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Get Out of the Testing Rut: Expanding Your School Psychology Role by Understanding Your District's Needs
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Since the days of my professional youth (which started just after IDEA was first passed in 1975 as Public Law 94-142—the Education for All Handicapped Children Act), school psychologists have wanted to do less psychoeducational assessment and more consultation and intervention.
Unfortunately, not much has changed over the past 45+ (!!!) years, and yet, I have spent most of my professional life doing consultation. And so, in an autobiographical fashion, I would like to share some thoughts on either (a) how to get out of the testing rut or (b) how to never get into it to begin with.
Fortunately, during my graduate training at Syracuse University, I took dedicated, required courses that actually taught me how to be a consultant. This allowed me to apply my assessment, data-based problem-solving, intervention, and change agentry skills into my interactions with teachers in their classrooms and principals in their offices. Any testing that I did was an opportunity to consult and apply the following principles:
Principle 1. In order to provide comprehensive school psychological services, you need to be trained, comfortable, and have expertise in delivering those services.
Principle 2. Testing simply helps you to collect data and information. Consultation helps you to apply these through teachers and others to positively impact students in their classroom.
Principle 3. In building these consultation relationships with teachers and principals, they typically begin to share their student challenges with you before they feel the need to refer them for testing.
Principle 4. Most school psychologists’ job descriptions do not say that “you can only do testing.” In some districts and schools, there will always be another student to test. One way out of the testing rut is to use Principles #2 and #3 to take the consultation time to decrease the vicious cycle of refer, test, and place. The front-end time expended for consultation will result in a back-end decrease of testing referrals.
With my graduate training in-hand, it was not a stretch for me to get my first school psychology job in Lenox, Massachusetts (in 1979). In fact, the job announcement specifically advertised for a school psychologist with consultation skills.
Thus, I had permission from the outset to use consultation and intervention as the foundation of my comprehensive school psychology role.
Did I test some students? Yes. But typically, my assessments were focused on collecting information and data to confirm or reject hypotheses regarding why students were struggling academically or presenting with social, emotional, or behavioral challenges. Those data were eventually embedded into my consultation and classroom intervention discussions with teachers.
If you are not so fortunate to be hired on a consultation-anchored job announcement, discuss the importance and benefits of a comprehensive role (to the district’s students, staff, and schools) in your interview. Negotiate this role—formally or informally—into your job description before you take a position.
Principle 5. With the school psychology shortages nationwide, taking on a consultation role in a school or district may be easier than ever before—especially if consultation and early intervention successes actually decrease new referrals and, thus, the need for testing and, eventually, reevaluations.
Principle 6. Remember that, even if you are hired through special education funds, IDEA has an early intervention requirement, and IDEA allows districts to spend 15% of their Part B/Special Education funds for prevention. That’s three quarters of a day per week of consultation and intervention with at-risk or struggling general education students.
During my time on the faculty and as the Director of the School Psychology Program at the University of South Florida, we made sure that our EdS students had the same consultation and academic/behavioral intervention courses and practicum training as our PhD students.
Indeed, consultation was one of the first courses taken by all of our students in their first year of training. Academic and behavioral interventions courses occurred during Year 2 with a concurrent 2-day per week practicum (with the entire class of graduate students in one school) where we provided supplemental—and comprehensive—school psychological services to the students and staff in that school.
Critically, the professors teaching the consultation and intervention courses accompanied their students for the 2 days at the practicum site to reinforce and apply—in a real school with real student challenges—the principles and practices taught and discussed during class lectures.
Principle 7. Training in consultation and intervention requires university-level coaching and supervision so that course knowledge and content can transfer into graduate student skill and application with an eventual goal of graduate student competence and confidence.
Critically, at the University of South Florida, as we demonstrated effective and positive student and staff outcomes using comprehensive school psychological services in our practicum site, it was easy to convince field-based school psychology supervisors to adopt the same comprehensive school psychology role in our full-year paid internships.
But as we collaborated with our districts’ school psychology directors and internship supervisors, the discussions on expanding the role of school psychology in their schools became transformative. Ultimately, these discussions facilitated changes in how school psychologists were used across the districts—from the students and classrooms up, and from the school boards and district administrators down.
One of the turning points in one district was when the school psychology director and I were discussing the fact that her school psychologists were evaluated almost solely by the number of tests they gave each year.
At one point in a discussion, I asked her what would happen if the district’s students were so academically and behaviorally successful that the number of testing referrals dropped precipitously. I specifically pointed to the results in our urban practicum school—which was in her district and was disproportionately filled with first-year teachers (the only ones they could recruit), had 93% of its students living in poverty, and was a critically low performing school.
How would her school psychology staff be evaluated if they had fewer students to test?
As she stood there perplexed, I suggested that her school psychologists would then need to be evaluated on the effectiveness of their consultation and intervention services and supports on students’ academic and behavioral progress and performance (and teacher satisfaction with those services).
Eventually, our practicum site, Jesse Keen Elementary School in Polk County became the prototype for the work that I still do across the country through Project ACHIEVE. In this school, we significantly improved and sustained student outcomes to the degree that referrals for testing, grade retentions, office discipline referrals, and student achievement gaps all decreased.
Principle 8. Based on 40 years of research and practice, a problem-solving, consultation, intervention approach to multitiered services in schools has demonstrated more beneficial student, staff, and school outcomes over refer, test, and place approaches.
Indeed, we are long past pilot studies in this area. Moreover, school psychologists have the organizational and systems-level consultation skills to move districts and schools away from the refer, test, and place model and toward the problem solving, consultation, and intervention service delivery approach.
My autobiographical point is this: I am not gifted, and I am not unique. I was simply well-trained in organizational assessment, strategic planning, consultation, and how to collaborate with others to facilitate change. To complement these top-down skills, I was well-trained in the multitiered academic and social, emotional, and behavioral services, supports, strategies, and interventions that students—from preschool through high school—need to succeed.
From an organizational level, school psychologists need to understand the history and needs, strategic plans and outcomes, programs and initiatives, resources and funding, and staffing and professional development that their districts and schools are using to address both students and staff. In order to get out of the testing rut, school psychologists can then demonstrate to district and school leaders how a comprehensive school psychological (and, more broadly, student services) approach will help them accomplish their goals.
As an example, below is a description of the services that I am currently providing to help a charter school district in New York City upgrade its schools’ multitiered systems of support. The initial deliverable, which could be provided by any school psychologist with the right training and experience, is a needs assessment report and MTSS implementation action plan.
My Proposal to them stated:
The primary result of the needs assessment will be an action plan that outlines next step recommendations and professional development needed to bring the district’s multitiered system to the next level of excellence.
This will be accomplished through an off- and on-site needs assessment, resource analysis, and student outcome evaluation in the academic and social, emotional, and behavioral areas. The needs assessment will investigate (a) the current status and needs of at-risk, underachieving, underperforming, unresponsive, and unsuccessful students; (b) the continuum from general education to early intervention services to special education eligibility and placement; and (c) how general and special education teachers and support/related service professionals are collaborating and meeting student needs.
Brief resource analyses will determine what services, supports, and interventions are currently being used, as well as their effectiveness. Gap analyses, guided by research-to-practice approaches, will identify service delivery needs, professional development and staff supervision essentials, and staff (re)deployment recommendations to improve student outcomes.
Principle 9. Data-based (or root cause analysis) problem-solving is the foundation of our work as school psychologists. Whether we are working with individual students or large school districts, any information and data that we collect should be geared to changing the challenges that initiated the problem-solving process in the first place. We are inherently change agents, and if we can successfully change students (or systems) without testing, we are meeting our professional mandate.
School psychologists have bemoaned their test and place role for generations. But we need to think about the prerequisite skills required to succeed in a comprehensive school psychological role, and how to do the organizational assessments needed to convince our districts (or other settings) that a more comprehensive role will not just save time and money, but enhance students’ academic and social, emotional, and behavioral proficiencies.
It not about us wanting to test students less. It’s about us wanting to help students, staff, schools, and systems to be successful more.
If we want to get out of the testing rut, we need to show our districts explicitly how—as in the Jerry Maguire movie—to help us help them.