I remember sitting in my university’s library, reading assessment manuals before clinical placements. We tried to work out which pictures went with which sentences and how to score them and which assessment was best for the area you needed to assess. We spent ages working through them all!
Once I had qualified and started working, especially in schools where time is often limited, I found myself completing assessment after assessment. Then the dash to write reports, with scores and distribute them. It can be easy to lose sight of the child and how they performed functionally, particularly if you only met them once, but it is vital.
Now, formal assessments tell us lots of useful things. They also allow us to compare a child’s performance to that of their peers. In terms of trying to get extra help for children these scores are often a vital part of the report. However there are also many things that formal assessments don’t tell you.
- How the child is performing functionally. Before any assessment, I always like to spend time just ‘chatting’ to the child. Can they tell you about themselves? What are their likes and dislikes? What were they doing before they came to work with you? Have they got any plans for the weekend? Are they able to ask as well as answer questions? This gives you valuable information about how the child uses language functionally. It is also useful to observe a child interacting with their peers. A child may interact with you very differently than other children.
- What helps the child best. There are set ways to administer formal assessments which you have to adhere to. However once you have highlighted an area that the child found hard, you need to work out how best to help them learn it. Are they helped by extra repetitions? Or visual support? Do they have some understanding if you present it differently, or explain what a tricky word meant? Do they need you to demonstrate it first?
- How the child processes language in everyday situations. If possible, you should complete assessments in a quiet 1:1 environment – nothing like most situations where you talk! That’s why as well as assessing a child, I like to talk to them and observe them in the classroom. Can they follow everyday routines? What do they do if they don’t understand – do they copy or ask for help? You can always find a child that can pass an assessment, but struggles in the classroom. Equally there are children that struggle in an assessment, but actually cope well functionally. You need to compare the assessment scores to what you see in the classroom or at home to get the complete picture.
- How the child is performing academically. Although our scores break down how the child is understanding and using language, it doesn’t necessarily tell you how the child is performing or learning academically. Although learning and language are often closely linked, there are always exceptions. Particularly with younger children, you can find that they are keeping up academically but we as speech therapists may find gaps that could later impact on learning.
- If this is an average day for the child? One of the luxuries that independent practise allows me is to spend more time with the child I work with. Even if I am just asked to complete an assessment and report, I try to visit the child on 2 or 3 occasions. We all act and perform differently each day, and children are no different. You need to find out if what you saw and heard that day is ‘average’ for the child. I recently had a situation where a child hadn’t taken their medication on one of my visits and presented so differently it was like working with 2 different children. If I had only seen them once, my opinion would have been very different.
Assessment is almost like an art form! You have to engage quickly with a child, try and set them at ease and then get them to complete something that they are probably going to find tricky whilst trying to make it fun. It is vital to compare test scores with what you learnt about the child from working with and observing them.
It is interesting writing this after all the debate about SATS assessments in the UK. How much importance should be placed on assessments or tests? What is your opinion?