In the United States, standards-based testing means testing that targets the mastery of fixed or pre-determined goals. For instance, educational departments in each state might set specific goals for what students need to learn by the end of each grade: first-graders need to know certain phonics rules, be able to count to 100, recognize basic 2D shapes, etc. The goals increase in difficulty for each additional grade level.
In technical terms, standards-based tests are based on a final outcome. They have also been called outcome-based or performance-based tests. Controversy emerged in past years as all states moved towards these higher standards that focused on college and career readiness. Today, all states have adopted some form of these new standards, although many states have masked the standards by renaming them with their own language.
Summative, Not Diagnostic
Standards-based tests are also summative by nature, meaning that they set a goal and students either meet it or they do not. Scoring is usually a percentage based on the population of students who took the same test. But these tests were not designed to be diagnostic, so the scoring can be misleading; if students do poorly on them, it is not clear why. For example, if a 5th-grade student were given a 5th-grade math test and scored a 20% on it, this would be seen as a non-mastery. But why did the student fail? What do you do next? Do you need to teach the student 4th-grade math concepts? Or 3rd-grade concepts? Maybe the student was new to English and couldn’t read the test very well, and therefore failed not because of limited math ability but because of difficulty reading the instructions. (See this article discussing the limitations of standards-based testing in education.) Therefore, while standards-based tests are extremely important from an accountability standpoint, relying on them exclusively and using them inappropriately can be harmful. You don’t use a screwdriver to put a nail into a piece of wood; you use a hammer. Use the right test for the right purpose.
In education, a universal diagnostic means an assessment that you can administer easily to all students in a particular grade level, group, or school in order to get diagnostic data to help inform instruction. It is a modification of the universal screener used in the Response to Intervention (RtI) model of intervention.
For these two reasons, universal screening is outdated and should be evolved to universal diagnostics:
- Modern diagnostically designed assessments can provide data to inform instruction in about the same amount of time as a screener or summative assessment can be administered;
- Today’s classrooms are more academically challenging because the students are more diverse and the stakes are higher. Students need more academic skills today in order to be financially independent.
Because of #2 above, traditional RtI models are often less effective. When a school has only 40-50% proficiency in math, this means that 30-40% of the students are more than a year behind. This means a traditional pull-out program cannot accommodate the number of students who need support.
In education, a universal screener is meant to be a quick test that can screen students into groups–those who are doing okay academically and those who are at-risk. In the past, testing all students was very difficult to do. The idea was that teachers would give short tests to all students. This might mean a one-on-0ne test that took 10-15 minutes for a teacher to administer individually, or it could mean a paper-and-pencil test that everyone in a classroom could take at once.
The goal is for the test to be quickly administered and scored so that schools can use it to catch students who are struggling. A single cut score is used. For example, “above 75%” means good to go. “Below” means the student needs help. Ideally, teachers realize that John or Ann is struggling with 5th grade math before five or six weeks have elapsed in a school year. This quick screener flags students early so that they can receive extra help right away.
Under a Response to Intervention (RtI) model, these at-risk students are then put into a short-term intervention. They are initially diagnosed and a personalized learning path is prescribed. Some students might be tested further to determine if they qualify for special education services.
Today, it is easier to test all students using technology, and with more sophisticated assessments, the data can be diagnostic as well. This means that it doesn’t simply yield results of “ok” or “at-risk.” It can diagnose why certain students are struggling. For this reason, in today’s education workflows, more and more administrators are choosing to implement universal diagnostics over universal screeners. Doing a universal diagnostic upfront means an extra step can be eliminated. It also addresses students who may be marginally at-risk by providing a roadmap for remediation that can be implemented in the regular class with support. The other reason to move towards universal diagnostics is that in many urban schools, there are many students who are behind. A traditional RtI model of reform works well when only 10-15% of your students need pull-out services. But when 50-60% of students are at-risk, you cannot pull all of these students out of class. Some intervention needs to be provided within the core general-ed classroom. Automatic diagnostic data can engage students upfront in realizing their own gaps as well as provide teachers with data for small group instruction.
In education, a professional learning community (or PLC) is a method of fostering collaborative learning among teachers within a particular work environment or school department. It is often used in schools as a way to organize teachers into working groups devoted to practice-based professional learning.
In practice, teachers within the same grade level might meet together weekly. For instance, all 4th-grade teachers might meet in one group and 5th-grade teachers in another group. All special education teachers might meet as one group or, depending on the size of the school, perhaps special education teachers working with the same grade range of students.
Often PLCs are a requirement of district “PLC” initiatives. The meetings are meant to provide time to reflect on student testing data–qualitative and quantitative–and allow teachers to plan how best to achieve their teaching goals and objectives. The quality of PLC implementation varies greatly depending on how formal or informal the initiative is. In the best of circumstances, PLCs can be great agents of change as teachers buy in and work together. They give teachers a voice and a means of formally collaborating with colleagues towards clear goals. In the loosest of circumstances, they serve as a district initiative in name only. In these cases, the effectiveness of each PLC will depend on the individual teachers attending and/or the school leadership.
A functional behavioral assessment (or FBA) is a process that identifies a specific or target behavior that interferes with a student’s education. The assessment attempts to designate the particular behavior, identify the factors that support the behavior, and determine the purpose of the behavior.
The basic idea is that a student’s behavior serves a purpose. Whether they know it or not, kids act in certain ways for a reason. If schools and families can understand what is causing a behavior, they can find ways to change it.
Once an FBA is completed, it is often followed up by the development of a Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP). The intention of the BIP is to incorporate what was found in the FBA and craft a plan to re-teach desirable behaviors and help the child be more successful in school.
The six steps to an FBA are as follows:
- Choose a problem behavior to change.
- Measure the problem behavior by collecting data.
- Determine the function (purpose) of the problem behavior.
- Conduct a functional behavior assessment.
- Create a behavior intervention plan.
- Teach a new alternative behavior.
A Behavior Intervention Plan (or BIP) is a written plan that teaches and rewards good behavior. It can be a single page or many pages. The purpose is to prevent or stop misbehavior, not simply punish the child.
A Behavior Intervention Plan can also be used as a “proactive action plan to address behavior(s) that are impeding the learning of the student or others.” It is assumed that lesser interventions at Tier I and Tier II have not been successful. If developed for a student with an IEP or 504 plan, the BIP becomes a part of those documents. A BIP includes “positive behavioral interventions, strategies and supports.” Behavior Intervention Plans should focus on understanding why the behavior occurred (i.e., ‘the “function’”or “communicative intent” of the behavior) and then focus on teaching an alternative behavior that meets the student’s needs in a more acceptable way. This step includes making instructional and environmental changes and providing reinforcement, reactive strategies, and effective communication.
A cornerstone of IDEA, our nation’s special education law, is that each eligible child with a disability is entitled to a free appropriate public education (FAPE) that emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet the child’s unique needs and that prepares the child for further education, employment, and independent living.
Defined in IDEA at | 34 CFR §300.17, as follows:
§300.17 Free appropriate public education
Free appropriate public education or FAPE means special education and related services that—
(a) Are provided at public expense, under public supervision and direction, and without charge;
(b) Meet the standards of the SEA, including the requirements of this part;
(c) Include an appropriate preschool, elementary school, or secondary school education in the State involved; and
(d) Are provided in conformity with an individualized education program (IEP) that meets the requirements of §§300.320 through 300.324.
The hearing, a Manifestation Determination Review (MDR), is a process to examine all relevant information and specifically the relationship between the child’s disability and the behavior. Consequences for problem behaviors should not discriminate against a child based on a disability. The MDR is conducted when the exclusion of a child for disciplinary purposes would constitute a change in placement. The team considers the origins of the behavior as it relates to the child’s disability. If it appears that the disability has a causal relationship to the behavior, then the child should not be excluded.
In 2017, a case before the U.S. Supreme Court, Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District (Video Explanation), sought to bring clarity to the IEP process by answering the following question: What is the level of educational benefit school districts must confer on children with disabilities to provide them with a FAPE guaranteed by the IDEA? In a unanimous ruling, the Supreme Court rejected the low educational benefit standard used by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit. The Supreme Court ruled that “[t]o meet its substantive obligation under the IDEA, a school must offer an IEP reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances” (Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, 2017, p. 15). The Supreme Court sent the case back to the Tenth Circuit to apply this higher educational benefit standard. The district court judge subsequently held that the Douglas County School District had failed to provide Drew with a FAPE. Eventually, the school district paid Drew’s parents $1.3 million for his private school tuition, related expenses, and attorneys’ fees.
6 minute video description of Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District by Dr. Kurt Hulett.
In special education, disproportionality generally occurs in two primary areas. One, the over- or under-representation of children with disabilities in specific disability categories is of particular concern. Two, the over-representation of students with disabilities in the discipline process is of considerable concern. With regard to tracking disproportionality, school districts are most often tasked with the over-representation of students in these areas.
Disproportionality may be caused by:
- Failure to recognize and accommodate cultural differences among minority groups;
- Use of inappropriate assessment strategies for English Language Learners and racial and ethnic minorities;
- Failure to accommodate parents of ELL students or language minorities; and
- Lack of responsiveness to cultural and socioeconomic differences among children and their families.
5 Tips to Tackle Disproportionality. Download Now!
An IEP — Individualized Education Program — is an overall approach to meeting the needs of a child with a disability, as required by IDEA (2004). The IEP has become the center point of special education. Developed via a team process, many stakeholders, including parents, have a role in the determination of content and services enumerated in the IEP. The IEP is a legally binding document.
300.22 Individualized education program.
A 504 plan is a blueprint for how schools will support a student with a disability and remove barriers to learning. The goal is to provide the student equal access at school. In contrast, IEP stands for Individual Education Program and centers around academic achievement and determining whether a student qualifies for special education services.
For example, a 504 plan might explain that a student with a physical disability has difficulty getting to class on the second floor of a building and outline ways to remove this physical barrier. For instance, it could allocate extra time for this student to move between classes, as traveling to and from a particular elevator takes time. In the case of a student who was both blind and had a mental impairment, the 504 plan would address the visual impairment of the student and ways to accommodate it. The IEP would define an individualized learning plan to help the student improve academically and functionally.
Due process is the formal route to resolving conflicts in special education. When a parent disagrees with a school district, the parent has specific rights and processes to follow in order to resolve the issue. Often known as parental rights, due process is unique to special education; the same rights are not available to the parents of a child without an eligible disability under IDEA.
The Rowley case concerned a hearing-impaired girl named Amy Rowley who was a student at the Furnace Woods School in Hendrick Hudson Central School District, Peekskill, N.Y. Amy had minimal residual hearing and was an excellent lip reader. During the year before she began attending school, a meeting between her parents and the school administrator resulted in a decision to place her in a regular kindergarten class. Several administrators prepared for Amy’s arrival by attending a course in sign language interpretation, and a teletype machine was installed in the principal’s office to facilitate communication with her parents, who were also deaf. At the end of the trial placement, it was determined that Amy should remain in the kindergarten class but that she should be provided with an FM transmitter. Amy successfully completed her kindergarten year, but her parents argued that she was not maximizing her educational benefit. They believed the FAPE requirement under the IDEA protected such a right. The Supreme Court sided with the school, determining that “some educational benefit” was required by FAPE and that the bar had been met. This landmark decision set a low standard for special educators from 1982-2017, when the Endrew F. case increased the bar for FAPE.
Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) is a legal principle defined in the IDEA. This principle requires that all children with disabilities be involved in the regular educational curriculum to the greatest extent possible. The LRE definition and regulations are as follows:
300.114 LRE requirements.
Specially Designed Instruction (SDI) is a legal requirement found in the IDEA. SDI requires that special education students receive “specially designed instruction” as a part of their educational program. The general idea is that children with disabilities need unique and customized educational interventions that address their specific deficits. The definition of SDI is as follows:
Today, in the context of public education and providing all students with IEPs with SDI, the task can be very difficult. But fortunately, technology tools have come a long way in the past 10 years and can assist special education teachers by providing them with tools to diagnose individual students’ more efficiently as well as deliver instruction using online tools that target students’ specific gaps.
DORA – Diagnostic Online Reading Assessment to help with IEPs and Progress Monitoring
ADAM – Adaptive Diagnostic Assessment of Mathematics to help with IEPs and Progress Monitoring
LGL Edge – Online instruction in Math and ELA that targets students’ gaps and provides automated SDI for teachers
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