Student Eligibility for Special Education Programs | State Differences

It may seem that a student would either have a disability or not have one. This is, however, not the case, at least when it comes to the qualification process for special education services. When disabilities are complex but invisible – or when the child is too young to have yet displayed a large functional deficit or developmental lag – there can be significant differences from one jurisdiction to the next.

While all states that receive IDEA funds are required to follow IDEA law, there is a good deal of leeway in how the law is interpreted. States may set eligibility standards differently and use different methods for identifying children who are in need of services. Some differences are formal — the letter of the law — and others are informal: How adequate is state infrastructure when it comes to actually carrying out Child Find and identifying young children who need services?

There are several areas where states implement law in very different ways resulting in a significant difference in who (and how many) are receiving services.

Early Intervention

Early intervention law (Part C of IDEA) makes provisions for children from birth to age three who have developmental delays and also those who have medical conditions (either physical or mental) that makes developmental delay likely. States are allowed to include other young children at risk of delay; some states have opted to use risk factors such as low birth rate of failure to thrive (

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What qualifies as developmental delay is open to state interpretation. Some states may define delay by a percentage or number of standard deviations below the mean. They may set differing standards based on whether the delay is in one or multiple areas of development.

Some states are very specific about what genetic conditions are considered established and which are considered additional risk. New Mexico, for example, spells out eligibility requirements for early intervention services in Title 7, Chapter 30 of state administrative code ( In boys, Fragile X is considered an established condition. In girls, it is considered a biological or medical risk factor.

Some states identify far more infants and toddlers who are in need of early intervention than others do. Identifying fewer children costs less in the short term but goes against what is known about brain science.

Part C: Eligibility at the Preschool through High School Levels

Beyond age three, too, there are differences is how disability is categorized. Some states continue to use a non-categorical developmental delay category for children as old as age nine.

There is no ADHD category in IDEA but students with severe attentional issues that impact their ability to benefit from the usual school curriculum can qualify as having “other health impairments”; in many cases, ADHD co-occurs with specific learning disabilities. Specific learning disabilities are identified in different ways from one jurisdiction to another.

Autism is an area where there is a good deal of variance in identification rate. A medical diagnosis of autism won’t automatically qualify a student; the disorder must impact the student educationally, and educational units are expected to carry out comprehensive evaluations. States must establish a definition that at least substantially corresponds with the national definition. However, they differ from one another. States also differ greatly with regard to the types of assessments and evaluations that are explicitly mandated. In a 2014 study published in the Autism Research and Treatment Journal, researchers from North Carolina noted a more than ten-fold difference in autism identification rates between two states that shared borders ( In 2012, a time when the national rate was .6%, one state had identified just .1% of its students as IDEA-eligible under the autism category while the other had identified 1.2%. The research group noted that, though it was quite possible that the autism rate did vary geographically, it was unlikely that this would account for a difference of this magnitude.

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The researchers considered the exclusionary language that was included in some definitions to be problematic. A primary diagnosis of emotional disturbance could, for example, preclude eligibility under the autism category in some states: a problematic situation as some psychological issues and diagnoses are known to frequently co-occur with autism.

Notably, a student who is not identified under a particular category may be identified under a different one, and the level and type of service provided is controlled not by category but by the student’s own Individualized Education Program, or IEP.

From Identification to Service Delivery

Even if students are found eligible for special education, it doesn’t follow that they will qualify for the same services in another state. However, there are protections in place for children who move from one state to another. If the child moves during the school year, the receiving state must provide comparable services until such time as it conducts its own evaluation ( IDEA grants additional rights to parents who disagree with an evaluation or disagree with an educational unit on what should be included in the IEP of an eligible child.