Friday, February 8, 2013

How to Have Reliable, Productive Psychological Testing Sessions

Since Husband had eye surgery yesterday and Winter Storm Nemo is bearing down on Northeast, I thought today would be an excellent day to stay home and hunker down in a baggy ol' college sweatshirt with a Starbucks Skinny Cinnamon Dolce Latte and bust out a blog post!

Recently on my Facebook page, I mentioned a case where I had heard that two brothers were planning to throw their testing in order to get classified with special education services. Every now and then, I evaluate kids who do not give their "all" during testing--whether it's because they're unmotivated, uncooperative, excessively fidgety, or a plotful mastermind like these brothers. These kiddos can be challenging to test because we don't want to push too hard, but we also require reliable results for decision-making. It's a delicate balance.

Here are some general recommendations to make sure you're getting the most accurate scores possible:

  • Make sure to spend the time building rapport with the kids you're testing. Whether it's a game of Uno, asking about their interests, reading a story together, or an extra long walk & chat to the testing location, making kids feel at ease and comfortable with you is the first step towards having a productive assessment session. 
  • Pick a place to test that is relatively quiet, private, and distraction free. This is one of the first things you'll learn about assessment in grad school, and 30 years later it'll still be the solid base you need. Not all of us have our own offices or even a desk (or pencils, protocols, etc...), but doing your best to find a good place for testing can make a world of difference. You may have to get creative... nurse's exam room, librarian's office, or janitor's closet ring a bell?
  • Be familiar with your own assessment materials. As you're fumbling to see if an answer is 1pt or 2pt, trying to find your place in the manual, or checking to see if you're putting a model together the right way, it give kiddos chances to get off-track. This will come with time and practice, but making sure you know the assessment like the back of your hand will let you focus on the kid, not the text (which you will be able to recite in your sleep). 
  • Be open and flexible, but firm and structured. The more you test, the more you'll find the balance between being Robot Psychologist and Out of Control Psychologist. We need to maintain standardization and boundaries, but also be a person who the kid can relate to. Kids will run wild when given too much freedom, but can crack under someone who is too rigid. 
  • For kids that are reluctant, uncomfortable being wrong, give up easily when challenged, or who seem to not being exhibiting all their effort--be encouraging. Obviously, we can't tell kids if they are right or wrong on an answer when they ask, but saying things like, "You worked really hard on that one," "This seems easy for you," "You're positive about that answer," "Excellent effort," etc can give kids the extra push to keep going. Make sure that you give positive feedback even if a child is incorrect--it's supportive and they'll pick up if you're only responding when they're right, which can throw them.
  • For kids who are excessively fidgety, hyperactive, hard to focus--be consistent and repetitious. They are going to need multiple repetitions of directions and expectations, constant reminders to "sit on your bottom/look at me/put your listening ears on/take your time/look at these *tap finger*" and possibly breaks to let their energy out. There's nothing wrong with stopping after a few subtests (or every one) for some jumping jacks or to take a walk if it means that they'll be refocused afterwards. I always give kids the option for stretch and bathroom break halfway through regardless of their attention level--I don't like sitting for 1+hrs and I'm a typically-functioning adult (unless I have too much coffee, then I'm a tweak)! Providing reinforcers, such as M&Ms or small stickers, in short, variable intervals is also a good way to help maintain attention and give reinforcement.
  • That being said, don't be afraid to break testing into multiple sessions, especially if you're administering more than one measures. You will have to for especially little kiddos, because developmentally they just can't focus for taxing tasks for extended periods. If kiddos start getting frustrated, pushing them to keep going is only going to irritate them more, leading to less reliable results. If you have an inkling that things aren't going as they should, it's best to postpone until a later date. You may even want to ask the kid when they'd like to finish--maybe getting out of a certain subject they don't like will be extra incentive or motivation for them!
We can bend over backwards as Super Psychologists and do all the little things to make an assessment session as close to perfect as possible, but kids are unpredictable precious monsters that can still go rogue. In these instances, you'll have to decide how to report your assessment findings. It will be very important to write a strong "behavioral observations" section describing explicitly with observable terms what the child did during testing that might have impacted your results, and how they reacted to the things you did to maintain them. You will also need to write a statement describing why your results may not be reliable. Mine usually comes at the end of my "behavioral observations" section, right before my "assessment results" and sounds something like: Due to XX, the following results are believed to be an inaccurate and unreliable representation of CHILD'S current levels of cognitive functioning." Where "XX" is, note whatever it was that may have skewed the testing, such as "inattentive and hyperactive behaviors," "a lack of consistent and appropriate effort," etc. It would be painful to completely throw out your results and hard work, so when I appropriate I also note that "scores should be interpreted with caution" in whichever areas were particularly impacted.

What other suggestions, tips, and tricks do you have for productive testing sessions? 

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Sunday, February 3, 2013

Retention on Repeat

A seventh grade student mistaken for a parent by a staff member. A 13-year-old in fourth grade. A first grader a two heads taller and more developed than all her classmates. An eighth grade student able to drive to school. Sound nonplausible? I have them all in my school.

Retention is an epidemic in my building and district. The district has pass/fail guidelines, and if a student does not meet them, chances are they will be retained and repeat the grade. Give them an extra year to make up what they didn't learn the first time through, and they're on their way. Since I recently found out that my school is in the lowest 5% of schools in the entire state, and our graduation rate hovers around 50% district-wide, my Spidey senses tell me there's a hole in that logic.

We could go on and on about the research regarding retention, but in short: retention doesn't work. Kids that are retained can lose their achievement gains from repeating within 2-3 years, are more likely to be unemployed, on public assistance, or in jail as an adult, may have negative social/emotional adjustment, are more likely to have negative social outcomes as adults (drug use, low self-esteem, emotional distress), and are 5-11x more likely to drop out of school or not achieve a diploma by age 20. In an urban setting with many of these problems already present in the community, retention is just one more strike against getting students prepared for a productive life in a post-school world.

Are there instances where retention is a good option? Sure, but educators must look at it on a kid-by-kid basis and consider the whole child (academics, social/emotional development, maturity, physical development, etc)--not use blanket guidelines or benchmarks.

Since we can't change the system, we need to work at a building and classroom level. What are some other options for educators, aside from retention? NASP has some great ideas in this excellent article. A sampling of some that would work within an urban education framework, for the short attention-spanned :) :
  • "Early developmental programs and preschool programs to enhance language and social skills. Implementing prevention and early intervention programs is more promising than waiting for learning difficulties to accumulate.
  • Early reading programs: developmentally appropriate, intensive, direct instruction strategies have been effective in promoting the reading skills of low-performing students. 
  • Systematic assessment strategies, including continuous progress monitoring and formative evaluation, to enable ongoing modification of instructional efforts.
  • Student support teams with appropriate professionals to assess and identify specific learning or behavior problems, design interventions to address those problems, and evaluate the efficacy of those interventions.
  • Extended year, extended day, and summer school programs that focus on facilitating the development of academic skills.
  • Tutoring and mentoring programs with peers, crossage, or adult tutors focusing on promoting specific academic or social skills."
Here are two other article resources from NASP:

How does retention look in your building? Does your district have academic benchmarks for students to meet in order to be promoted to the next grade? What do you do instead of retaining/repeating students?

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