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Winter 2000 Table of Contents
Versión Español de este artículo (Spanish Version)

Information for Parents About Assessment

Marnee Loftin, School Psychologist Texas School for the Blind & Visually Impaired

Editor's note: Thanks to Marnee for allowing us to reprint this excerpt from her book, "Assessment of Students with Visual Impairments" that will be published this summer by the TSBVI Curriculum Department.

Assessment is a critical aspect of planning an educational program for a child. Yet most parents of children with visual impairments will find this process to be one of the most difficult and stressful ones that they encounter. Any parent who has experienced the development of an IEP will have at least one horror story regarding problems associated with assessment of their child. Assessment is something that occurs regularly, and will often form a basis for long-term decisions about their child. It is important that parents develop their own skills in understanding the process and providing relevant information to the person who is coordinating/completing the assessment.

WHAT KIND OF ASSESSMENT WILL BE COMPLETED?

There are a multitude of laws and state regulations that govern the types of assessments that are likely to be given. However, the entire process focuses upon looking at strengths and needs in the following areas:

The new IDEA gives parents and school personnel a great deal more freedom in planning which areas actually need to be formally assessed. Every three years, the ARD Committee will meet and make a determination regarding the need for assessment in each of these areas. The ARD Committee may make the decision that no new assessment needs to be done, or that any one of these areas needs additional assessment.

Making the decision about the need for assessment is often difficult for members of the ARD Committee. Parents are often hesitant to agree to testing/retesting because of the concern that additional disabilities will be identified incorrectly. In the process of making this decision, it is important that parents have clear understanding of the possible benefits that might be seen from appropriate assessment. Certainly if problems in teaming are evident, it is important that additional assessment be completed to determine what other strategies might be useful to improve learning.

WHAT DOES THE ASSESSMENT PERSON KNOW ABOUT VISUAL IMPAIRMENT?

Most assessments completed in a public school will be completed by an educational diagnostician or by a psychologist. Both of these professionals have considerable training in assessment of children, but neither is likely to have a base of knowledge regarding visual impairment. Legally they are required to consult with the vision teacher and make appropriate modifications, but it is important that you as a parent assist them in understanding your child's visual impairments before the assessment. Be certain that you have written information that gives specific details about the visual condition, prognosis, and implications in a classroom. The teacher of the visually impaired will also give assessment professionals some of this information. As a parent, however, you may have access to slightly different kinds of information that you have obtained directly from physicians and other specialists. Remember that the assessment professionals are motivated to do the best possible job of assessing your child, but will likely have very little information about visual impairment or the multitude of implications of these conditions.

HOW CAN THIS INFORMATION BE GIVEN?

This article, as well as a variety of excellent textbooks, will give specific information about helpful techniques as well as appropriate assessment instruments that will be of benefit to the diagnostician or psychologist. However, being the parent, you will likely be the best source of basic information about the specific visual condition, as well as early development patterns of your child. Parents who have been involved in the IEP development process for a number of years have often developed a brief summary of their child that explains the visual condition, the etiology, developmental milestones, and techniques that they use to decrease anxiety for their child. This is information that will be of value to each assessment professional that works with your child over their school career. Many parents report that having a prepared package of information decreases the stress and frustration of having to repeat this information each time that a new assessment professional works with your child.

An assessment professional will have complete access to all of the educational records on your child. These records will be reviewed to gain an impression of the types of progress made over the years. It is also helpful if you have some information available that shows the progress that you have seen at home. This may be videotapes of your child engaged in daily living skills activities, a portfolio of "special" work that you have saved over the years or anecdotal notes on developmental milestones. All of this information gives the assessment professional valuable insight about performance in a different environment. Although this information can certainly be reported verbally, showing specific examples is always helpful.

WHAT IS THE REASON FOR ASSESSMENT?

The reason for any assessment is to determine the strengths and needs of an individual child. With the recent changes in IDEA, assessments are not completed simply because "it is time for the three year assessments". Assessments now are completed because the members of the ARD Committee feel that there is a need for additional information to assist in developing or modifying the individual educational plan. Most frequently these needs center around exploring the difficulties that a child may be having in learning a specific concept or group of concepts. An occupational therapy evaluation may be requested because the child is having difficulty in mastering Braille, a speech and language evaluation because the child is having difficulty with auditory processing that is slowing down learning.

New evaluations will also be requested because new techniques are available to improve functioning that may not have been available previously. These frequently occur in the areas of low vision evaluations and technology evaluations. Not only are these fields constantly developing and changing, the increased maturity and development of your child may open new options for them.

The final reason for assessment, and the one most often feared by a parent, is an assessment requested to explore the possibility of an additional disability. This is difficult for parents especially if that additional disability may be significantly impacting learning in a number of areas.

WHAT IS THE ROLE OF THE PARENT IN ASSESSMENT?

Regardless of the age of the child, you have two major responsibilities in the area of assessment. The first is to actively participate in making decisions about which types of information are needed. The second is to assist the assessment professional in obtaining the most comprehensive information about your child, the visual condition, and the changes that you have seen over the years in your child's functioning.

It is extremely helpful to provide the assessment professional with specific questions or concerns that you may have about your child. For example, do you feel that the development of daily living skills are not progressing as rapidly as you had hoped? Are you pleased about the way your child interacts with adults, but concerned about social interactions with peers? Do you see signs of increasing social withdrawal as your child becomes older? Specific questions can assist in planning the assessment not only in terms of types of evaluations requested, but also in the selection of a specific test to be used.

WHAT ARE THE ADVANTAGES OF AN ASSESSMENT?

It is often difficult for parents to see the advantages of formalized assessment in addition to that conducted in the classroom. When the need for additional assessments is discussed, parents often are not sure how they feel about the issue. The assessments are sometimes seen as a way to add undesired additional disabilities and part of a discriminatory process that further increases the isolation of their child. It is important that teams make a realistic appraisal of the advantages of the assessment process.

Although parents often fear the possibility of the identification of additional disabilities, a more critical fear is that additional disabilities or specific needs will NOT be identified. Years of experience in the field of special education indicate that problems that are most frequently identified as being the result of poor motivation, lack of interest, or so forth on the part of the child, need to be further explored. Certainly this will be the case with some children, but in virtually all cases different instructional strategies or procedures will result in an increase in rates of learning. The key to finding these strategies is quality assessment data that will identify specific strengths and needs as well as the presence of additional disabilities. Quality assessment should result in instructional changes. Whether these changes are based upon an objective statement of strengths and needs or additional disabilities, the ultimate outcome should be better instruction for your child. Assessment should not be an evil to be avoided but an integral part of your child's instructional program. Your responsibility as a parent is to ensure as much as possible that it is a quality assessment.

WHAT WOULD BE CONSIDERED A QUALITY ASSESSMENT?

A quality assessment would be considered one that meets the following criteria:

WHAT ARE THE MOST COMMON ASSESSMENT PROBLEMS?

Undoubtedly the most common problem is to underestimate the difficulties associated with low vision. If a child has no useable vision, assessment professionals seem to be extremely cautious regarding adaptation. If acuity appears to be good, modifications are often inappropriate. For example, the impact of fatigue, lighting conditions, figure-ground problems, and field losses are often underestimated. As such, tests are given and implications drawn that are not valid. For example, a child with low vision may be able to complete the Block Design portions of the WISC-111 with little difficulty. However, that does not mean that the fine visual discriminations necessary on other portions of the WISC-III can also be made. It is important that the assessment professional understand that the assessment of a child with low vision is likely to be one of the most complex tasks that can be undertaken.

The other common difficulty is associated with the modifications that are made in the testing process. Both inadequate as well as excessive modifications can make assessments less meaningful. The goal of all involved in the assessment process is to determine if modifications can be made in a meaningful manner and to ensure that such modifications are made appropriately.

Your child is legally entitled to each of the modifications that are listed in the IEP. For example, if the IEP requires that materials be presented in an auditory format, testing should occur in an auditory format. However, you should be aware that all tests cannot be modified to reflect the recommended modifications. To do so would mean that the tests would be meaningless. Reading questions on an audiotape for a year-end test of government would likely be an appropriate modification if materials had been presented on tape for the majority of the class. However, reading a test to determine a reading level would be a meaningless modification, and it would invalidate the purpose of the test. For many parents one of their great difficulties is determining when modifications should be demanded in the testing process and when exemptions are the most appropriate. The most important criteria to consider would be the intended purpose of the test.

CONCLUSION

Parents have always had a critical role to play in the assessment process. With the implementation of the new IDEA, the law requires that parents play a greater role in this critical aspect of program planning. All of the decisions your team makes about your child's program rest on the quality of the assessment that is done. Begin now, long before your next IEP meeting, to think about the quality of assessment that has been done on your child. Do you have copies or have you read through all the assessment information? Do you have information collected to share? Do you understand what the tests indicate in terms of your child's strengths and needs? If not, have you scheduled appointments to meet with the team members who can explain the assessment data? Do you think there may be other areas where new assessment information should be gathered? Have you discussed with your child's teacher or diagnostician what types of testing might be needed to address this concern? It never too soon to begin to prepare for your role in the assessment of your child with disabilities.


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