Testing Reading-Impaired Students
Students with reading difficulties usually do not score well on achievement tests. We have had many questions posed over the years about grade placement for such students and if it is even worthwhile testing them. Here are several points to consider:
- Students with reading difficulties are often not mentally handicapped. They may not even have an overall academic learning disability. I have seen students who have struggled with reading in school who have gone on to excel in business and other environments. There are children who simply struggle with decoding words. These students tend to have a much better comprehension of what is read to them than what they read themselves. Often for students like that, a traditionally administered achievement test yields little information of value.
- Some achievement test sections do not directly measure reading skills, such as math and language. Even some reading sections test mental understanding of a reading passage more than the actual decoding of words. Since the purpose of an achievement test is to accurately assess a student’s skills, it is consistent with good testing practice to eliminate any factors that hinder such a valid assessment. In fact, the Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing devotes an entire chapter to the rationales and guidelines for testing individuals with disabilities. The overarching principle is that extraneous factors and disabilities should not affect the assessment of the actual learning objective to be measured (Standard 10.1).
- We recommend some experimentation with struggling students. One possibility is having an assistant read test items to the student, but avoid any help with actual answer selection. Another is to extend time limits for the slow reader. Yet another is to test an easily-distracted student in isolation. Because of the nonstandard method of test administration, test results obtained by these methods should probably not be included in group scores.
- If you are really determined to find out how much of a student's academic difficulties are due to reading problems, administer the test twice, using both Form A and Form B of the same level. The same person should administer the test both times. All other factors, such as time, day(s) of the week, and testing environment should be duplicated as much as possible from the first testing session to the second. The first time through, use verbal assistance extensively, including reading test items to the student. The second time, use the other form of the test and again supervise closely, but do not read actual test items to the student. The difference in scores on the two tests should give some indication as to how much a reading disability affects the student's performance in other subject areas.
- Questions often arise about grade placement for reading- or learning-disabled students. There is no point in testing a 6th grader who is working at a 3rd grade level by handing him 6th grade testing materials. Test a student at the grade level in which he can reasonably be expected to perform.
- It is true that there are workarounds in a test, such as testing 3rd graders at the end of the year as beginning 4th graders. What does not work, however, is trying to go outside the boundaries established by the test. We have had students identified as 6th graders who have taken a Level 2 (grades 2-4) test. There are no provisions and no norms in the 1970 CAT for testing out-of-level grades. Therefore, such a student needs to take a Level 3 (grades 4-6) test. If Level 3 is deemed too difficult to be meaningful for that student, he would need to take the level 2 test as a 4th grader.
- One more note for our customers: When returning tests taken by learning-disabled students, a grade level must be provided for them, one that is appropriate for the test level they are taking. We cannot enter tests into our system without a grade level, since percentile scores and other norms are dependent on them.
We have tried to stress over the years that achievement tests are not some fearful, omniscient entity that must be approached with fear and trembling. Rather, they are carefully-developed tools that help schools, teachers, and parents to make informed decisions about the education of their children. Like any other tools we use, we are responsible to learn about their use and misuse, what they are intended to do, and what they cannot do. Like many tools, they can sometimes be used in more original ways than we first thought, provided that we are thoroughly familiar with them.