Navigating the assessment maze

Rosalba Maistoru M.A., BCBA


How is a disability identified? What do the test scores mean? For individuals with special needs, assessment becomes a major part of their academic experience. The term assessment is often used loosely by individuals in many different settings to mean many different things. First, you will need a description of the differences in what assessments might look like when they are used for purposes of screening or identifying handicapping conditions. You’ll also need an explanation for a measurement perspective, how the features of an assessment must be tailored to match the purpose of the assessment and important information for parents regarding evaluations for special education. Lastly, assessments can be used to monitor the progress of individual children or to evaluate the quality of educational programs.

Assessments are administered for a variety of reasons. In its very broadest sense, assessment means the gathering of information to make critical decisions about a child. While assessment refers to the procedure of establishing a baseline or entry-level measurement of the child’s skills, it is also responsible for linking goals, interventions and evaluations, among others. To avoid confusing the word assessment with other terminology such as evaluations or tests, it is important to emphasize that assessment is a comprehensive process that is the result of many measuring techniques.

One major purpose of assessment is carried out to assign a diagnostic label and/or to determine placement eligibility. A developmental screening is used as a preliminary method for obtaining general information about a child’s development and detecting any potential problems. Domains such as communication, cognitive ability, social skills, and motor development are observed. The screening is not intended to be a comprehensive diagnosis, but rather provides a first quick look at a child. Screening tests should be brief, inexpensive, have objective scoring systems that are valid and reliable. It is important that families understand the purpose of screening procedures and be informed about the results. When the screening indicates that a young child has potential problems, it is critical that the child receives additional comprehensive evaluations in the areas of detected difficulties.

Diagnostic testing is a more intensive assessment process than screening. The diagnosis is conducted by members of a multidisciplinary team whereby information is obtained through informal and formal measures. For example, if the screening indicates that the child has language difficulties, members of the team could include a speech/language pathologist, a specialist in hearing, such as an audiologist to evaluate for hearing loss, a special educator and a psychologist to determine how the child’s development related to language acquisition. A family interview would provide additional information about the case history, language performance at home, and the primary language of the family. Together, the examiners strive to determine the nature of the child’s difficulties, the child’s strengths and weaknesses.

The assessment process should produce the necessary information for appropriate and relevant areas of concern. Informal assessments include case history, direct observations (e.g. play based assessments), checklists, rating scales and parent interviews. Play-based assessment is a tool used while a child is playing usually in his/her natural environment. The observer is able to see the interactions between the child and peers as well as noting speech and language, and motor abilities. Checklists and rating scales are used to make judgments about children’s behavior. The two should be used in different settings to determine patterns in behavior. Parent interviews are judgments based upon the observations of significant people in the child’s life.

Courtesy Spectrum Magazine


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