The U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services recently funded a model demonstration project to develop collaborative methods of conducting adapted cognitive and academic achievement testing for children with significant motoric, sensory or communicative impairments. The ACSESS Model Demonstration Project collaborators include the University of Michigan, Western Michigan University, Washtenaw Intermediate School District and United Cerebral Palsy of Michigan. These collaborators are linking advances in rehabilitation engineering and assistive technology to improvement in cognitive assessment in order to provide a more accurate and comprehensive assessment of students' capabilities and needs.
There are two key commitments at the core of the project: inclusive education, and the involvement of students and parents in all aspects of assessment and decision-making.
In the initial phase of the project, focus groups comprised of educational stakeholders and structured interviews with students and families were conducted with four objectives in mind:
- Identify current practices related to school-based psychometric evaluations.
- Identify stakeholder evaluation needs.
- Determine ways to meet those needs and barriers identified.
- Provide specific recommendations for the ACSESS Project assessment process.
Based on the objectives, four focus groups were assembled consisting of transition specialists, school psychologists, a heterogeneous group of faculty and staff who specifically work with children with severe handicaps, and a heterogeneous group of assistive technology consultants. Group participants were recruited by intermediate school district coordinators. Focus group discussions were conducted by a private firm specializing in focus group procedures and reports. Groups were conducted under Institutional Review Board guidelines and approval. Participants were informed that they would not be identified in any reports either by name or specific district with which they were associated and gave oral informed assent.
The results from this type of qualitative procedure are not generalizable to, nor representative of, the entire population. Therefore, caution should be used when interpreting focus group reports. For example, if eight out of 10 participants in a focus group agree with a specific statement, it would be incorrect to assume that 80% of the individuals in a given population would also agree with the statement.
Eight key themes emerged across the four focus groups.
- Traditional standardized testing is not adequate for assessing children with significant disabilities. Frequently there is a mismatch between what is being tested and how it is being tested because standardized tests are not designed appropriately for children with significan disabilities. There are fine gradations in skill levels that are not captured in traditional testing; assessing these fine gradations is a critical step.
- Assessment should be a process, not simply a snapshot in time. There was real concern that the assessments are often single session evaluations that do not capture situational differences. Evaluators for these types of assessments may not know the child well and there was a strong recommendation for a multidisciplinary team approach with adequate time for team discussions.
- Evaluations should proceed from short- and long-term goals. Before proceeding with an assessment, everyone involved should know the purpose of the assessment and ensure that the assessments are being done in a way that is relevant to the desired outcomes.
- More useful information is gleaned from informal assessments than from formal assessments. Constant interaction and direct behavioral observations of the child by a person who really knows and understands the child is a preferred way to understand the child's capabilities.
- Results from assessments must be actionable and strength-oriented. Assessment results are not useful if they do not answer the questions, "What does this mean for the child today?" and "How does this matter to the child's goals?" Assessment results that are only focused on weaknesses or deficits are not very valuable. Assessments should be based on strengths and how strengths would fit into goals for the future.
- Environmental factors play a large role in assessment results. Children with significant disabilities often have difficulty generalizing skills and behavior from one environment to another. Therefore, these children typically do not perform the same when they are being assessed by an unfamiliar person in an unfamiliar place. Ideally, children should be assessed in their natural environment by a person with whom they are already comfortable.
- There is considerable room for improvement in the content and format of results reporting. It is often very difficult for all the professionals involved with the child's assessment to access copies of the report. Reports can be hard to interpret due to numerous pages of text and often do not contain actionable future-oriented recommendations. There was great interest in having reports available in multi-media CD format that could be viewed from a computer. The CD could contain video or audio clips, recommendations and other pertinent information in additional to the textual results.
- Current-day technology should be utilized in the assessment process. Videotaping children with significant disabilities has been quite valuable. Videotaping a typical day for a child is a productive way for all team members to see the child's abilities in their own environments, and allows evaluators to go back and watch the assessment to be sure they did not miss important details.