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Testing and Grading Your Struggling Learner: An Interview with Faith Berens

March 20–24, 2017   |   Vol. 130, Week 4

Do your student’s special needs prevent him from testing well? Then you won’t want to miss this week’s Homeschool Heartbeat, as HSLDA special needs consultant Faith Berens breaks down the options and offers her expert guidance for evaluating your struggling learner.

“Learning potential is not fixed. All brains can change. We can all grow and learn new things.”—Faith Berens

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Does your student’s special needs prevent him from testing well? You won’t want to miss this week’s Homeschool Heartbeat, as HSLDA special needs consultant Faith Berens breaks down the options and offers her expert guidance for evaluating your child with special needs.

Mike Smith: I’m joined today by Faith Berens. She’s a homeschooling mom, educational therapist, and one of HSLDA’s special needs consultants. Faith, it’s great to have you with us today!

Faith Berens: Thank you, Mike, it’s a privilege to be here.

First things first [0:31]

Mike: Well Faith, let’s say a parent has just started homeschooling their child who has special needs. What are the first steps they should take with regard to grading and evaluating?

Faith: Sure. Well first, I really encourage parents to reflect on what their child can do before just focusing on what they can’t do. And childhood and homeschooling truly are a journey, but in order to know where you’re going, we really have to know where we’re starting from. So parents need to determine their child’s present levels of functioning or performance—in not only academic areas, but also think about social, spiritual, emotional, and behavioral areas as well. If a child’s been in a school setting and parents have pulled them out to homeschool, they may want to use information from the school’s test reports, report cards, or former IEP. But certainly, parent-teachers may want to do their own informal assessment, such as ready-made skill checklists, there’s commercially available checklists, and things available online, or placement tests that are provided by curriculum publishers.

It can also be helpful for parent-teachers to use a general scope and sequence checklist, such as those found in Rebekah Rook’s book, or Cathy Duffy’s. This can help parents to identify and track concepts, skills, and topics that the child has been introduced to, or ones that may be developing, and which ones have already been mastered.

Alternative assessment ideas [1:59]

Mike: Faith, what types of assessments are used to record and evaluate the progress of students with special needs?

Faith: Most children with special needs will probably have already had lots of assessments of various kinds from professionals—perhaps a speech and language therapist, or medical checklist, or even a psycho-educational or neuro-psych testing that’s been done.

Those certainly have their place, and we can glean good information from them, but those are just snapshots of children’s progress and ability. However, parent-teacher observation and anecdotal notes are really valid, and they’re practical ways of assessing.

Mike: Well Faith, can you share some ideas for alternative assessments and grading options for homeschool families?

Faith: Absolutely. Portfolio assessment, work samples, using rubrics, and allowing the student to do oral presentations or demonstrations can be really meaningful and powerful authentic ways for the student to demonstrate their knowledge and skills that they’ve gained or mastered.

Also, using rubrics rather than letter grades, which can often seem obscure and subjective, are a wonderful alternative to traditional letter grades. And a rubric is basically a rating scale with set criteria such as 1 being the worst and 5 being the best. So the rubric is explained and supplied to the student up front before a task or assignment is given, and then the student knows what he or she will be evaluated on, and what to aim for.

Testing accommodations for your child [3:32]

Mike: Faith, what are the biggest challenges when it comes to grading and evaluating a student with special needs, and how can parents overcome those challenges?

Faith: Some of the biggest challenges that we hear from parents is that their students don’t test well. Many of them have test anxiety, and it’s hard for them to also get out what they know, and they’re inconsistent in performance. They might know something one day and in one place, but then the next day it’s as if they’ve never seen it before, or they are not able to retrieve it in a different context.

And when we think of assessment, we often think of quizzes [and] end-of-unit checkpoints, and most often, we’ll think of standardized testing, such as the Iowa or Stanford or CAT test. And certainly those have their place—and in many states they’re required. But I think a great way to get around these challenges for children with special needs [is] for parents to offer testing accommodations that are appropriate and needed, such as maybe enlarged fonts, extended time, or use of a keyboard or dictation, which can allow the student not only to access the test material, but also demonstrate what they’ve learned.

Another thing for parents to keep in mind is the use of dynamic assessment. And what that means is it basically blends teaching and assessing into a singular activity. So think of the “assess, teach, and then assess” cycle. This works really well with homeschooling, because the parent is working closely with the child and they’re assessing on the run, and then they’re teaching, and then they’re reassessing and checking how the student is making progress.

Tracking your child’s progress [5:12]

Mike: Well Faith, what are the best ways to document and evaluate the progress of a student with special needs over the course of a year?

Faith: Well, nobody knows their children better than parents. I encourage parents to keep a journal or notebook for their children and write important observations down as they notice new skills emerging, or even areas of difficulty. Parents may find Joyce Herzog’s book, Learning in Spite of Labels, very beneficial. Also, please know that parents can rent from our special needs department the Brigance Inventory of Basic Skills, and we also have an early development assessment kit. These can be really helpful for tracking their child’s progress from year to year.

Mike: Faith, do you have a couple of top picks for resources to help parents grade and evaluate their student’s progress?

Faith: Absolutely! I’m all about resources. First and foremost, I’d like to direct listeners to our very own HSLDA Early Years, Struggling Learner, and High School consultant pages. We have testing tabs and articles on progress monitoring, portfolios and recordkeeping, as well as transcripts. Also, I highly recommend Judith Monday’s new book, Teaching a Child with Special Needs and Home and at School. She has an entire section on evaluating students, rubrics, and accommodations for testing, and ways to adapt testing for students with special needs. Also, check out Debra Bell’s books and resources at www.DebraBell.com.

The following books are oldies, but definitely goodies. And they’re just as sound and relevant today as they were when they were written. So parents should be sure to check out Evaluating for Excellence by Theresa Moon, Lesha Myers’ book, Making the Grade—both of those can be found on Amazon—and Sharon Hesley’s book, Homeschooling Children with Special Needs, which we carry in our HSLDA online bookstore. Lastly, [I] highly recommend Loretta Heuer’s book The Homeschooler’s Guide to Portfolios and Transcripts.

Mike: What a great help those lists are!

More than a label [7:22]

Mike: Faith, what are the most important things that parents should remember about testing and evaluating their students with special needs?

Faith: Well firstly, parents know their children better than anyone, so their evaluations are definitely valid. I encourage families to keep good records, observations, checklists, and formal evaluations, and any progress reports from special therapists that they may be working with. Remember that standardized testing, such as academic achievement testing and even cognitive IQ tests, are simply snapshots of the child on a certain day, and under a very specific type of circumstances. In regards to this cognitive IQ test result, parents need to realize that the last decade of brain research and neuroscience has shown that our learning potential is not fixed. All brains can change. We can all grow and learn new things. So they need to take those IQ scores with a grain of salt and remember that their children are way more than a score or a label or a diagnosis. And I encourage them to utilize authentic assessment, such as the rubrics and checklists and oral narrations—the things we talked about earlier this week—because those are great ways to really evaluate how the student is making progress.

Parents should consider keeping a portfolio of work as an alternative assessment, in addition to any standardized academic achievement testing they may do at the end of the year. And lastly, please remember that the HSLDA team of educational consultants are here to help with grading and evaluating questions or concerns.

Mike: Faith, it’s really been a blessing to have you with us this week. Thank you for joining us and shedding some light on a subject that many people don’t know much about. So until next time, I’m Mike Smith.

Faith BerensPhoto of Faith Berens

Faith Berens lives in Stephens City, VA with her husband, Matthew, daughter, Hailey, and son, Hayden. Faith joined the HSLDA team of Special Needs Consultants in 2008 and homeschools her children, as well as working as a private educational consultant and evaluator. Some of her passions include reading for pleasure, singing, traveling, nature/science, leading Bible studies, and teaching reading to struggling students. Faith holds a master’s degree in reading from Shenandoah University. She has over 15 years of teaching experience that includes serving as a classroom teacher in public and private Christian schools, Reading Recovery® teacher, reading specialist, NILD educational therapist, home educator, and tutor. Her areas of expertise are early childhood literacy, reading assessment, and the identification and remediation of reading difficulties and disabilities.

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