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Hurry, Hurry, Test and Place

By Frank L. Miller

After 36 years in the business of school psychology, dating all the way back to PL 93–180 and PL 94–142, I will admit to having borne witness to a lot of shifts in special education. The 2005 reauthorization that declared, "[States] must not require the use of a severe discrepancy between intellectual ability and achievement for determining whether a child has an SLD" and "must permit the use of a process based on the child’s response to scientific, research–based intervention" opened the door for RTI. Many practitioners such as myself were hopeful that this would also open the door to the "slow learners," those struggling students with low–average cognitive ability and similar scores in achievement. These hopes were quickly dashed when it ran head–on into the shift from the traditional pullout model of services to the concept of inclusive education. If we were truly pushing all the special needs students back into general education, then why should we be identifying more and more special education students whose lives would be changed very little by their new classification? Time and resources could be better spent working within the general education classroom.

Here in Delaware we were told we may not use the discrepancy model; we must use RTI. So we took a deep breath and adjusted. We saw our roles expand and our worth as consultants grow into a wonderful and rewarding blend of considering and solving problems. We looked at data from formative assessments and we looked at benchmarks, high stakes test scores, grades, attendance, and discipline reports; and we talked with teachers, administrators, and specialists; and we played an essential role in the decisionmaking process. That is why we were so dismayed that all of a sudden the number of requests for IEPs, "IQ tests," "dyslexia tests," and a range of others began piling up on our desks. Didn’t they realize that the days of test and place were over and that we could no longer assume that a failing grade meant the student had a disability? Didn’t they understand that we were intervening early, solving problems every day, and avoiding the need to label and place their children in "special ed"?

Now, we get this memorandum sent to state directors of special education from the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) with a subject line, "A Response to Intervention (RTI) Process Cannot Be Used to Delay–Deny an Evaluation for Eligibility under … IDEA." What many have come to assume is that we can no longer run children through the tiers if a parent or their local physician or therapist requests testing on their behalf. We need to skip to the head of the line and get the testing done and let all that "other stuff" fall by the wayside—no time for that! Hurry, hurry, test and place, test and place!

Let me take a minute to talk about tests. As much as my old college professor used to abhor the medical model as it applied to human behavior, bear with me. You go to a doctor’s office complaining about stomach pains. You quickly proceed to tell him (or her) that you want a CBC, liver panel, endoscopy, MRI, and CAT scan to find out what’s going on. He looks at you rather oddly and says, "Why don’t you let me evaluate your condition first? Let me ask you some questions about your diet, sleeping habits, alcohol consumption, and other lifestyle choices. Let me check your blood pressure, bowel sounds, and heart rate. Then I can recommend a course of treatment—say, cutting back on your salt intake and alcohol consumption. I might recommend some additional interventions such as exercise and keeping a log of your caloric intake. Then I’ll have you back in a few weeks and see how you’re doing." Sound familiar? Interventions first, gathering and reviewing data next. Only when those initial screening results come back in the danger zone, or your good–faith attempts to ratchet back your life style fail to have an impact on the data collected, might she recommend some ... tests.

By the same token, only when the professionals (educators) believe that the patient (child) has a disorder (disability) do they move forward with a more invasive approach. In the OSEP memo, Director Musgrove uses the term "suspected of having a disability" twice. And there lies the key. Only when someone "suspects (a child) of having a disability" does the comprehensive assessment, including "tests" take place. And just who is this "someone"? I would maintain that it cannot be a parent alone, or the child’s physician, or their therapist, who have different perspectives of the child’s performance, but only a team of educators in conjunction with parents and community practitioners; educators who see the child every day, and who know and understand the culture of the district, the school, and most importantly the classroom. Until the team "suspects the child has a disability" they are free as they always have been to work with the child in the context of their general education classroom, to fix what appears to be wrong.

The memo (Paragraph 2 line 2) speaks to addressing the needs of struggling learners and students with disabilities and "integrates assessments and interventions." This includes formative assessments including those short tests, benchmark tests, and unit tests designed to monitor progress. There is nothing wrong with these tests (also known as criterion referenced tests) because they test precisely what is being taught in the school (in contrast to norm referenced tests that compare student performance to a wider normative population). Back in the good old days, we used lots of them: cognitive, achievement, perceptual–motor, language, and memory tests. They served a useful function, but many of us have moved away from standardized tests and more toward criterion referenced instruments. RTI and just good common sense demanded that we do that.

The bottom line is that decisions that favor the best interests of children are best made by unbiased partners who know children and how they function in the educational environment. As Director Musgrove reiterates, RTI is the multitiered framework we have all come to know quite well, and it does address the needs of all students (struggling learners who have not be identified as disabled as well as those who have), and while parents are allowed to request an initial evaluation at any time if a child is suspected to have a disability, the evaluation takes place only if the "LEA agrees with a parent … that the child may be a child who is eligible for special education and related services."

If the child’s school attendance is poor, or their family system is in disarray, or they have medical issues that interfere with their commitment to school, LEAs are required to provide supports in these crucial areas before they assume the problems are a function of a disability. All the LEA is required to do is respond, or "provide written notice to parents explaining why the public agency refuses to conduct an initial evaluation and the information that was used as the basis of this decision." Moving too quickly to "test and place" struggling students, assuming that what is "wrong" with them is that they are disabled, is both irresponsible and unprofessional, especially if it is done for the wrong reasons, including the threat of a parent to file a complaint. IEP teams need to function as teams, without any single member able to exercise control over the rest, and that includes parents as well as anxious–to–please administrators, teachers, or specialists. Only then will decisions arise that are truly in the best interests of the child, rather than the misguided wishes of individuals with hard–to–figure agendas.

Frank L. Miller, NCSP, is a school psychologist at Central Elementary School in the Lake Forest School District in Felton, DE.