Tag Archives: assessment

A question of language and capabilities

In a recent op-ed piece, former Baltimore school board member and president of Baltimore Special Education Advocacy Coalition Kalman Hettleman (7 October, 2014, http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/opinion/oped/bs-ed-disabled-students-20141007-story.html, downloaded on October 24, 2014) notes that the issue that many people have with including students with disabilities into educational reform efforts such as Common Core has to do with the vagueness of language often utilized in such efforts.

For example, Hettleman notes that although the term “most severe cognitive disorders” is utilized to create alternative standards for students with such disabilities, there is very little guidance from policymakers as to what exactly this entails (Hettleman, 7 October, 2014, http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/opinion/oped/bs-ed-disabled-students-20141007-story.html, downloaded on October 24, 2014). While Hettleman does not fully address this, it has to do with the social construction of disability well discussed in more social models of disability (e.g. Wendell, 1996; Liachowitz, 1988; Oliver, 1990; Charlton, 2000; Goodley, 2001). Socially, there is an assumption of what disability is, but there is not a well-defined notion of what severe cognitive impairment actually looks like, hence an open-ended and controversial policy.

This particular change is not well-defined. It is possible that there is intent that the policy remains open so that societal values can decide what “severe cognitive disability is” for itself. That would allow for different interpretations at various historical moments (with the assumption that the policy will endure) and, perhaps, for more local interpretations of disability.

However, as Hettleman notes (7 October, 2014, http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/opinion/oped/bs-ed-disabled-students-20141007-story.html, downloaded on October 24, 2014), it is also important to interrogate the assumptions that are being made about the capabilities of people with various kinds of disabilities. For example, certain kinds of supports, such as communication access, screen readers, and less technical solutions such as differential instruction, have assisted individuals, previously not thought to be intellectually capable, to achieve academic competence.

It would seem, therefore, that given the right classroom techniques and other supports may be useful at narrowing the classification of “severely cognitive impaired.” It is, however, important that policymakers, if they make such decisions, narrowly tailor situations, perhaps through interpretive guidance, to decrease the possibility of possible discrimination. It may also be appropriate to allow for “escapes” should a student demonstrate progress they were not previously thought capable of in the past. Such protections would be in better keeping with the protections and capabilities that is currently being promoted in U.S. educational policy.

Andrew Bennett


UDL and Education Reform: A Primer

I recently left an internship with the U.S. Department of Defense Educational Activity. Just to be on the safe side, this post does not necessarily reflect the viewpoints of the Department of Defense Educational Activity, the Department of Defense, or the United States Government. Opinions expressed here are my own and I am solely responsible for this content.


Education is often in a state of reform especially as society changes over time. In the United States, educational reform has taken its most recent turn in the Common Core Curriculum. Currently, 43 states, the District of Columbia, and several U.S. territories participate in the Common Core Curriculum. The Common Core is a set of standards developed utilizing expert opinions about what students should know after each grade level (CCSs, 2014).

These standards reflect a “college and career ready” approach, indicating that students, upon graduation from high school (secondary school) will either be ready for postsecondary schoolwork without remediation or will be able to successfully complete vocational training and be able to carry out the career of their choice within skilled trades (CCSS, 2014).

These standards currently fall into two categories. The first category is standards for mathematics. The second standard is language arts. Language arts, it should be noted, has under the Common Core become an expanded category. Traditionally, the subject of language arts has been thought to encompass writing, reading, and the study of literature. The most significant change in this subject, under Common Core, is that literature has become an expanded category. Now, non-fiction literature, including historical documents and technical literature have an expanded presence in the standards especially in the later grades. These two areas were chosen because they are deemed to be building blocks for skills needed in a variety of areas that can be spread throughout the grade levels. For example, mathematics complements sciences. Eventually, there will be more standards for other subjects. Some states, in fact, are currently going about creating College and Career Ready standards in subjects such as science and the arts (CCSS, 2014).

Although the Common Core has proved to be a controversial issue domestically (e.g.. Oklahoma has pulled out of Common Core and Louisiana is considering it while other states never joined and with one state, Minnesota, declining to participate in mathematics standards and with opposition from various conservative and liberal factions), it does lay groundwork to increase expectations of all student groups, including students with disabilities and students who do not speak English as their first language.

One of the suggested ways to do this is through “instructional supports for learning” (CCSS, 2014) “Instructional supports” are parallel to the concept of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) (CCSS, 2014). However, the National Universal Design for Learning Center points out that Universal Design for Learning actually goes beyond the implementation suggestions laid out by Common Core. Rather, the National UDL Center suggests that UDL actually extends to all learners.

Universal Design for Learning is a set of instructional strategies, supports, and evaluations that are designed to enable all learners to meet goals. Education reformers often support their argument by defining UDL’s codification under the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 (P.L. 110-135, 110th Congress), 2008. This definition calls for flexibility in presenting information to students and in ways of having them demonstrate mastery of material and reducing barriers to instruction and providing appropriate accommodations to students who need them. It is emphasized that UDL is an evidence-based strategy (P..l. 110-135, 110th U.S. Congress). Evidence-based strategies are those driven by “hard” data (i.e. studies incorporating scientific method and quantitative evidence).

UDL’s roots are rooted in psychology and neuroscience 9e.g. Gevins & Smith, 2000; Habib, McIntosh, &Tolving, 2000; Kent, 1998; Nichelli, Graggman, Pietrini, Clark, Lee, & Milletich, 1995; Petersen, van Mier, Fiez, & Raichle, 1998; Rypma &D’Esposito, 1998; Tootell, Reppas, Kwong, Malach, Born, Brady, 1995; Wallis & Bulthoff, 1999; Xiong, Rao, Jerabek, Zamarripa, Woldorff, & Lancaster, 2000). These studies were made possible by examining how brain pathways work. Further evidence established pathways for learning (Tootell, Rappas, Kwong, Malach, Bor Brady, Rosen, & Belliveau 1995; Wallis & Bulthoff, 1999). Because tasks are individuated within the brain, people do not process information in exactly the same way (Schlaug, Jancke, Huang, & Steinmetz, 1995).

Learning has been revealed to be 1) modular, 2) distributed, 3) parallel. And 4) heterarchical (Meyer & Rose, 2005). Learning takes place as various modules in the brain interact (Gevins & Smith, 2000; Habib, McIntosh, & Tulving, 2000; Rypma & D’Esposito, 1999). Additional theoretical support for this way of understanding learning pathways comes from Howard Gardner’s (Gardner, 1983, 1999) work on multiple intelligences which indicates that there are various kinds of intelligences that a person may possess. According to Gardner, individuals will learn better if information is presented a variety of ways because such instruction accounts for a greater number of “kinds” of learners. For example, some individuals may learn best verbally, some through kinetic movement or by doing, some visually, some through auditory means, and so forth.

UDL best supports curriculum in three ways. First, it utilizes multiple means of representation across learning styles. Secondly, it allows students to express themselves in multiple ways while holding to standards. Finally, it allows for multiple means of engagement through a variety of means (Meyer & Rose, 2005).

Another way that UDL impacts curriculum is through deemphasizing (although not necessarily waiving) certain presentational elements (e.g. books and lectures) in favor of other kinds of learning practices. These practices contain built-in models of performance, opportunities for supported practice, immediate feedback, and communities of practices (Dalton, Pisha, Coyne, Eagleton, & Dreycher, 2001).

Feedback, in form of assessment, can be an important issue in UDL and is of particular concern in the age of education reform. UDL principles indicate that there should be some level of flexibility built into assessments. UDL’s emphasis on technology, however, can actually provide for a greater level of deeper assessment than traditional exams, however, as students can be evaluated through a variety of conditions which goes beyond what traditional exams can measure (Meyer & Rose, 2005; Russell & Haney, 1997, 2000).

Of course, individuals with the most severe cognitive disabilities may need alternative assessment in order to meet goals. One way, currently being led by a collaborative group of academic, non-profit, and corporate researchers, hosted by the University of Kansas, is working on one particularly UDL based alternative assessment called the Dynamic Learning Maps Assessment. This assessment recognizes that learning pathways, especially within this group, are not linear (Dynamic Learning Maps, 2011-2014). An example of a learning map can be seen here (www.dynamiclearningmaps.org/content/what-learning-map).

Now that we have a primer in UDL and educational reforms, we can discuss more substantial issues in UDL and education reform. This content will be coming in the following weeks. Until that time, please use the comment tool for your questions, opinions, and feedback.

Andrew Bennett

The importance of assessment in professional fields

       The State of Iowa has recently floated the idea of creating a “diploma privilege” for graduates of its law schools (Rodgers, Des Moines Register, 2014, Jan. 11, accessed Jan. 27, 2014 at http://www.desmoinesregister.com/20140112/Register-Exclusive-group-weighs-ditiching-bar-exam?odyssey=top%/Ctopnews%7Cfrontpage&click_check=1). Similar to a practice already in place in the State of Wisconsin, graduates of Iowa’s law school would, under this proposal, be allowed to immediately practice within the State of Iowa upon graduation from law school. particular licensing exam needs to be given in the first place before professional authority can be conferred. Should

     It might be appropriate to ask why a we just assume that students who graduate from professional schools have the competency to practice whatever particular occupation they hold? Does the risk and/or importance factor of certain occupations call for more scrutiny?

     The bar exam is one type of examination typically given to individuals to measure an individual’s competency within the field. The medical fields typically have exams, many fields related to financial concerns have exams, and teaching has one (although one that is sometimes scrutinized see Ripley, 2013). These are just to name a few fields that require passing exams in order to practice. Exams are meant to be gatekeepers to ensure competency within the profession. It may not be the only predictor, but it is the one traditionally assumed to work best.

      The fact is that there are students who graduate from professional programs who do not pass their required examinations. Perhaps that individual may be competent enough, but the examination does not necessarily indicate that. Certainly, there are reasons why a potential member of a profession may not perform up to par on an examination on a particular day, but arguably it is important to ensure competency and the only way to measure that is through assessment. Assessment is not perfect, but a well written examination will provide a good measure of who may prove competent or not. Those who cannot prove their accuracy (given reasonable accommodations when needed) have failed to provide that extra guarantee of competency.

     Some argue also that certain professions should be given more scrutiny. For example, jobs that require control over finances, other fiscal interest, health, or life and liberty may require significant scrutiny. Ripley (2013) would add K-12 teachers to this list, arguing that standards for teacher licensing in the United States do not provide a difficult enough test to screen out competent teachers from those who “want” to be a teacher and are able to obtain the appropriate degree. Ripley would have these teachers be content experts and be evaluated for teaching skills as well. Jobs with significant influence over other people require a significant amount of competency and skill and should not necessarily be taken lightly.

      These examinations also provide an important additional gatekeeper in managing the size of professions. Arguably, it provides one (although perhaps imperfect) way of screening out those individuals who may be incompetent, thereby reducing the potential size of the workforce. Testing, when done well, reduces the workforce to the people deemed most competent.

       One advantage, however, to waiving testing would be if it encouraged institutions of higher learning to become better at teaching and measuring skills for competency and become better predictors of competency (and perhaps more responsible about admissions). By doing so, society would be returning trust to institutions of higher learning to do the right thing. This is not insignificant not only in what it represents, but in the kind of trust and responsibility that would need to exist.

      Testing, when done right, should be an important way of screening out potential incompetent individuals from professions which require a certain degree of competency. No system is perfect, but its predictive value can be very significant.

      One final note, I see professional assessment as being potentially distinct from assessment in K-12 schools. I will be writing more about this particular kind of assessment in next week’s post.