In Measuring Up: What Educational Testing Really Tells Us by Harvard Graduate School of Education, professor Daniel Koretz has a lot of say about our nation’s “high-stakes testing” and the impact of testing special needs students. Maria Fusrao summarizes Koretz’ findings, providing interview video clips and text on Measure for measures: What do standardized tests really tell us about students and schools? The challenge that we face is avoiding misleadingly low or inflated scores — and if we are in fact testing the same skills. Can we assess if standardized testing can properly demonstrate proficiency? It is a challenge that we need to address.
Testing Limitation 1: Misleadingly Low Scores
Koretz begins by explaining that the test scores have limitations: “scores on those tests have often become misleading, sometimes wildly misleading” and that “we tend to overestimate what tests can do. Tests are not designed to summarize all that students and schools can do.” Ask any teacher, I am sure that he or she will agree that testing competence on one area is only a small portion what what students have learned in a classroom. Add special needs test takers to the mix, and the results can be even more inaccurate. Testing students with special needs is troubling because you need the scores to reflect students’ proficiency, yet Koretz points out that “when students have certain disabilities, their test scores may in fact be misleadingly low.”
Testing Limitation 2: Testing the Same Skills through Testing Accommodations
We also don’t want to go the the other extreme by inflating test scores through accommodations. He explains that “the purpose of an accommodation [larger print, modified room lighting, or a specialized computer screen for vision impaired students] is not to make the students’ scores higher, but to help them score as well as their actual proficiency warrants.” Koretz then speaks of a scenario where a student with dyslexia is tested and suggests that “when the impediments caused by the student’s disability are directly relevant to the knowledge and skills the test is designed to measure,” we may not be measuring what the test intended. Koretz points out that the test taker uses different skills: decoding (barrier for that student) or interpreting the meaning of text, so having the text read to him actually changes that test from a reading comprehension to oral language comprehension.
The testing limitations and their implications should give parents and teachers pause. Does Koretz suggest that standardized testing can’t “accurately” measure special needs abilities? If so, it is tough pill to swallow, for teachers and parents of special needs students. Yet Koretz does provide hope: understanding these limitation helps clarify the testing problem, so we can work toward meeting this challenge.
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My son has had pretty good teachers so far, but I’ve heard of great teachers who make parents of special needs children swoon. One is an elementary classroom teacher who began the first parent-teacher meeting with, “I just read your child’s entire file.” That’s not called getting off on the right foot. It’s getting off on the best foot possible.
As a former licensed teacher and mom of two school-aged children, I find that good teachers don’t deny or sugar coat issues; instead, they are proactive by anticipating problems and dealing with them. Like the ripple-effect theory, an effective teacher addresses and manages an issue before it grows. But instead of waiting for the first ripple to appear and then using classroom management skills to redirect the student and classmates, there are effective ways to begin classroom management from the beginning. Similarly, some teachers are willing to go beneath the water’s surface to see if a special needs child has kept his head above above water (aka on grade level); is doing the doggie paddle to stay afloat; or drowning – academically and socially.
That same teacher will have high expectation and teach him how to swim. It doesn’t mean that he has to learn the breast stroke correctly (some may never put their head in the water, thus the need for special education accommodations and modifications), but we as parents want to see measurable progress. And sometimes that progress begins with having a teacher who takes the time to better understand the diagnosis – digest huge files of test scores, evaluations and school to parent communications; attend a special needs-related conference; or ask for a recommended book from a parent. If I had such an parent-teacher experience, I might fall in love on the spot.
Here’s some exciting suggestions from Thomas Armstrong, a former special education teacher in both the US and Canada, who offers ways to “activate the strengths” of special needs students in Education Week’s “7 Ways to Bring Out the Best in Special-Needs Students”:
1. Discover your students’ strengths
Armstrong suggests ways to do this that would make any special needs parent excited: from talking with previous teachers, discussing strengths and abilities and focusing on the highest testing scores and positive teachers comments. This is why, in my opinion, when teachers tell me that my child is love of her life or write on a report card that he is a pleasure to have in class, it doesn’t make me happy. I need more. My child is above his years in oral retrieval and can repeat things that he has heard, even when looking 100 percent disengaged, and if a teacher knew how to tape into this strength, I would cartwheel. And if a teacher does this, I want to know. The author also recommends doing a strength-based inventory – and has one in his book, Neurodiversity in the Classroom: Strength-Based Strategies to Help Students with Special Needs Succeed in School and Life.
2. Provide positive role models with disabilities
Suggests creating a curriculum unit for both neurotypical (NT) and special needs students, entitled “People with Disabilities who Changed the World,” including Carol Grieder, Steven Speliberg and Temple Grandin. Heck, I’d even do the research for my son’s teacher, and she could teach this as she finds appropriate. This is way to show special needs students that despite their challenges, they can be successful in life.
3. Develop strength-based learning strategies
Teachers can do this by combining strengths with a deficit and uses examples such as:
Strength + Deficit = strength-based learning strategies
Drawing + Reading = illustrating vocabulary words
Knitting + Place value in math = knit rows of ten
4. Use assistive technologies
Apps such as speech-to-text programs can help students who speak well yet struggle with writing skills.
5. Maximize the power of your students’’ social networks
Goes as far as suggesting teachers “create a graphic representation of a student’s peer network, identifying both strong and weak relationships,” and use peer teaching, cross age tutoring or another social-learning approach. Over and beyond? I’d gladly settle for a budding relationship to be paired up for class partner activities.
6. Help students envision positive future careers
By recognizing a particular strength, let’s say art, help students see where they can use a talent or skill in a career, like graphic design. This is something that I do at home, but if a teacher can also do this, results can be far-reaching. Recommendations can be used as early as age 15, when IEP transitions (from school to “real life”) begin. Parents are always looking for this information and would love to have a teacher’s insight early on.
7. Create positive modifications in the learning environment
Suggests a child with Down’s Syndrome “who loves to humorously mimic others, build a simple puppet theater where he can act out math word problems in front of the class and get positive feedback.” The point is creating a positive contribution to the class while increasing learning opportunities.
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As a parent of a reluctant reader with an Individualized Education Program (IEP), I am always looking for ways to motivate my little guy to read. And if I can encourage him in a practical, fun, or silly way, I am going to try it. Last night we sang, instead of reading, a nonfiction book about mountains. I can’t take credit for this — my son started it. So I topped him with my worst Opera voice. After laughing so hard that our stomachs ached, we were finally able to get back to the book, although the giggles hit as we turned each page.
Ann Logsdon, a school psychologist who helps parents and teachers with special needs students, writes that children with learning disabilities often avoid reading and, as a result, don’t get additional opportunities to increase their reading skills and comprehension. She does suggest five practical ways to motivate your struggling reader at home in Top 5 Ways to Motivate Your Child to Read: Encourage Reluctant Readers with These Easy Strategies:
- Try a Variety of Reading Materials – Pair Books with Unabridged Audio Books
By simultaneously using a hard copy book and audio-book, you can follow along. Listening to audio before hands-on reading helps readers understand main ideas before beginning reading. And turning the audio on after reading serves as a “self-check” for comprehension. Another source for audio-books is Big Universe’s Read Aloud books.
- Watch More Television
What a great idea to increase sight word recognition by viewing closed captions on tv or DVDs! That’s one way to turn screen time into a relevant reading exposure. For example, my son is now excited that he can recognize some words on the big screen and is trying to read commercial and programming text on the TV.
- Create Their Own Books on Tape
Ann suggests children can read a book into a tape recorder – and when playing it back, even silently follow along with the book. She recommends, “Some research has indicated that as your child listens to himself and hears his own reading becoming better, his skills will likely improve. Reward your child for the errors he finds and corrects as well as for his successes.”
- Have a Family Reading Night
By dedicating thirty minutes per night, everyone can read from the same book or different ones. If you are a competitive family, you could even track number of minutes reading and reward the winner who reads the most with a special meal or choice of favorite family activity.
- Adapt Reading Materials to Your Child’s Reading Level
In the classroom, it is possible to attain textbooks on tape and CD ROM versions of textbooks, although you need to work with the IEP team in order to make this possible. Another way to reduce reading frustration is to identify unfamiliar vocabulary before reading and help him or her understand the meaning. Also modeling pronunciation is great for those who have articulation issues, and creating new sentences increases contextual understanding. When it comes to reading literature, there may be lower-level reading versions that will help your child to comprehend the fiction better, in order to keep up with classmates and reading assignments. And another great fall-back plan on is simply sharing the reading, especially when the reading becomes cumbersome and frustrating.
Let us know if you use any of these strategies and how your reluctant reader responded. And try singing a book to each other. At the least, you’ll share a silly moment. But you’ll know that you made reading fun.
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Multisensory approaches to early literacy creates active learning opportunities. It involves using our senses of sight, sound, touch, and kinesthetic action – and learning by doing is the most effective way to reinforce and retain learning. It also taps into a special needs child’s particular strengths and is a way of adjusting material for a child’s learning style. This approach also helps typical students who are beginning readers or those struggle with reading comprehension difficulties.
Why take a multisensory approach to sight words? By paring the visual word to the image, sight words becomes more than just seemingly arbitrary letters that represents sounds, it provides a context. A free resource from ABCteach.com provides a ABC: Dolch Nouns PDF that is easy to print and use immediately.
Store-bought sight-word flash cards and Popcorn words (words that are written on popcorn shapes) and Bingo games are fun ways to practice.
Reading Rockets suggests using “manipulatives” such as sound boxes or magnetic letters help teach letter-sound relationships. Susan Jones of Resource Room/Team Prairie, LLC, has compiled a list of multisensory ways to learn sight words, using combinations of auditory, visual, tactile and kinesthetic modes that include Rhythmic Recitation; Air Writing; Closed-Eye Visualization; Blind Writing; Velvet Board; and Double Board.
Sound boxes are a visual way of isolating the phonemes in a word. It can be made with just pennies, paper and a pencil. Scholastic provides easy-to-follow instructions here. If creating your own sound box seems daunting, there are great kits, ready-to-use:
And there are many hands-on ways to learn and reinforce sight word recognition. Julie Van Alst of Make, Take & Teach, LLC packages a hands-on kit that teachers or parents can use appropriate tools to reinforce Dolch sight words.
Included is a free sight word assessment for the Dolch 220 sight words to sight words flashcards (with categories such as “Words I Know,” “Words I Am Learning” to “Words I Will Learn”). Then providing multisensory activities, such as using Bendaroos and Play-Doh, children can “write” the sight words.
Whether you buy your materials or make your own, teachers and parents have many tools to teach sight words…and make reading fun.
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My son came home with his weekend reading books from his first grade teacher. Yet, every time I asked him to get his reading books, he avoided it. Nothing is unusual about that. So I sat him down and started looking at the books, and he surprised me.
“No, not that one! Keep that one covered!”
“The one with the ginormous ant!”
Overlooking the current portmanteau (a faux compound word), ginormous, I had bigger fish to fry. Larger-than-life sized ants on every page made me wonder if the Good Lord made ants very small on purpose. It is from that perspective only that they could ever be called cute little creatures. Hesitating to pick up the book myself, I suggested that we could cover the pictures, something that we do often. No dice, he already saw the book pictures during school and will remember them as he reads the book. So we read the other books, none of them dealing with bugs.
The next night, we received a red folder with a book and follow-up activity from his Special Education teacher, Ms. Christine. We sat at the kitchen table, I opened the folder, and Erik began screaming “Biters!” It was a spider book. No photos, just very detailed drawings depicting even hair on the spider’s legs. That was a no-go. At home, we are working on Erik’s fear of bugs with a therapist. “Biders” are enemy number #1. All of the rest come in a close second. He used to have a keen interest in bugs, but I think maybe he learned too much.
Now I feel pretty guilty about this development. I do not like bugs. There are some bug names that I will not speak or nor type out. I stay out of their way as long as they stay out of my way. And if they come my way, like my grandmother inadvertently taught me: jump, run, squeal. Well, we live in the country, the birthplace of Lyme-disease, and my super power against all bugs big and small is the vacuum. Unless it is too big and won’t get suctioned up. And then I’ll let it crawl away, and I will turn my eyes away. I don’t like them, dead or alive.
As a mom of two boys, I didn’t want to pass on this heredity trait, so when my boys took an interest in bugs I would calmly tell them, “Oh, show your father.” When Erik took out library book-after-book on bugs, I didn’t read those to him. I nonchalantly said, “Oh Matthew would LOVE to read that one to you.”
I don’t know when this changed…Maybe when the wasps kept coming in from the hive in the attic…Or when I had to call a neighbor to remove a wasp that had chased us onto the enclosed three-season porch. Oh wait, that was me. Last fall, our babysitter rang the doorbell, Erik opened the front door and began screaming blood-curdling yells, staccato, at the only girl he has ever loved. The poor girl jumped back, “What’s wrong?”
There was a spider web, reaching from all corners of the front door frame. And a big, black spider looked him in the eye.
Our babysitter-superhero grabbed a stick and flung the web and the spider into the bushes. And we haven’t thought about spiders since then, except in therapy sessions.
I told my son we didn’t have to read the spider book. He asked me to get permission from his teachers and I promised. And then – thinking that I solved the reading problem of the day, he began bawling. I reassured him to no avail, and in-between sobs, he admitted, “I can’t read chapter books. Everyone in my class can read chapter books, why can’t I?” A bad opportunity to explain autism, dyspraxia, or another complicated label, I told him that he will learn.
So we have a bigger problem than arachnophobia. We have to build up his confidence while waiting for his reading skills to improve. Not ready for chapter books, his teacher will help him practice books that resemble chapter books. A good compromise. And I need to figure out how and when to explain what learning disabilities are – without limiting his potential.
In the meantime, no more bug books will be coming home.
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My son sat on the couch and was speaking, but I couldn’t follow. I was busy doing something, any of those mundane things that moms seem to do in the kitchen.
I asked, “What did you say?”
He repeated, slowly with deep pauses, “Thank you for the birthday gift.”
“Are you reading?”
“Yes. I have a card from my friend.”
I ran over to him, giving him a well-deserved, yet unwanted hug, “I am so proud of you reading your thank you card!”
My son is seven-years-old, and this is the first time I ever heard him read new reading material, spontaneously and without help! Clearly not at seven-year-old reading benchmarks, we do sit and read practiced books from school, where he can show-off his “reading skills.” I quote his skills because he uses every reading “strategy” that the school teachers endorse – from using picture clues to memorization. Reading is not a leisure activity, even though we sit on the couch together instead of at the kitchen table.
But there he was, on the couch, with no prompting, reading. All weekend long he has been reading everything he can – from finding his favorite ice-cream in the freezer (no pictures on the label) with nearly no assistance to reading (and rereading) the calendar on the kitchen counter.
This success story is one that I want to share with his teachers who work so hard with him on reading. My husband and I fought against school administration, arguing to retain him after his first year of Kindergarten because he didn’t met benchmarks. End of year, he still struggled with identifying letters and phonics, and we didn’t want him surrounded with first graders who were well into advanced sight word lists.
His second year of kindergarten was better, but what was the game-changer was when his IEP’s PPT (Planning Placement Team) suggested sending him to an outside evaluation by a nuero-developmental pediatrician. We already knew that he was on the autism spectrum with PDD-NOS, which is as non-specific as you can get. This means that you can’t fit his learning, speech and social skills into any sort of “autism-box” or common stereotypes. You have to know him and the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) and see where he fits, and the puzzle piece is the best metaphor to explain him and PDD.
So when the new evaluation report came in, we saw that he was still diagnosed with autism, yet his struggling speech was more than stuttering and articulation issues. The doctor said that he also had dyspraxia, another neurological condition that affects his brain cortex, which controls his speech and motor skills. I found out in our meeting with this doctor, this is the reason why he will sometimes ask for “salt” when he means grated “cheese” – and even why as a non-verbal toddler learning sign language, he would confuse the hand sign “more” with his other main sign “done.” The doctor recommended different reading and articulation programs. My son’s resource teacher and speech therapist implement these, and his first grade teacher works very closely with them – providing writing samples that illustrate his articulation errors.
I have learned the hard way that finding out what works for a child with special needs is a series of trial and error, but the best starting point is with an expert. If we had begun my son’s schooling with this piece of paper, I can only wonder if we wouldn’t have lost a year.
This reading breakthrough reminds me of the first time he signed on his own. At the time, he was non-verbal, and we were all outside on a warm spring day playing. Above us, in a tree, a bird began singing. I looked at Erik, and he was standing there, under the tree, signing “bird.” Unprompted. Spontaneously. An amazing moment even greater because that sign was not one that we learned with birth-to-three therapists, over and over like many others that he still confused. He picked it up from the DVD series “Signing Times” and just applied it. Soon after, he spoke his first word ever. It was the beginning of a new developmental stage – just like this weekend’s spontaneous reading – and I am one proud mama.
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I’m sure that you have heard that parent involvement affects your child’s of early literacy success and future academic achievement. According to an Edutopia report, parental involvement doesn’t just affect your child, it is the “is the number one predictor.”
So how do parents begin or increase the early literacy foundation? Erika Burton cites research that it takes much more than merely having adult/child reading time or about 100 books throughout the child’s home. And I can attest to this. A life-long reader who has a graduate degree in Literature, I have walls of books and have always read nightly with my boys, yet I have children who struggle with reading. Well, the good news is there is more that we can do with our children to create and strengthen a reading foundation.
Burton outlines that it takes these actions while reading:
- Point to each word on the page as you read (increases tracking skills)
- Read the title and ask your child to make a prediction (increasing previewing and predication skills)
- Take “picture walks” (tells the story before actually reading)
- Model fluency while reading, and bring your own energy and excitement for reading to your child (pitch, intonation and fluctuations)
- Ask your child questions after reading every book (it can range from comprehension to crictual thinking)
- Connect reading and writing if possible.
This is a list that is doable for any busy parent – who is not too busy to make time to read together. And this can done cuddling at bedtime or sitting in front the computer on Big Universe. Young readers and parents can do all of these suggested reading activities online.
You can ask your child to predict what the book is about before reading. A child can use the mouse cursor to track reading words. Picture walks – skimming the book “reading” the visuals aloud are easy and there is the option to read the book again. If you are reading the electronic book to your child, you can add inflection to to your voice – or allow a read-along to do so. You can wrap up reading by doing a Big Universe electronic quiz and adding your own questions, too.
Personally, the biggest challenge from this list is to incorporate writing, but Burton suggests having a child dictate to a parent what to write. She states, “modeling the formation of sentences aligned with the words of a story is crucial for a child to begin making a neural interconnectedness between reading and writing.” One activity that comes to mind is a review of the book. You can ask your child, what did you like about the book? Dislike? Do you think your brother would like to read it? My son would get a kick out of this, as he loves to ask me to write for him.
In the aftermath of the Newtown, Connecticut massacre, these words: “Hug your child today” have taken on a new meaning. We send our young children to what we think is the safest place on earth, and find it can be the source of unfathomable tragedy. And I put on the tough veneer that what happened can be explained in words that my children can process, like “sick brain” and “shooter,” without explaining details that would shake their worlds and psyches as it has done to us adults.
I stand at the bus stop with my special needs son, who argues with me each morning on the words that I have used or if I have mispronounced something in haste. His penchant for preciseness is also mine, so this is payback times two. You can hear me trying to get out of circular, repetitive questions and answers that can border on the absurd, with his own brand of highly entertaining non-words. So our neighborhood jogger often witnesses me at my wits-end, as we near the end of our two-hour or more language and “self-help skills” morning routine struggles, that include difficulties with dressing, brushing teeth and hygiene.
So there I was, a victorious mom of child who just received a spit bath on a cold winter day, receiving the wrath from a child who suffered from looking presentable for school. And my jogging neighbor stopped in her tracks – and in tears, told me to “hug my child today.”
I am trying to live by the words, “be kind instead of right.” A whole community, a whole nation, is mourning for the sweet souls of Newtown. I listened as she shared her heartache and desire to hold her 20-something boys. I wish that I could hug my child. I tried that Friday, when so many Newtown parents lost the second chance to do so. My son bounded off the bus in high spirits, and I asked, “How was your day?” and he avoided me with the skills of football player dodging a tackle.
I often do try to sneak in some unsuspecting kisses or hugs. My son is adorable and melts my heart every single day. But he won’t let me touch him. He responds to a light kiss on his head as if blocking a punch. A soft touch means his body will reflexively jump out of harm’s way. A hug can bring on struggle that only “tickle torture” brings on for typical kids. We do get our cuddles in somehow – watching tv, he will practically sit on top of any of us family members, hard elbows and knees and feet jabbing you when you least expect it. So we use lots of blankets and pillows on the couch. He falls asleep, and my husband and I will often use that moment to kiss his forehead, get a good snuggle and hug in, and let him sleep in – not peace – but chaotic movement.
So the bus nears, the jogger jogs, and my son stands 10 feet away from me, just in case I happen to see more breakfast on his cheeks. “Have a good day” – and he climbs the bus steps. I wave to him as he sits on the bus. He doesn’t look at me and doesn’t wave. Yes, I want to hug my child today.
Parents and teachers can easily recognize struggling readers – they hesitate before reading, guess at words that are written, and drag out the sounds, hoping for an adult to jump in with the answer. I honestly don’t remember “learning” how to read in school or at home. I just remember reading and loving it. So watching my son struggle with something that seemed so easy for me is difficult.
Sue Watson, a writer for about.com Special Education who has worked in special education classes and in the regular inclusion classroom, outlines how to help children, who struggle with reading, attain confidence in reading, leading to self-confidence (http://specialed.about.com/od/literacy/ss/reluctantreader.htm).
She writes that there are three steps to teaching reading for student with reading difficulties:
- Select books with predictable text (patterns)
- Provide lots of exposure to the same book (memorize)
- Identify specific words (out of context)
These steps led to increased confidence, and as I watch my own first grader struggle to read, he is using his “reading clues.” He, by school standards – and his own standards, is considered a successful reader by repeating the sentence pattern since many early reading books begin each page with the same sentence pattern. My son recognizes that the main difference on each page is the subject, and book illustrators provide the clue on the reading page. But as a parent, I have to get over the feeling that this is “cheating” and not real reading.
I also need to embrace him memorizing texts. As much as it irritates me, this is a way for my child to increase his own self-confidence in reading. Knowing that he has “successfully read” a particular book in his classroom, and bringing it home to read to us is his moment to bask in his reading accomplishment. So my husband and I do have to put our own frustrations with his reading aside, allowing him feel successful.
I personally find the third step of Watson’s list — reading out of context — one that I can fully embrace. She suggests “put[ting] the words from the book on blank cards and ask the child to order them.” My son’s special education teacher does this with him and I find it more effective than memorizing sight words, another reading strategy that my son still struggles with. He comes home from school with a red folder, filled with “mastered” books and one of his homework assignments is to cut out a patterned sentence from the book (printed on a sheet of paper) and rearrange it to form the correct pattern. Then he has a space to illustrate the sentence, something that he looks forward to doing.
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