Assessing Students with Disabilities: Some Answers to Interview Questions

16 Jan

I have on several occasions gotten questions from graduate students who are taking classes for which they have to interview a special education teacher. The questions are rarely simple or at least I have problem answering them simply. So the price for answering graduate level essay questions on a Friday afternoon is that I blog them! So guess what Ms. M – consider yourself officially blogged! Hehehe!

These are questions about cognative impairments and assessment.  The school she is getting her degree from uses the term “Mental Retardation” or MR in the questions, but you’ll note that I generally avoid the “R” word in my answers in deference to those who are sensitive to that term.  We do use it as professionals among ourselves, but not as a pejorative as much as well-recognized descriptor and is shorter and easier to write than “Cognative impairment” or “Intellectual disability.”  Not everyone knows what “ID” means.
Keep in mind I’m doing this cold and flying without the net, a textbook or Wikipedia because that is how a face-to-face interview would be conducted. So if I’m wrong, feel free to correct me but no whinging on about it.  I’m not going anywhere to look this up, I’m just answering it as I see fit.  Your fitness will vary.  All other standard disclaimers apply….

#1 What in your professional opinion are the meanings of intelligence and adaptive behavior

Intelligence, to me, is indicated by a person’s ability to solve novel problems and navigate novel situations. While you cannot teach intelligence, you can help it grow by requiring its regular use. Intelligence is the ability to figure things out by pulling together reasoning, experience and observation.

Adaptive behavior is the application of more specific skills in navigating through daily life requirements. There are people with lower intelligence who can survive very well on the street, while your college professor would probably perish if he or she were require to live a week on the street. Adaptive behaviors can be learned and taught and that is a large part of what we do when teaching students with MR.  We can navigate many adaptive behaviors by following a script or series of steps.

#2 What problems are associated with assessing students with MR?

At my level, the problems are legion. This is why “pay for performance” and “accountability” break down so profoundly when we discuss teaching the population of students that I serve. First of all, my students do not produce anything. They are nonverbal and cannot read or write. So right off, that eliminates 99% of all the assessment tools currently used for high school students. Also keep in mind that my students have multiple impairments so they may be visually or hearing impaired. My students are decidedly nonstandard, so there are few if any standardized measures that would work. But even those with less severe impairments will work more slowly, require more support and generally do poorly under standard conditions.

Under any objective standardized scale of performance, my students regularly floor out. There are no high school assessments that give a score at an 11 month-old instructional level. Most simply don’t bother with a percentile less than 20%.

Finally, the fact is due to cognitive and sensory impairments, my students require thousands of trials to learn a single simple task. In one academic year, they MIGHT gain 1 month of learning in some area. I do not know of any initiative by any politician where this would be an acceptable gain. So the politics that drive current assessment practice further discriminate against the most severe students.

#3.What are the characteristics of the students with MR that result in eligibility for special education?

To simplify this, it is a combination of intelligence and adaptive behavior that causes them fall behind in their school achievement. This cannot be caused by a sensory impairment, a specific learning disability or a behavioral disorder and the onset must be prior to being school aged. For those with milder cognitive impairment, this would look like a broad form of a learning disability that is not specific to any one area. Those with specific learning disabilities and many with autism will have performance valleys and spikes, where they may be proficient in one area while being very weak in another. Cognitive impairment cuts across all learning, which is intelligence and adaptive behavior together, are important.

So how would one assess a student with a cognitive disability fairly and accurately? The answer to that is that it will take more than one tool to do it and over some span of time. It will not be easy or cheap. First off, you can use standardized intelligence tests providing they don’t floor out. You can also use adaptive behavior assessments and questionnaires. The questionnaires should be given to parents as well as teachers. Next, do some real-time observations of the student in the actual environment. And then look at actual work products and compare them with same-aged peers. All of these last measures should be done in several settings and across time in order assess the rate of progress. Assessment should always inform instruction, but in practice most of what passes as “accountability” and “performance” nowadays does not.

This is just my quick and dirty take on assessment of students with cognitive impairments so hopefully it helps with the degree as well as gets my readers thinking about assessment beyond the graduation test or CRCT.

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2 Responses to “Assessing Students with Disabilities: Some Answers to Interview Questions”

  1. Amanda March 16, 2010 at 8:02 pm #

    As a graduate student currently working on this exact set of questions…would it be okay to quote you in my essay?

    • Daniel Dage March 19, 2010 at 6:49 pm #

      Well, It is okay with me, but keep in mind that chances are good that your instructor will have seen these answers before! I would encourage you to talk with a special educator in your own area in order to get thoughts relevant to your situation. Plus my views are far from the only ones! See what others are saying, and then you have another point of reference. Thanks for reading!

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