provide a quick and simple way to compare student results, both to other students and to their own previous scores. The standard framework even allows comparison to other schools across the country. These tests are deliberately limited in design and measure academic performance more than other skills.

Criterion referenced testing is less about comparing to other students and more about individual performance in specific skills. It may break down a subject like math into component parts and assess ability in each part separately. This specificity allows teachers to create individual education plans and adapt to the unique needs of each student.

Authentic assessment focuses on real-world skills and problem-solving rather than just academic performance. Students may need to research, collaborate and discuss before creating their final project, which may be anything from a written poem to an oral presentation.

There are a variety of ways that the effectiveness of special needs education can be evaluated. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages, and it can take a combination of more than one method to provide a comprehensive and accurate assessment.