A procedure that attempts to modify performance, via examiner assistance, in an effort to understand learning potential, is called dynamic assessment (DA). Dynamic assessment determines whether substantive changes occur in examinee behavior if feedback is provided across an array of increasingly complex or challenging tasks. This procedure contrasts with traditional models of assessment in which there is no feedback from the examiner on student performance.
Several authors suggest that traditional intelligence or aptitude tests (i.e., tests that measure unassisted performance on global measures of academic aptitude) underestimate general ability. That is, traditional approaches to the assessment of aptitude typically provide little feedback or practice prior to testing; therefore, performance on such measures often reflects the individual's misunderstanding of instructions more than his ability to perform the task. One possible alternative or supplement to traditional assessment is to measure an individual's performance when given examiner assistance. The goals of DA are to (a) provide a better estimate of ability, (b) measure new abilities, and (c) improve mental efficiency when compared to static testing procedures (see Embretson, 1987).
Models or variations of DA include learning potential assessment (e.g., Budoff, 1987a), testing-the-limits (Carlson & Wiedl, 1979; Swanson, 1995a), mediated assessment (e.g., Feuerstein, 1980), and assisted learning and transfer (e.g., Bransford, Delclos, Vye, Burns, & Hasselbring, 1987; Campione, Brown, Ferrara, Jones, & Steinberg, 1985). Although DA is a term used to characterize a number of distinct approaches, two common features of this approach are to determine the learner's potential for change when given assistance and to provide a prospective measure of performance change independent of assistance. Unlike traditional testing procedures, score changes due to examiner intervention are not viewed as threatening task validity. In fact, some authors argue that construct validity increases (e.g., Budoff, 1987b; Carlson & Wiedl, 1979). To obtain information about an individual's responsiveness to hints or probes, DA approaches require the interaction of an examiner and the examinee. When a student is having difficulty, the examiner attempts to move the student from failure to success by modifying the format, providing more trials, providing information on successful strategies, or offering increasingly more direct cues, hints, or prompts. The intensity of the intervention ranges from several sessions to brief intensive prompts in one session. Thus, potential for learning new information (or accessing previously presented information) is measured in terms of the distance, difference between, and/or change from unassisted performance to a performance level with assistance.
A major goal of dynamic assessment models is to measure modifiability (Embretson, 1987; Grigorenko & Sternberg, 1998; Swanson & Lussier, 2001). A major issue is the type of scores necessary to measure modifiability (see Embretson, 1987 for a review). For example, Campione and Brown (1987) measured modifiability as the number of hints needed to solve a problem that has been failed. The fewer the hints, the more modifiability the examinee possesses. Embretson (1987) has suggested that this score merely provides a better estimate of initial ability (see p. 149). Another method to measure modifiability is to bring scores to an asymptotic level (under the probing conditions) and then obtain a measure on the test again after the probes have been removed. The basic rationale is to eliminate performance differences due to different strategies or unfamiliarity with the laboratory procedures. As yet, there is no agreed upon measure of cognitive modifiability (Grigorenko & Sternberg, 1998; Swanson & Lussier, 2001)
Several authors consider the first area of focus in DA, however, to be one of improving the processing of information. For example, utilizing Vygotsky's (1978) “zone of proximal development,” Brown and French (1979) make a distinction between an individual's proximal potential and actual level of performance. In the area of child development, for example, they make a distinction between a child's actual development, that is, her completed development as might be measured on a standardized test, and her level of potential development, the degree of competence she can achieve with aid.
An assessment of the examinee's “zone of potential” (i.e., ability to access available information) typically involves three steps (see Swanson, 1995a, 1995b, for a review). First, the examinee is administered a battery of items on a particular test. Second, if the examinee fails to retrieve the item information, the examiner provides a series of progressive probes based upon the information that was forgotten. The number of probes or hints necessary to achieve maximal performance is considered the width of the individual's zone of potential. Third, the items at which the examinee achieved the highest level of performance are readministered at a later point in time. This maintenance activity is important in assessment because it reflects the examinee's ability to benefit from the aids or probes provided by the examiner. The ability of the examinee to maintain behavior provides valuable assessment information about the potency of the aids that help the examinee access information.
Although DA has been suggested as an alternative and/or supplement to traditional assessment, only a few critical reviews of such procedures have been published (e.g., Grigorenko & Sternberg, 1998; Swanson & Lussier, 2001). A comprehensive review of DA procedures as of 2007 was the qualitative analysis conducted by Grigor-enko and Sternberg (1998). Their study reviewed the strengths and weaknesses of five different dynamic testing models: Feuerstein and colleagues' model of structural cognitive modifiability (e.g., Feuerstein, Miller, Hoffman, Rand, Mintzker, & Jensen, 1981; Feuerstein & Schur, 1997), Budoff's learning potential testing model (1987a, 1987b), Campione and Brown's transfer model (Campione, 1989, Campione & Brown, 1987), Carlson's testing-the-limits model (Campbell & Carlson, 1995; Carlson & Wiedl, 1979), and an information processing framework as conceptualized by the Swanson Cognitive Processing Test (S-CPT, Swanson, 1995a, 1995b).
Their review questioned whether DA increased the comparability of performance among students from differing backgrounds and handicapping conditions when compared to static (traditional) conditions. That is, when compared with static measures, DA has not been shown to equate the performance among children with differing learning abilities (i.e., level the playing field). In addition, Grigorenko and Sternberg (1998) suggested that cognitive modifiability (a psychological construct frequently referred to in DA literature) has not been shown to be independent of initial learning ability. Likewise, their review questions whether changes in mental processing come about because of DA or merely reflect artifacts related to retesting. That is, they argue that approximately 30% of children improve to a statistically significant extent simply because of retesting (see p. 104). Thus, changes in performance may be unrelated to DA procedures.
Swanson and Lussier (2001) used meta-analytic techniques to address some of the issues raised in Grigor-enko and Sternberg's (1998) qualitative review. Their results provide a metric to compare the magnitude of the differences between DA and other approaches. Higher effect sizes are considered better than lower effect sizes. Swanson and Lussier's analysis showed that effect sizes (ES) when using DA procedures varied significantly as a function of ability group (under achievers yielded higher and children with learning disabilities yielded lower ESs than average, hearing impaired, and mentally retarded participants), chronological age (younger yield higher ESs than older ages), sample size (studies with moderate sample sizes yield larger ESs than studies with small or large sample sizes), and type of assessment procedure (testing the limits yielded larger ESs than mediated assessment). The magnitude of the ES was best predicted by the type of outcomes measure (ESs are higher on visual-spatial than verbal measures).
DA has direct application to the context of classroom assessment and instruction. Measuring responsiveness of an individual's performance to feedback has long been viewed as an alternative to traditional (static) ability assessment. Dynamic assessment has been suggested to teachers as a means to enhance children's performance and tap potential which might otherwise be undiscovered by traditional static approaches. For example, children with identical performance on static tests may profit differentially from feedback. An example is that children with learning problems but with the same aptitude as average achieving children may need more feedback to improve their performance than average achievers.
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