Wednesday, July 11, 2012

On Test Scores and Attempts at Intervention

I received a letter from our school district's Executive Director of Instruction. Here's the opening paragraph.

"Your third grade student was given the Ohio Achievement Assessment for Reading last October and April. With both administrations your child's Reading score was below the 'proficient' level identified by the Ohio Department of Education for both test administrations. Therefore your student is being invited to participate in a week-long reading intervention class that will target your child's areas of most weakness and address those in a focused manner."

Hmmm. "With both administrations...for both test administrations"?  Redundant redundancy.

My child's "areas of most weakness"? Most awkward.

"[A]ddress those in a focused manner"? Oh, good. I would hate for them to waste his time in an unfocused manner.

Methinks Madam Executive Director could use a little English 101 tutoring.

While I feel a tad mean-spirited calling her out for "below the 'proficient' level" composition skills, I'm not sure how I feel about Jack's being invited to participate in reading intervention.

Not sure at all.

Here's why.

1. Jack's OAA reading scores are essentially meaningless. Children with autism often score well below their ability simply because tests are boring and pointless, and the OAA focuses on an extremely artificial curriculum mandated by bureaucrats in the state of Ohio. The reading scores, in particular, are far below Jack's actual ability.

Allow me to give an example. Jack scored low in vocabulary acquisition. Third graders in our district do word-of-the-day worksheets and are tested once a week on this vocabulary. The first month of school, I helped him study for these tests, but I very quickly realized this was an utter waste of our time. The artificiality of the vocabulary meant little to Jack, and he couldn't retain the few words he got right on the tests even a week later. For instance, the word drought didn't stick. We did a worksheet together and I asked Jack to use it in a sentence, but he replied, "Uh. Mommy. Maybe later. I'm bored." I made him do it, but he still missed it on the test.

Jack actually does a lovely job acquiring new vocabulary in more natural ways.Yesterday, we were outside, and I pointed out the cracks in the dirt and crackling dryness of our grass. I told him we were in a drought, and that meant we weren't getting enough rain to keep the grass alive. He replied, "Wow. The drought makes all the plants thirsty and dries up the mud in the river." He used the word so easily and with the delight of a child learning something powerful and new. I'll make a point of repeating the word a few times this week and invite him to use it. Then he'll have it down.

Worksheets only teach--really teach--children who are enthusiastic pleasers. I loved worksheets in school. For that matter, I loved standardized tests. Jack, however, can't understand why a teacher or his mom would be pleased if he did well on a worksheet. Worksheets are, to him, boring. So are tests with bubble forms. What is the point?

If a child isn't doing his or her best work on a test, how meaningful are the test scores?

Not very.

2. Jack's scores in October and April were low (as they have always been). I question whether one week, 12.5 hours, of instruction will have a significant impact on Jack's reading level--either as tested by the OAA or in real life. The letter states that the intervention will target Jack's "areas of most weakness," and such individualized intervention is certainly preferable to a one-size-fits-all program. Our district has some very talented reading specialists although I don't yet know who will be teaching this class.

But how will that targeted program carry over into the regular school year? Will his special education teacher get a report of Jack's ability and disability as assessed by the reading specialist? Will his teacher then act on that report in meaningful ways? Will these meaningful ways focus solely on raising test scores or will they encourage and foster life-time reading?

You might guess which sort of focus I would prefer.

3. Jack likes to read books of his own choosing. He happily spends hours reading his books, most of which are below his actual reading level for school. But he enjoys them. He begs me to buy them. He saves his allowance to buy them himself. He is also able to read signs, menus (even when he won't eat off of them), road signs, and packaging labels. He remembers reading things several years ago...things most people would forget. He activates closed captioning on movies he watches and studies the words.

Sadly, there are no 4th-grade chapter books on Thomas the Tank Engine, although we do have A.A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh books on schedule for reading this summer. As Jack's interests mature, so will his reading. I am not worried at all about the long-term prospects for Jack's reading ability.

With nurturing and encouragement and natural development, he'll read just fine, with or without 12.5 hours of intervention.

4. Jack's math scores on the OAA were even lower than his reading scores. A jump-start to his math learning for fourth grade would be helpful because, unlike the reading scores, his math scores actually do reflect a serious disability. Why is there no math intervention program?


Of course, I enrolled Jack in the reading intervention class. If the reading specialist is good, the 12.5 hours of additional instruction certainly can't hurt him and may help jump-start his school year in a very positive way. He is happy in the school building and enjoys the school routine.

But I will ask lots of questions. And I will be in the school building every week this coming year. Last year, I didn't volunteer much and felt out of the loop. In April, I realized that Jack's reading wasn't progressing as much as I hoped largely because his teachers focused too much on oral fluency. They also weren't pushing him as hard as they could have.

Perhaps my being in the building wouldn't have changed what the teachers did last year, but it would have given me a chance to advocate sooner on his behalf. I'll be there this year.

Because one way or another, Jack will be a life-time reader. Of that, I am certain.


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Susie said...

Great post! I'm going to send a link to it to John's grandson who's son, Alex, is autistic. Alex is 4 and when we visited there a couple weeks ago I was amazed at the words Alex would point out on boards and signs in the restaurants we visited. He could read them! Such an amazing young man. Thanks for sharing this.

Mynn xx said...

This is so fabulous, Susan! I LOVE when parents want to be more involved with their children and our classroom encourages it! I wish you could be our room mother...none of our children's parents have time/want to, and so MY mother is our room mother. Wishing for the best for you, but especially Jack.

PS: I think you should rewrite the letter appropriately and kindly suggest that they use your form next year...or is that snarky? I would appreciate the help if it were me, but I don't know the writer, so I can't say! ;)

Jessi Fogan said...

Oh, how I scoff at the standardized test letters we've received. Our district does English & math assessments in grades 3 & 6. One child struggles in math class, but scored average on the test. One constantly exceeds his grade level in class, and scored 'below average'. And, of course, the language concerns of a standardized English test...where the children are forced to work without help (even if they regularly have an aide to help)? Meaningless. I'm not a big fan of standardized testing for typical kids, but for kids with autism? Waste of time & resources.

I think it's neat that Jack watches movies with closed captioning. Connor is disgusted when DVDs don't have that option activated. I've even gotten into the habit myself - it beats having the volume turned up high!

We're somewhat luckier when it comes to reading, because there are chapter books available for Star Wars & Transformers (which have replaced Thomas the last couple years). There aren't any pictures, though. That's where the whole thing falls apart. Both boys prefer reading non-fiction, which amazes me. These are kids (mine) who believe that there is a Teletubby planet, that Cybertron is a part of our solar system, but reading a made up story? That's just silly.

Also, for your entertainment, the two of them interrupted me no fewer than 5 times while writing this comment. Is summer over yet?

Marie said...

I read this post and it took me back to my son's struggles in elementary school. He is not autistic; but we spent 5 years dealing with the IEP process.

He had a really hard time learning to read. After extensive testing he was determined to be non specific learning disabled. Huh?

He spent 5 hours a week out of class with a wonderful woman that recognised his learning blocks.

We ended up doing private tutoring and he CAN read. He is not the reader that his sister and I are; but he will pick up a book and read things that interest him.

I laughed when I read that Jack does not get the bubbles, standardized tests and worksheets. Neither did Daniel. He also could not understand why you had to "show the work" for math. What a waste of time that stuff was.

He too learned more naturally. If something interested him; look out, he would immerse himself in it and we all had to deal with it for months at a time. The egyptian period comes to mind. I learned more about embalming than I ever needed to know....

I love reading about your kids; it brings back many wonderful memories. And some tough ones too. Now that those years are gone; I wish I would have know back then not to stress so much over some of it.

Susan Raihala said...

crafty, perhaps your boys could get into reading graphic novels. I've never read any, and perhaps they are a tad adult (not sure), but I have heard that some kids with autism really spark to manga and such.

Megan said...

Oh Susan...those dreaded tests. I despise them and know that Jack can definitely perform higher than what his scores probably reflected. Children like Jack definitely need more naturalistic settings to apply what they learn as do many students with autism and most children in general. Its unfortunate that our state standards and school budgets confine teachers to worksheets and bubble tests.

Elsea Designs said...

Hi Susan,

I too have an autistic son, Max who is 10, he has aspergers and is quite high functioning. We only got the diagnosis last year after he was called a freak of nature by one of his teachers, but that is a different story. Since we have had his 'label' (his paediatrician's words not ours) we have made friends with quite a few families that have autistic children.

One of my friends has 2 boys, both on the spectrum, her 10 year old was a late starter to reading and was always below the average, but, over the last few months it has just clicked for him. My friend was so pleased when she got the test results, that was until her son was reading while they were out one day and she asked him what it all meant, his reply was 'I donna no'. She then realised that he was reading phonetically and had absolutely no comprehension of what he was looking at. She now takes any test results with a pinch of salt as they do not really give a great indication of the child's ability, as, like you say, if they really hate tests they will never do well. Even if they are ok with the whole test situation there could be a noise in the room, or a smell or even the lighting that will put them off or distract them and then they haven't got a hope in hell of doing well.

I have come to realise that although I will appreciate and take any help offered to us, the best judges of your child's ability are the friends and family around the them, and to a degree the child themselves.

I think what I am really trying to say is try not to worry too much what the paperwork says (especially the ones that are as badly written as that one!) and just keep up your great job of encouraging Jack to read whatever he is most interested in.

Sorry if I have waffled on a bit. Take care. Lorraine

Susan Raihala said...

Thank you for your "waffle," Lorraine! Jack had a very good experience in summer school and is adjusting well to fourth grade. Best wishes to you and your son!

Sunshine said...

I love what you have written and I applaud you for doing what you are doing for your son. I have always thought that mothers know their kids better than anyone else.
I slipped through the net at school and was labeled stupid.
I wasn't/aren't stupid, I'm actually very intelligent!
My mother had your attitude and it helped me in many situations - she knew me better than anyone else.
Thanks so much for sharing.
Sunshine, New Zealand