Adventures in Assessment

Almost everyone is familiar with the need to assessment for eligibility for special education. Some areas require 1.5 or 2 standard deviations below the norm. Some areas require as little as a discrepancy between scores and the SLP’s recommendation. Assessments can take as little as a half-hour to as long as 10 hours and are completely dependent on the student and the assessments required. For instance, in my school, a student who is being considered for a learning disorder would most likely under go an ability test (1-2 hours), an achievement test (1-3 hours), and language testing (2-4 hours). Of course, it would be broken up over several days, but it is still a significant number of hours missed from the classroom instruction. Just language testing alone with no need for achievement testing can be time-consuming.

In the states, students receiving special education must undergo a comprehensive evaluation every three years.

Or do they?

This is one of those areas where an individual really needs to explore state regulations. Hopefully the SPED director/administrator for your area is in the know. If not, it may be time for you to become the local expert. 🙂

In my state it is not required…sort of.

Let me explain. The student must undergo a comprehensive evaluation, but not necessarily an assessment. Does that make sense? Essentially, we create a student profile to determine what the student’s present level of academic performance is and whether there are any questions that need to be answered. The questions determine which, if any, assessments must be administered. If there aren’t any questions, there is  no need to test.  Note, it’s questions not problems that determine the testing.

This issue of the ASHA Leader (Feb. 7, 2006), highlights some of the difficulties of assessment and what to look for in evaluations. Sometimes, a student may be performing poorly but test well. If the only thing we use to qualify or continue to qualify is a standard score, we are doing our students a grave disservice.

When looking at three-year re-evaluations it may be possible to look solely at performance – what struggles is this student having? How is he performing in comparison to his peers? Is the classroom teaching needing to differentiate his instruction significantly in order for him to be successful? As Dr. Wiig stated in the article, it is necessary to look not only through an assessment lens, but also through a performance lens. If, when looking through the performance lens, there is a discrepancy between the student and his peers, he should continue to qualify even without further assessment. For students with significant learning disorders, Autism, emotional disabilities, intellectual disabilities, etc. there may not be a need to assess once the evaluation is complete. For students with continued articulation/sound system disorders, there may be no reason to test…and, in fact, every reason not to test because they may no longer qualify.

Let me be the first to say, of course I want kids to not qualify. I tell my teachers and my parents all the time that my career goal is to work myself out of a job. However, as much as my goal is to dismiss my students, I want to make sure it’s appropriate. That should be easy, right? Right? Wrong…

Let me explain. Every time we do a comprehensive assessment, we must look at continued eligibility. For a child who was originally diagnosed with a sound system delay or disorder (phonological impairment), after three years, they may (hopefully) no longer be deleting clusters or initial/final consonants, and they may be able to contrast alveolar and velar sounds just fine. However, they may continue to have difficulty with /r/ and /l/ or “sh” and “ch”. If that child is only 6-7, many states would require them to be dismissed from services because the sounds are developmental. Unfortunately, the state requirements can not take into consideration the type of disorder with which the student was originally diagnosed. If I give a formal assessment and report a standard score that isn’t qualifying, the student will need to be dismissed…regardless of whether or not there continues to be difficulties. Unfortunately, that means that some students will be dismissed from speech-language services only to be re-admitted to special-education in a year or two. In these cases, I haven’t done the student any favors.

For me, this September 18, 2012 article in the ASHA Leader really hit home. There are students that I’ve not given an “assessment” when it came time for a three-year re-evaluation. I was concerned the students wouldn’t qualify even though there were residual articulation errors. I also suspected that when coursework became harder and there was an expectation to actually decode and encode words for reading there would be struggles. So, I took advantage of my state’s ruling that while we needed to evaluate the student completely, it wasn’t necessary to assess.

I created the assessment profile, I asked questions of the teachers, I observed the students’ performance. Not just articulation performance – but reading, social skills, and math skills. When the IEP team met together, I explained my concerns, and offered suggestions to the team. The team agreed with me and no standardized testing was done. The team determined the students continued to have the disability for which they originally qualified. New goals were written and life commenced. When I was certain the sounds were carried over into conversation at home and in the classroom…and I was certain there were no residual learning disabilities that had been masked… we were able to dismiss the students.

I’ve done the same for those students with “hidden” language problems who would most likely test very well on the CELF-4 or OWLS. I may test informally to confirm programming needs, but would not report those scores in my reports. (Don’t worry, my Principal and my coordinator both approve of these actions when necessary.) It doesn’t happen often – because usually I want to show that these students have really done well and are ready to be dismissed…but every once in a while it is necessary just to make certain there are no hidden problems.

Throughout my career as an SLP I’ve discovered one of the biggest differences between SLPs and LD teachers is that eventually, we typically get to dismiss our students. There will come a time when they no longer need our specialized help. LD teachers seldom get that privilege. While I look forward to our “graduation day” parties (complete with certificate, cake/cookies, and games)…I want to make certain the student is ready.

Bottom line here is we need to do what’s best for the student. While a student needs to undergo a comprehensive evaluation every three-years, it is not always necessary to have standardized testing be a part of that evaluation. Sometimes, in order to make sure services can continue for as long as the student needs, evaluation not assessment is more beneficial. We can always test next year.

How does your school district or state handle three-year re-evaluations? Do you have to do complete assessments? Are you sure? What assessments do you use most often? Drop me a line here and let me know…

Until then…Adventure on!