All effective educators use ongoing assessments to determine their students’ ability levels in various academic areas and to guide their instruction. In the realm of special education, the assessment process is absolutely essential. Parents, teachers, specialists and counselors depend on multiple assessments to identify a student’s strengths, weaknesses and progress.
What Are Assessments?
Assessments often include various tests, both standardized or criterion-referenced, but testing is not the only way that educators measure students’ aptitude. Assessments are evaluations, and might consist of anything from simple observations that a teacher or aide jots down while a student works on an assignment to complex, multi-stage procedures such as a group of teachers assembling a large portfolio of student work. Then there are assessments that are required by individual schools, districts or states that help educators determine whether or not a student qualifies for special education and, if so, the types and frequency of services that will best support a student’s success.
Common assessments in special education include:
Individual Intelligence Tests: As the name suggests, individual intelligence tests are administered to a student one on one.
- Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children (WISC): The school psychologist usually administers this test, which measures a student’s intelligence in a variety of areas, including linguistic and spatial intelligence. This is a norm-based test, meaning that student performance is measured against the performance of students at various grade levels.
- Stanford Binet Intelligence Scale (derived from the Binet-Simon Test): The school psychologist or special education team administers this test, which, like the WISC, is also norm-referenced. The questions are designed to help educators differentiate between students performing below grade level because of cognitive disabilities and those who do so for other reasons.
Group Intelligence Tests: Group intelligence and achievement tests are often administered in the general education classroom. It is through these types of tests that a teacher might first suspect that a student has a learning disability. These tests have two functions, measuring academic ability as well as a child’s cognitive level.
Skill Evaluations: Specialists such as the school speech pathologist and the child’s general practitioner use certain diagnostic measures for determining a child’s gross motor skills, fine manipulative skills and hearing, sight speech and language abilities. Teachers typically refer parents to a pediatrician or specialist so that the student can receive a full physical and evaluation as part of the process of gathering the evidence necessary to develop an individual education program (IEP).
Developmental and Social History: The child’s classroom teacher, parents, pediatrician and school specialists help formulate this narrative assessment. They may fill out checklists, answer questions, participate in an interview or write a report addressing a child’s strengths, challenges and development (or lack thereof) over time. The focus here is on issues such as the child’s health history, developmental milestones, genetic factors, friendships, family relationships, hobbies, behavioral issues and academic performance.
Observational Records: Anyone who works with the child can provide information about the child’s academic performance and behavioral issues. Daily, weekly and monthly observational records that show a child’s performance over time typically fall into the domain of the general education teacher, as he or she is the individual working most closely with the child on a regular basis. The general education teacher also typically has a firm notion of how a child’s work and behavior compares to that of other students of the same age and grade level.
Samples of Student Work: The general classroom teacher also provides most of the evidence in this domain. A folder of assignments, tests, homework and projects can provide a snapshot of a child’s abilities and challenges in performing grade-level work. A more nuanced portfolio, which may include a research project, a writing assignment with several drafts or samples of work throughout a thematic unit, affords the materials for an in-depth investigation of a child’s learning style, thought process and ability to engage in critical thinking tasks.
Who and What is Involved?
- Anyone involved in the child’s life and education might suspect a learning disability or similar issue and ask specialists to explore it further.
- The first person to conduct an informal assessment is typically the classroom teacher, though a guardian or pediatrician might start the assessment process. At this point, the teacher should review student work and conduct more formal observations of student behavior and performance to note any issues.
- A classroom teacher or pediatrician might request a referral to a medical specialist, therapist, psychologist or other specialist to focus on a particular area of concern. These individuals keep written records of findings, and should also write descriptions of any discussions concerning the child.
- The school’s special education department or student study team begins informal and formal evaluations. They will request that the classroom teacher and other individuals working with the child submit any evidence gathered.
Why So Many Assessments?
In the world of education, quantity is not always quality. However, educators require multiple measures to ensure that they gain an accurate picture of a student’s performance compared with others at the same grade level. This process is essential, because a student might not do well on a specific assessment due to performance anxiety or a learning disability, but an alternate measure might demonstrate that the student can function at grade level given certain conditions. For example, some students perform poorly on standardized tests but do well in authentic assessments (those that mirror the usage of skills in the real world) such as hand-on projects.
What Does It All Mean?
No single test or evaluation can capture a child’s full spectrum of strengths and challenges. Assessments give educators guidance as to how to provide the best services and support for children, but they are not everything. As a parent or teacher, you will provide multiple assessments on an ongoing basis. From these, you can create short-term and long-term goals for the child.
For example, if you find that the child has trouble meeting grade-level benchmarks in writing, you might focus on broadening the contexts in which the child writes, providing multiple opportunities for engaging, authentic practice. The child might write lists, label maps, keep a dream journal, sing songs and record the lyrics, try different forms of poetry or start a blog.
In the course of practicing and refining skills, the child should be given time for self-assessment. Student-led activities such as reviewing work and choosing items for a portfolio allow metacognition (thinking about thinking) to happen. This process is underscored by the fact that a student’s work need not look identical to the work of grade-level peers, but that the child should instead focus on improvement over time.
If you’re a teacher looking to advance your career with a special education degree, check out our comprehensive list of master’s degree programs by state focused on special education