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Assessing Your Struggling Learner

January 28–February 1, 2013   |   Vol. 114, Programs 56–60
Originally Aired: April 5–9, 2010 | Vol. 96, Programs 16–20

“Assessment is simply measuring success and finding out if we’re on target. So [assessments] can be helpful to us as parent-teachers to track progress over time, reveal strengths and weaknesses in our children. They can also help to reveal if we need to adjust our teaching, or modify our curricula.”

HSLDA Special Needs Coordinator Faith Berens joins host Mike Farris on Home School Heartbeat this week to discuss why regular assessments can be an asset as you teach your struggling learner! She explains different methods of assessment, accommodating your student in test-taking, and how to use testing to track progress.

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Few of us probably remember tests in school with much pleasure. So if your student is struggling, you may be tempted to skip testing. But this week on Home School Heartbeat, host Mike Farris and his guest HSLDA Special Needs Coordinator Faith Berens will examine why that might not be the best plan for your child.

Mike Farris: This week, HSLDA Special Needs Coordinator Faith Berens joins me on the program. Faith, thanks so much for being here.

Faith Berens: Hi Mike! I’m so happy to be here!

Mike: Faith, parents of struggling learners may cringe at the thought of testing their student. But there are times that assessments, I guess, can be a parent’s best friend. Would you explain why assessments may be helpful for struggling learners?

Faith: Sure! Assessment is simply measuring success and finding out if we’re on target. So they can be helpful to us as parent-teachers to track progress over time, reveal strengths and weaknesses in our children. They can also help to reveal if we need to adjust our teaching or modify our curricula. They also provide us for verification and protection for our homeschools.

The first step in teaching should always be to assess where our children are, take a look at their skills and their functioning levels. Next we plan and set goals based on those assessments. We need to make a plan specifically designed for our children as individuals. A plan just helps us get to where we want to be. Third, we instruct and guide our children by modeling and teaching them to be independent learners. And finally, we re-evaluate, find out what they’ve learned, what skills have they mastered, what do we need to re-teach, and then the cycle continues throughout the year.

Mike: Faith, thanks so much. I’m sure that was really helpful for our listeners. I’m Mike Farris.

Mike Farris: Faith, on our last program, you explained why assessments are an important part of effective teaching. They enable parents to determine their student’s learning level, plan their instruction, teach, and then evaluate. Would you explain what role informal evaluations have in all this process and how they fit into the whole situation?

Faith Berens: Sure! Informal assessments are simply quick checks that a parent-teacher can do either daily, weekly, or even quarterly that will document the child’s growth in a particular area or skill over time. So this allows one to see if the child is retaining information, mastering the skills, and if the method of instruction is being effective.

Some examples of informal assessments are sight word checklists, behavior checklists, teacher rating scales, teacher observation notes, work samples, retelling—things like this. They’re very helpful to help us document growth.

Mike: Faith, I know that both my wife and I, but especially my wife, do this kind of informal assessment on a regular basis. And the fact that you’re working daily with your child, year after year, gives you the ability to really pay attention to how they’re doing. And that informal basis of evaluation really is an important part of the teaching strategy.

Thanks for your participation! I’m Mike Farris.

Mike Farris: Faith, we’ve been talking about how regular assessments can be of great benefit to struggling learners and their homeschooling parents. I’d like you to explain what a diagnostic inventory test is and how it plays a part in what we’re talking about.

Faith Berens: Diagnostic inventories are generally individually administered assessments. There are different types of diagnostic inventories, such as a reading inventory that can be given by a reading specialist. Another example are the Brigance Diagnostic Inventories, such as the Inventory of Early Development. This diagnostic tool will help parents to determine developmental skills across different areas such as motor skills, language, reading readiness, writing, and math.

Mike: Faith, how often would you recommend that parents do this? And is this for every child, or just some kids?

Faith: Well, it’s particularly useful for children with special needs or struggling learners. And typically we recommend that parents give this type of test annually. It can be very helpful when given annually to help them design a program specific to their child’s needs. It can help them identify any areas of delay, strength, and also for monitoring their child’s progress from year to year.

Mike: Faith, thanks so much for the good advice for families with struggling learners! I’m Mike Farris.

Mike Farris: HSLDA Special Needs Coordinator Faith Berens is with me. Faith, I want to tackle what may be an intimidating topic for parents with struggling learners: that is the formal standardized test. Are these helpful for students who struggle with learning?

Faith Berens: Well, I think they can be helpful for parents to administer, even for struggling learners. If you give those same tests from year to year, it can help you document progress. It can also help you with determining more of your child’s needs.

Mike: There would be some cases I would assume where the child’s disability would simply not allow that kind of testing to be pertinent at all. Is that right, or am I thinking wrong about that?

Faith: That’s correct, and in cases like that, we really encourage parents to use alternative forms of assessment and documenting progress, particularly using a portfolio.

Mike: So the goal is to see if the instrument, if the test itself, is appropriate for assessing how your child is doing? And if it doesn’t measure the kinds of things that your child knows how to do, it’s probably not the right thing for you to be pursuing?

Faith: Exactly.

Mike: Faith, thanks so much for what you are doing for families with special needs kids. I’m Mike Farris.

Mike Farris: Faith, we’ve been discussing how parents of struggling learners can use regular assessments with their students. How can they prepare those students to do their best on a test?

Faith Berens: Well, I like to tell parents to use practice tests and to instruct their child in the format of the test they’re going to be using, so they can familiarize their children with the layout as well as the language and the vocabulary that will be used in the test questions.

And, of course, we all know the importance of getting a good night’s sleep the night before the testing, and eating a well-balanced breakfast the morning of the test.

Mike: Faith, would you tell me about testing accommodations? About how and where they should test their kids?

Faith: Sure! This is a question we get frequently. We always recommend that parents adhere to the test publisher’s administration and standardization requirements. But if your child has been diagnosed, and they have a document learning disability or a special need that would warrant accommodations on the test, then we suggest that they give things like extended time, or the teacher/parent may be able to read aloud portions of the test to the child. Also, maybe allow for the student to mark in the test booklet, and then the parent transfer the answers onto a bubble sheet, if that’s the format of the test booklet.

Mike: Faith, thanks so much. This is going to help a lot of parents out there. I’m Mike Farris.

Faith Berens
Faith Berens Faith Berens has 13 years of teaching experience in both public and private Christian schools serving as a Reading Recovery® teacher, reading specialist, and educational therapist. Her areas of expertise are early childhood literacy, reading assessment, and the identification and remediation of reading difficulties. She recently earned her master’s degree in reading from Shenandoah University. Faith joined the HSLDA team of Special Needs Coordinators in 2008 and also works as a private educational consultant, evaluator, and tutor. Some of her passions include reading for pleasure, singing, traveling, nature/science, leading Bible studies, and teaching reading to primary age children.

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