There’s an interesting conversation going on in the comments over on Diary of a Mom… Go ahead- read them- but come on back, and I’ll tell you my view.
First of all, I am NOT a psychologist. I am a teacher of teachers- in other words, I teach folks how to take the RESULTS of assessments and translate them into effective learning experiences for a child. But in order to do that, you have to understand assessments. Whether the test results are from a school psychologist, a neuropsych, or even the classroom teacher who sits down to watch a kid, assessments have to be done in order to know what to do with a child.
There are two kinds of assessments- those that compare one child with a group of children, and those that compare a child with a pre-established set of knowledge or skills. When I tell parents that their child is reading at a third grade reading level, there are two possible meanings to that phrase-
- It MIGHT mean that their child is reading at the fluency level, comprehension, decoding and analysis level as a level that the school system/the publisher of the text books/ system says is third grade level, has mastered the skills that are called 2nd grade level, but not yet mastered the skills that are called 4th grade level, OR
- It may mean that their child is reading the same fluency rate, comprehension, decoding and analysis level of other children who are 8-9 years old.
These are not the same thing. They are often similar, but they are not the same thing.
A child who is reading at a third grade level is expected to have already mastered the concepts, ideas, etc. of skills and knowledge at the 2nd grade level, but not have yet mastered the knowledge and skills that are at a 4th grade level. The “criterion-referenced” assessment tells me, as an educator, where in a scope and sequence of specified skills a child is- what he or she has achieved and what he or she needs to work on next. It tells me where there are holes in a child’s knowledge and what skills a child has mastered.
Criterion referenced tests are very, very useful for teaching. The information can provide a road map of instruction. It can give me the “What” for teaching- What do I need to work on with this child? The words “third grade level” simply tell me that most of the time, that’s where this material is taught, but there is no hard and fast relationship to third grade. In Montessori education, teachers often take away the grade level designations, and focus simply on a progression of skills- that are mapped in order and by a set of materials. As a child finishes one set, they are moved onto the next set. But the criterion assessment drives the instruction- what does a child know and what can he do?
What a criterion-referenced test does NOT do, though, is tell me how that child compares to other children. If a publisher calls a book “3rd grade reading level” because it comes after the “2nd grade” reading materials in level of difficulty, but no one who is 8-9 years old in a school, in a district, in a state can do that material- then it’s not at a “typical 3rd grader level”. Similarly, if everyone in a school, class, etc. can read it, then it’s not at a typical 3rd grader level.”. Most publishers, when they present their grade level information, have set it up in a sequence of skills, and determined how well most kids at that age level do on those skills.
Normative tests tell us if there are “strengths” and if there are “challenges”- and these questions ALWAYS need comparisons. If a 4-year old is reading the same materials of an 8-year old, then we say that the child is strong in reading. If a child is 14 and reading at the level of an 8-year old, then we say that reading is a weaknesses.
Comparison to WHO is another question. If I compare a child to other children, then I can get an idea of how that child compares to others of his or her age and I can get an idea of strengths and challenges. If I compare a child to other assessments that the child has taken, then I can get an idea of relative strengths and challenges within that same child. If a child has a “problem”, that determination is made using normative data. “A problem compared to what?” is the question that I ask. Compared to others of his or her own age? Or compared to other pieces of data within the child’s assessment picture?
There are lots and lots of areas that can be assessed to give us a “picture” of a child. Children can be assessed in all areas of development and compared to their peers in some areas, and compared to themselves in others, and placed in a sequence of skills and knowledge in others. Children can be assessed:
- Physically- “ill” is a relative term compared to “well”. “Tall” is a normative comparison. “Can cross mid-line” is a criterion-referenced point.
- Socially and Behaviorally- “Can maintain proper social distance” is a criterion referenced point. “Is acting like a typical 4th grade girl” is a normative point.
- Academically- “Mastered phonics decoding” is a criterion-referenced point. “Is in the 50th percentile” is a normative point stating that 50% of scores of same-aged peers fall above, and 50% of peers score below
- Cognition functioning and thinking skills- “Attention is age-appropriate” is normative, “Can focus on tasks for a maximum of 3-5 minutes” is criterion.
- Language- “Can sustain a conversation for 12 minutes” is a criterion point. “Can maintain appropriate conversational length” is criterion
- Emotionally- “Has difficulty maintaining control in crowded situations” is a criterion referenced point. “Has self-esteem issues” is probably a norm-referenced point, because it often means that compared to other aspects of the child- but can be compared to other people- self-esteem is the biggest “problem”.
…. and on and on. The developmental aspect being measured is the key to a good test. What information are you/a teacher/ a doctor / a therapist/ a parent looking for in order to work with the child better?
All of these assessments together provide me with a complete picture of a child. I can get a picture of the “What” and the “How” of how I can best work with this child. If I’m teaching specific content or a set of skills, I need criterion data to know what I can teach next. If I’m teaching a child in the context of other children and I’m grouping in a way to be most efficient in my instructional approaches, I need normative data comparing the child to others. If I’m trying to find the most effective method of providing information to a child in a way that he or she will learn best, or I’m trying to remediate areas of difficulty, I have to have normative data compared to the child overall.
My areas of expertise are with those kids whose assessment pictures are often very different compared to other children of their same age. I work with parents and children who are gifted and have disabilities. Needless to say, normative data that tells me that this child has “problems” in one area or another is not completely helpful. When a 2nd grader is reading at the 99th percentile compared to other children their age, I have no idea how high they really are. Are they reading material at the 5th grade level? At the 9th grade level? College? I have no real idea where to start. And the same holds true for children who are in the lower part of an assessment. A child with autism may be in the 1st percentile of language. Are they non-verbal? Speaking like a toddler? Able to provide grammatical structure?
Normative data provides labels and a profile of strengths and challenge. Yup, you’re high enough/low enough that you need something different- you learn in different ways. It can also show me how far I have to go- or how well I’ve done. If I’m working with a child who is in general education curriculum, normative data can pinpoint the areas I have to work on- whether those areas are academic, language, social, whatever. I can see how much work might be needed. If I’m working with a gifted child, I can see how much growth the child has made in a certain amount of time compared to his peers.
Criterion data can help me figure out what knowledge or skills I need to work on next- and how far I’ve come. The child has mastered social distance, but needs help in self-control. He’s mastered basic chemistry concepts and next comes in-depth work on the periodic table of elements. He’s mastered two-digit addition, and next comes two-digit with carrying. He’s learned to hold a fork, and next comes working with a knife.
Please notice that I have not once mentioned specific tests- the tests all measure something on the developmental aspect of a child. Different tests will give different glimpses into the whole “picture” of a child. Some tests are wonderful measures of cognitive functioning. Some give comparisons of a child’s executive functioning. Others do fabulous jobs at looking at a child’s math skills. Some do broad reading skills; others do in-depth examinations of specific reading skills.
The selection of a test has everything to do with what you want to find out. Do you want an understanding of how this child’s attention compares to others of his or her age? Do you want an idea of what language skills the child has mastered? Do you want an understanding of what modality this child learns best in? There’s a test for that.
As a teacher, as a parent, I love test data. The data can help me better identify how to help a child; I waste less time trying to figure out the individual strengths of a child and going over skills that might either bore or frustrate the child. As a parent, I stopped using words and started using pictures to give my child directions about how to clean her room, how to use the toilet. I learned to give instructions one at a time. Some of this I figured out the hard way. But when I got the test data from a good doctor, it made sense- she has superior visual memory and very low sequential memory. “Oh… now that makes sense”. The tests confirmed what I already had a hunch about, but wasn’t positive how it fit in.
And it’s important to have good test data. One psychologist tested my son and got a “typical” reading on intelligence, but a 130 academically and had the gall to tell me that that was not an unexpected result. I knew better- I know tests and I know my son. I then went to a psychologist who understands twice-exceptional children and got test data that made more sense. You can’t “buy” the right test score by shopping around psychologists, but you can make sure that you find one who will match the right tests to the child- and get answers to the right questions.
But… there is no one test or even series of tests that can provide a complete picture of a child. The only thing that can do that? Love. Parents know their children best. The tests just put into words what we already know.