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Issues in Assessment: What are the Trends?(paper presented to the Texas Educational Diagnosticians Association journal, 1997)

By Ed Hammer, Ph.D., Professor, Department of Pediatrics

Texas Tech School of Medicine, Amarillo

Psychological assessment of mental abilities is a young and dynamic field. In the 95 years since Binet gathered his first items for a scale, psychological assessment has mushroomed into a major industry. It has become an intrinsic part of the American culture. Everyone is subject to standardized achievement tests, SATs, ACTs, GREs, TAAS, PSAT, GMAT, LSAT, etc that predict, in some way, the abilities of the individual.

In fact, the work of Binet started a movement to predict outcome based upon a test score. Prediction became the goal of testing. Compared to some normative group, it is predicted from the obtained score that a particular outcome would happen ( i.e. learning ability, memory skills, cognitive level, physical growth, maturation, virtually all human behavior). The down side of prediction was the self-fulfilling prophecy inherent in tests scores: if a person had a valid test score that predict future performance with confidence, what happened to those with low test scores? By its very nature, standardized tests had one half of the population below the mean. Could those scores change over time? Was a person doomed to a certain percentile, quartile, or score for eternity?

In the mid-century, a shift started in the testing movement. Those of us in the business of testing were vaguely aware of the shift, but it took time to fully understand the implications of the ways that testing was changing. One component was the civil rights movement in the United States.

Interestingly enough, it was at that juncture that the profession of Educational Diagnostician was born. The thinking, and John Peck, Ph.D. in particular was instrumental in this, was that master teachers in Special Education needed to be more involved in the development of instructional strategies for children with special needs. These new professionals would span the assessment component and the instructional component to solidify the complex services needed by children who were exceptional.

These happenings were parallel to several trends: the civil rights movement, the right to treatment (Penhurst case), the right to education (the PARC case), and the awareness that exclusion was more expensive than inclusion (i.e. institutional placement vs. public school placement). There was also a recognition that a new population of children needing services was in the general population. In 1988, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a paper calling for two changes: the first was to require that every child in America have a "medical home," that is a place where the child was known and medical management was done by the same people. This was to counter the growing use of the Emergency Room in hospitals in the evenings and weekends for pediatric services (many of which were routine medical treatments). Secondly, the American Academy of Pediatrics recognized that there was a "new morbidity" for which no one was trained to provide services. Included in this New Morbidity were:

Biologically At Risk:

Prematurity Fetal Alcohol Syndrome or Substance Abuse

Failure to Thrive by the mother perinatally

Down Syndrome HIV

Chronic Otitis Media Small for Gestational Age

Sensory Impairment Very Low Birth weight

Traumatic Brain Injury Cancer in Childhood

Environmentally At Risk:

High Risk for Child Abuse Economically Disadvantaged

or Child Neglect Parents with Disabilities

Teen Parents Inter-generational welfare patterns

Disturbed bonding/ Toxic wastes and pollution


Developmentally Delayed:

Language/Speech delay Under socialized childhood

Self-help skills lacking Fine motor skills immature

Cognitive deficits Gross motor delays

Behavioral Problems:

Attention Deficit Hyper- Conduct Disorder

activity Disorder Lack of Parenting Skills

Special Learning Dysfunctional Family

Disability Severe Emotional Disturbance in Early Childhood

These new conditions challenge the delivery system, especially one that relies on predicting outcome. With changes, everyone became eligible for services. Predicting became obsolete.

The shift was toward describing behaviors in such a way that interventions could be planned. This shifted the entire testing industry, even if the industry is still trying to market predictive instruments to service providers. This also seems to be reflected in state guidelines that shift away from predictive requirements to more functional and therefore more descriptive assessments. The shift is to put "meat on the bones" of the intervention, that is, to tell those involved with the child on a minute-by-minute basis what can be done to help that individual.

What dose this trend mean for assessment? First of all, the shift to description has increased the emphasis for Educational Diagnosticians to be in their master teacher role. It means that interpreting the results of a test are as important as administering the test. What a change. Tradition had it that administration (for internal consistency) be the focus. Now it is more along the lines of, "Okey you did the testing, now what do we do on Monday morning?" The second implication is that there is a need for more assessments that monitor services than ever before. There are tests, for example, that assess environments to find out what takes place in the placement. In the past, an ARD has been held, test results dutifully reported, an IEP written, and the child placed in the available setting without ever asking if the child could receive the services required in that setting. Many years ago, this author field tested a program called Classroom Management through Education Service Center, Region XI in Fort Worth. This computer-based program measured continuous progress in children in classrooms for children with severe impairments. Continuous progress means that the child is on task at all times and the computer does the paperwork to register where the child is functioning and what teaching strategies need to be considered to advance the child to the next goal. There is nothing sacred about testing every child between March and May of every school year. This, in fact, may even be counter productive. New trends will point this out and options will be identified to monitor services once the child qualifies for them.

In fact, there is a great need for TEDA to take the leadership in influencing trends in assessment. One such trend would be to create a "TEDA Formulary" - a book that describes various levels of testing with recommendations that point out the gold standard of quality assessment. This Formulary would move away from prediction as the goal of assessment and describe ways to meet the federal, state and local guidelines with the highest quality.

A second area that TEDA needs to investigate is the development of instruments to help Educational Diagnosticians in their work. There is a need, for example, for an instrument to identify children with autism that Diagnosticians could use with confidence. This does not mean that one test would be use (we know the response to that!), but it would give the practitioner in the field an instrument that had solid norms, was reliable and valid, and could be used with confidence in observing behaviors. There certainly is a need for an instrument to be available for Diagnosticians to assess children with suspected ADHD. Yes, the Conners Rating Scale, the ADDES (being highly marketed at the time), and the Achenbach is available, but TEDA could make a major contribution to the field (and to the serenity of Educational Diagnosticians) by having a well constructed checklist for use in identifying children with hyperactivity or without hyperactivity who had attentional problems.

There is a growing need to be able to assess children with perinatal substance abuse syndrome. This set of behaviors include motor-driven movements, lack of attention (but because of abuse of drugs by the mom not a candidate for stimulant drugs), poor social skills, and oppositional defiant traits. These disorganized children are showing up in kindergartens and giving the system fits because they do not qualify in terms of traditional categories of Special Education services. The field would benefit from an instrument that identified children with perinatal substance abuse syndrome so that instructional interventions could be planned.

The point is, the times have already changed. TEDA and professionals in the field of assessment need to take leadership roles in identifying assessment trends, the development of instruments to help practitioners in the field, and guidelines to schools regarding the highest quality of assessment and programming.






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