Assessment Questions

Assessment is a global term for observing, gathering, recording, and interpreting information to answer questions and make legal and instructional decisions about students. What types of questions do teachers and parents have? Teachers of young children and parents wonder if the child is developing typically in one or more of the following developmental areas:

  • Communication development. Should Jaleh be talking more now that she is 4 years old?
  • Cognitive development. Is Katie experiencing difficulty performing many activities that the other children can do quite easily?
  • Physical development. Does Sammy have difficulty seeing? Hearing? Does he have problems with fine and gross motor activities?
  • Adaptive development. Should Luis be able to feed himself and take care of toileting needs?
  • Social-emotional development. Sonia has difficulty getting along with other children. Will she "outgrow" this?

Teachers and parents of older children frequently have questions about a student's achievement, ability, or skills in one or more areas:

  • Academic area. Does Elliot have a reading problem?
  • Overall achievement. Why doesn't Bill do better in school?
  • General intelligence. Will Joy be able to learn how to compute a math problem?
  • Transition. What transition service needs does Cristoforo have?
  • Social-emotional status. Daryl has difficulty making friends. How can he be helped? Sabrina seems sad and depressed. What is causing this behavior?
  • Vision, hearing, or motor ability. Can Norweeta hear students speaking during class discussions? Joey frequently walks on tiptoes. Does this indicate a problem?
  • Communication. Bradley can hear the speaker but doesn't seem to understand. What could be the cause of his difficulty?

Assessment Steps and Purposes

In working with students with disabilities or who may have disabilities, professionals ask questions and make decisions during each of the assessment steps: screening, referral, determining eligibility, program planning, program monitoring, and program evaluation. Decision points allow the team to use the information to make decisions regarding the needs of the student.

Step 1. Screening

Identifying children and youth who need special education services is a collaborative effort among teachers in the schools and personnel who work in agencies that serve children and families. The assessment question focuses on "Is there a possibility that the student may have a disability?" The purpose of screeningto determine whether students may have disabilities and to refer them for further assessment. Screening is designed to assess large numbers of students efficiently and economically. Based on the information collected during screening, evaluators decide whether to refer the student to the team for further assessment. Screening approaches differ, depending on whether the student is a preschooler or of school age.

Preschool children  In many communities, children under age 6 come to the assessment process as a result of Child Find activities. Child Find directs parents to screening services in their community that are open to infants, toddlers, and preschoolers and that are free of charge.

Comprehensive screening of young children includes several components: parent concerns; medical history (often given through parental reports or completed by parents using a checklist); vision and hearing tests; and the use of commercial screening instruments and observation reports in the areas of general development, abilities, and skills. Screening instruments are generally inexpensive and are designed so they may be completed in a short amount of time, 30 minutes or less.

School-age students  Children who are entering public school for the first time or transferring to a new school require screening. One or more individuals, such as the special education teacher or general education teacher, conduct the screening, which involves various approaches. An educator often begins by reviewing past work and test scores of the incoming student or by asking the new student a set of questions. In the classroom, teachers observe and collect information about the student's work and performance. Teachers may observe that the student is having trouble seeing a computer screen, understanding and following directions, working with others, reading, or comprehending. Parents utilize screening approaches, too. They may have concerns about their child when they see their child in relation to other children in the neighborhood or when they compare their child to their knowledge about growth and development.

School personnel conduct a variety of other screening activities. The school nurse arranges for students to have regular vision and hearing screenings. Educators review student attendance records and follow up on students who are not attending school on a regular basis. Classroom teachers administer group tests of school achievement and screen student scores to identify those students who show they are having difficulty. When screening flags children, the process moves to the next step.

Step 2. Making a Referral

Prereferral decisions  Questions about a student are referred to an assistance team, which usually comprises regular classroom teachers and special educators in the school building. The team may be a student assistance team (SAT), teacher assistance team, or intervention assistance team. In addition to questions about individual student behaviors or academic work, this team enables teachers, both regular and special education, to help one another with general academic or discipline concerns including making accommodations to instruction and assessment. During this stage, response to intervention (RTI) activities, usually occur, depending on the student's needs. When interventions are not successful, teachers document the interventions tried and the student responses in a written referral.

Referral decisions The IEP team, which is different from the assistance team, receives the written referral form. Based on the referral information about the student, the team recommends specific assessment approaches or assessment instruments to be used in determining eligibility.

Step 3. Determining Eligibility

To determine student eligibility for special education services, the assessment questions focus on "Does the student have a disability? What disability does the student have? Does the student meet the criteria for services?" The purpose of this step is to examine the assessment information to make a determination regarding the student's eligibility for special education and related services according to state and federal (IDEA) guidelines for children and youth.

As specified in IDEA, a multidisciplinary team conducts assessment for the purposes of eligibility. Thus, a student's assessment covers all areas related to the suspected disability including, if appropriate, health, vision, hearing, social and emotional status, general intelligence, academic performance, communication, and motor abilities. For example, a student who is nonverbal may have a multidisciplinary evaluation that includes meeting with (1) an audiologist to determine the extent, if any, of a hearing loss; (2) a speech and language pathologist to assess understanding of language (receptive language) and communication skills; (3) a special educator to assess academic and functional skills; (4) a vocational rehabilitation counselor to identify interests and abilities; and (5) a psychologist to determine intellectual functioning. The team will use various approaches, including, for example, observations, norm-referenced instruments, and performance assessments. The team will ask the student's parent(s) to provide information, too. All of these individuals work together to view and analyze the assessment information, with all contributing expertise from their respective disciplines.

Team members share the assessment information during the IEP meeting and determine the student's eligibility to receive special education and related services. As active members of the team, parents may have questions and collect various types of information such as medical records or developmental history.

Because the team bases its decisions on assessment information and data, they must choose and use appropriate assessment approaches carefully. Evaluators must have appropriate training, take responsibility in evaluating the adequacy of the approach, follow professional standards and ethical principles, and be knowledgeable about the limitations of specific approaches. In the chapters that follow we will discuss these approaches in more detail.

Step 4. Program Planning

In program planning, the assessment questions focus on "What should be included in the student's individualized program? If behavior impedes learning, what strategies, including positive behavioral interventions, should the team write in the plan? What supplemental aids, services, and assistive technology does the student need? What types of accommodations and/or modifications should team members make to the curriculum? Where should instruction begin? What supports for school personnel does the student need?" The purposes are to (1) determine the student's current level of functioning and (2) plan the instructional program. Much of the information gathered in Step 4 will be useful in planning the instruction and developing realistic goals.

What should program planning include? Program planning includes assessing the student's current level of functioning and determining where instruction should begin. Members of the IEP team identify the special education and related services they will include in the student's program. The team plans accommodations and/or modifications to the curriculum and to the classroom environment. Team members utilize commercially published norm-referenced and criterion-referenced tests, checklists, observations, or curriculum-based assessments, as well as other assessment approaches.

Connecting assessment with instruction  Connecting assessment with instruction is part of both program planning and Step 5, monitoring individual progress. Connecting assessment with instruction provides rich, ongoing information about a student's current level of achievement, which allows the teacher to make informed decisions regarding the student's instructional program. A teacher uses this type of assessment in planning daily teaching and learning activities to address the special needs of students. "Good classroom assessment tells us more than `Knows it; doesn't know it.' It also tells us why" (Shepard, 1996). Connecting assessment with instruction is one of the most important aspects of the assessment process. In later chapters we will examine a variety of assessment approaches that link instruction with assessment.

Step 5. Monitoring Individual Progress

The purposes of this step are to determine (1) if the student is making progress and (2) whether to modify instruction if the student is not making progress. Teachers should assess the student's progress frequently. Information from this assessment step allows the IEP team members to modify interventions, teaching procedures, or materials if the student's progress is lagging.

Step 6. Evaluating the Program

Program evaluation is a process used to assess (1) the progress the student has made and (2) the overall quality of the school program. To evaluate the student's progress, the IEP team focuses on the student's IEP. They ask, "Is the student meeting the goals of the individualized education program?"

To address the overall evaluation of special education services, the questions focus on the achievement, as a group, that students accomplish in the program; the degree of satisfaction with the program as expressed by teachers, administrators, and parents; and the effectiveness of the program. The following section examines these two types of evaluation questions in more detail.

Student evaluation  This type of assessment helps evaluators make decisions about the success of the instructional program for individual students. The IEP team reviews the student's IEP at least annually to address any lack of expected progress, the results of any reevaluation, information about the student provided to or by the parents, or the student's anticipated needs (20 USC Sec. 614(d)). For children receiving services under an IFSP, family and evaluators must review the program every six months (or more frequently, if appropriate) and conduct the full evaluation annually.

IDEA requires a reevaluation of the student's performance and educational needs at least every three years, or more frequently if conditions warrant a reevaluation or if the child's parent or teacher requests a reevaluation. The team reviews existing assessment information including (1) evaluations and information provided by the parent; (2) current classroom-based, local, or state assessments and classroom-based observations; and (3) observations by teachers and related services providers (20 USC Sec. 614(c)) and considers the following questions: "Does the student continue to need special education and related services? What is the student's present level of performance and educational need? Does the student need any additions or modifications to the special education and related services to meet the annual goals?" On the basis of the review, and with input from the student's parents, the team decides what additional information it needs and what assessment approaches to use.

Program evaluation   Program evaluation involves evaluating the overall services provided to groups of students or programs. Educators need to examine the success of programs offered to students, to replicate strong programs, and to refine or change programs that are not effective. Evaluation questions include: "Is the program successful? Are goals being met? Do parents feel satisfied with the services?" Information is collected in a variety of ways including aggregating assessment results of students who participate or have participated in the program; asking teachers, students, and parents to complete checklists or rating scales; interviewing current students in the program and their parents; or asking graduates of the school or program and their employers to complete questionnaires.