• Developmental assessments
  • Screening tests
  • Individual intelligence tests
  • Individual academic achievement tests
  • Adaptive behavior scales
  • Behavior rating scales
  • Curriculum-based assessments
  • End-of-grade, end-of-course, and alternate assessments

Developmental Assessments  

Developmental assessments are norm-referenced scales designed to assess the development of infants, toddlers, and preschoolers in key areas. These areas include fine- and gross-motor, communication and language, social, cognitive, and self-help skills. If a very young child is thought to be experiencing delays, and especially if the child is going to be served in an infant-toddler program, professionals will use developmental assessment scales to identify strengths and weaknesses. The scales are administered through direct observations of the young child and parent questionnaires. From the results of the assessment, the evaluator can determine how delayed or advanced the child is in the key areas just mentioned.

There are numerous developmental assessment scales. Two that are often used are Developmental Indicators for the Assessment of Learning (3rd ed.)(DIAL-3)(Mardell-Czudnowski & Goldenberg, 1998) and the Denver Developmental Screening Test II (Frankenburg et al., 1990).

Screening Tests  

As we have said, schools often use screening tests to help find children who might be below the norm in different areas. Screening instruments are very easy to administer, contain relatively few items, and can be completed in a relatively brief time, often requiring only a few minutes per child. They may be pencil-and-paper tests, rating scales or checklists used to document certain behaviors, or direct observations of skills or abilities. Their purpose is to alert the school to a potential problem so that more in-depth assessments can be conducted.

Undoubtedly you are familiar with Snellen charts, which schools use to screen for visual acuity. Examples of other relevant screening tests include the Pre-Kindergarten Screen (Webster & Matthews, 2000) designed to identify possible pre-academic weaknesses in 4- and 5-year-olds; the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (Hoover, Dunbar, & Frisbie, 2001) to quickly test basic academic skills with groups of students; the Revised Behavior Problem Checklist (Quay & Peterson, 1993) used to identify children at risk for behavior problems; and the Kaufman Brief Intelligence Test (2nd ed.) (KBIT-2) (Kaufman & Kaufman, 2004), intended to provide a quick estimate of verbal and nonverbal intelligence.

Individual Intelligence Tests  

Although intelligence has been discussed and debated for many years, most experts agree that it can be defined as a capacity for abstract thinking, mental reasoning, good judgment, and sound decision making. Most important, intelligence—at least as measured by most intelligence tests—generally correlates with one's potential to learn academic skills. For this reason, individual tests of intelligence have almost always been used when students have been considered for special education. The outcome of this norm-referenced test will help to determine if the student's learning problems are associated with general subaverage intellectual abilities or if other factors, such as specific learning disabilities or emotional disturbance, may be related to the problem. The diagnosis of mental retardation (or intellectual disabilities) requires a significantly low level of measured intelligence whereas learning special needs and emotional disturbance assume an average or above-average level of intelligence.

Only a psychologist or diagnostician trained and certified in the administration of specific intelligence tests, often called IQ (intelligence quotient) tests, can administer them. This is because, in order for the test to be considered reliable and valid, it must be administered and scored in a very precise manner.

Most intelligence tests report an overall or general IQ score as well as subscores in areas such as verbal skills, motor performance, and visual reasoning. Intelligence tests commonly used in the public schools are the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children (3rd ed.) (WISC-III) (Wechsler, 1991), the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale (4th ed.) (Thorndike, Hagen, & Sattler, 1986), and the Woodcock-Johnson III Tests of Cognitive Abilities (WJ III) (Woodcock, McGrew, & Mather, 2001).

Individual Academic Achievement Tests  

Most students in special education, and those referred for special education consideration, will be weak in one or more academic areas. In order to determine most precisely which academic areas are of concern, a psychologist or educational evaluator will administer at least one broad ranging, multiple-skill academic achievement test to the child. The results of the test will tell how the child stands in key academic skills such as reading, written expression, arithmetic, general information, and specific school subjects.

Traditionally, professionals have used norm-referenced academic achievement tests for formal evaluations to help determine a student's special education eligibility, placement, and IEP goals. These tests will also be useful for documenting the academic progress of students over a long period of time.

Unlike the administration of intelligence tests, which requires the evaluator to receive specific clinical training, teachers can usually administer academic achievement tests. When they do, they must carefully follow administration guidelines. Like most special education teachers, you are likely to take at least one course on special education assessment. During this course you will probably learn how to administer and interpret at least one academic achievement test. Tests that you may have the chance to learn about include the Peabody Individual Achievement Test—Revised/Normative Update (PIAT-R/NU) (Markwardt, 1998), the Kaufman Test of Educational Achievement/Normative Update (K-TEA/NU) (Kaufman & Kaufman, 1998), and the Wechsler Individual Achievement Test, Second Edition (WIAT-II) (Wechsler, 2001).

Adaptive Behavior Scales  

A student with mental retardation (or intellectual disabilities) must exhibit a deficit in adaptive behavior. Adaptive behavior skills are those that are especially useful for daily functioning. Typical items on adaptive behavior scales include daily living skills; community participation skills; and functioning in specific ability areas such as demonstrating appropriate social behaviors, communication, motor abilities, and applying basic academic skills.

A teacher or another person can assess a person's adaptive behavior skills by using a commercially produced adaptive behavior scale. You do not need formal training to use an adaptive behavior scale, although it is very important that each scale be carefully reviewed before use. Using the scale requires an evaluator to rate each item using the scale's specific rating system. The evaluator must either be very familiar with the student (e.g., a teacher, parent, or caregiver) or interview someone who is knowledgeable about the student's ability.

Among the most commonly used scales are the second edition of the AAMR Adaptive Behavior Scales (ABS), including the Residential-Community versions (ABS-RC:2) (Nihira, Leland, & Lambert, 1993) and the School version (ABS-S:2) (Lambert, Nihira, & Leland, 1993). Other useful scales are the Vineland Adaptive Behavior Scales (2nd ed.) (Vineland-II) (Sparrow, Cicchetti, & Balla, 2005) and the Scales of Independent Behavior—Revised (Bruininks, Woodcock, Weatherman, & Hill, 1996).

Behavior Rating Scales  

Inappropriate behavior is a reason why many children are referred to special education. To determine and document the extent of behavioral difficulties, evaluators will often use behavior rating scales. These scales present a list of various challenging behaviors, sometimes clustered into subcategories, and the rater uses a rating scale (such as a 1-to-5-point scale) to indicate how frequent or intense the behavior is.

Like adaptive behavior scales, a parent or a teacher may complete the scale or an evaluator can obtain the relevant information from someone else who knows the child. After rating different behaviors, the evaluator can then calculate summary scores; and because the scales are norm-referenced, the scores for the child can be used to determine his or her behavioral status compared to others.

Rating scales that are frequently used in schools are the Devereux Behavior Rating Scale—School Form (Naglieri, LeBuffe, & Pfeiffer, 1993) and the Social Skills Rating System (Gresham & Elliot, 1990).

Curriculum-Based Assessment  

A school psychologist or teacher can use the norm-referenced tests we have discussed thus far for documenting a student's status at a particular time, but these tests have drawbacks. They are commercially produced and therefore costly, they sample a student's ability across an array of skills but do not hone in on more specific skills, and they report the student's status in comparison to others when often it is more important to know how a student's skills are developing in a relatively brief period of time. For these reasons, teachers often use curriculum-based assessments.

Curriculum-based assessments are often made by the teacher to determine the student's skill level in specific curriculum areas at a certain point in time. For example, if a student has an IEP goal to learn to read on the fifth-grade level, the teacher is not likely to regularly administer a standardized reading test to see if the goal is being achieved. Instead, the teacher might ask the student to read aloud two or three times a week from a fifth-grade reader and answer comprehension questions abut the material. At each session, the teacher would record and chart the number of words read correctly, the number misread, and the number of comprehension questions answered. By using this form of curriculum-based assessment, the teacher could determine if the student was making progress toward the goal.

Curriculum-based assessment provides a viable approach for evaluating how well a student responds to intervention (Fuchs et al., 2003). For this reason, teachers are likely to use it very often when evaluating students who are participating in early intervening activities. By using the curriculum-based assessment, teachers and other professionals will be able to determine if a particular intervention is succeeding.

End-of-Grade, End-of-Course, and Alternate Assessments  

The purpose of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) was to close the achievement gap between students with high and low levels of performance. Schools are required to demonstrate adequate yearly progress for all students or make significant changes in the way schools are run. In order to show if schools are making adequate progress, students are tested at the end of each grade. Currently, this testing applies to children between the third and eighth grades.

Besides NCLB, many states also have educational accountability laws that operate in a similar way. In North Carolina, for example, the ABCs of Public Education is designed to provide for school accountability, emphasizing development of skills in the basic subject areas and allowing as much local decision making as possible (Public Schools of North Carolina State Board of Education, 2004).

Students in special education are not exempt from these tests; in fact, IDEA 2004 requires their participation. If students with special needs are unable to participate in the general education mandated assessment, there are two possibilities. First, they may take the test with accommodations that allow them to participate. Second, they may participate through an alternate assessment procedure. Most students with academic special needs and with sensory or physical impairments are provided with accommodations, whereas students with more severe intellectual special needs are evaluated using an alternate assessment. In either case, the student's IEP must indicate how the end-of-grade or end-of-course test is to be given (Browder & Spooner, 2003).