When’s a dyslexia assessment not a dyslexia assessment?

Yesterday evening I got an email from the British Dyslexia Association (BDA) conferring AMBDA (Associate Member of the British Dyslexia Association). In short, it means that I am a dyslexia smart-arse, which is how I answered a Twitter query from a parent as to what AMBDA is!

I’m not one for pomp and circumstance, but it is considered the ‘Gold Standard’, or so I’m told. It is the culmination of two years of study/training. Actually, for me, it’s probably more like seven years training. Three years to gain a degree, two for my in-service PGCE and two for AMBDA. What’s 5 years between friends?

I have found myself, quite accidentally, working as an Access Arrangement SpLD Specialist. I love it! Well, I’d love it more if my students remembered to turn up for their appointments, but I digress. My college has an open door policy, which is how it should be. Any student who thinks they may have a learning difficulty, specific or otherwise, identified or otherwise, can book themselves in to see if they fall within the criteria for access arrangements. In my role, we all have a Level 7 qualification, the college is hot on this. Again, as it should be in my opinion. But what does JCQ have to say about this?

Well, the top 2 categories are:

  • A specialist teacher with a current practicing certificate
  • An appropriately qualified psychologist.

Pretty straightforward, a practicing certificate has to be renewed every three years & includes being able to write a good report & evidence relevant CPD – more stringent than being allowed to drive!

(Note: it doesn’t state what actually is appropriate for a psychologist though…)

As I have only just had AMBDA conferred, I don’t yet have a practicing certificate so I fall in the next category:

They must hold qualifications in individual specialist assessment. This must include training in all of the following:

  • the theoretical basis underlying psychometric tests, such as the concepts of validity and reliability; standard deviations and the normal curve; raw scores, standard scores, quotients, percentiles and age equivalent scores; the concept of statistically significant discrepancies between scores; standard error of measurement and confidence intervals;
  • the appropriate use of nationally standardised tests for the age group being tested;
  • the objective administration of attainment tests which can be administered individually. This must include tests of reading accuracy, reading speed, reading comprehension and spelling. Appropriate methods of assessing writing skills, including speed, must also be covered;
  • the appropriate selection and objective use of cognitive tests including tests of verbal and non-verbal ability and wider cognitive processing skills;
  • the ethical administration of testing including the ability to understand the limitation of their own skills and experience, and to define when it is necessary to refer the candidate to an alternative professional.

Now, to me that seems quite extensive & pretty specific, it is effectively, what I’ve just spent the last two years doing, plus some. I can now apply for a practicing certificate.

Why is it though, that the JCQ gives the following example?

Specialist assessor

Question:

I am a qualified teacher who has worked as a SENCo for many years. I hold an MA in Supporting Students with Special Educational Needs. This qualification did not cover skills in individual specialist assessment, though I feel that my work in SEN and the theoretical knowledge I gained from my MA has given me a good understanding of the issues involved in assessment. My local authority are running a course (12 hours) on using standardised tests which covers the criteria outlined on page 83. However, the course does not offer a qualification. I will produce a portfolio of evidence showing what I have learnt with samples of assessments. Can I act as a specialist assessor for access arrangements?

Answer:

The final decision must rest with your head of centre. He/she is responsible for appointing specialist assessors who meet the criteria outlined on page 83. However, as you hold a post graduate qualification in the area of special educational needs, the courses and experience you describe should be sufficient for you to gain the appropriate knowledge, skills and understanding to carry out assessments for access arrangements.

So, all of a sudden, the criteria appears to be watered down, to rest with the Head of Centre (or Head teacher). How many Head teachers are going to say that they do not have a suitable member of staff? I suspect, not many especially if recruitment is difficult.

Other than this being a topic of conversation at work recently, something else has popped up. A parent has just sent me a report she commissioned to gain a diagnosis of dyslexia for her child. She’s paid just shy of £200 for the privilege. The report arrived in the post this afternoon & I nearly dropped through the floor. A screener was used, with a few other bits & bobs. The format was not as recommended by SASC (SpLD Assessment Standards Committee). It is not clear in some places what tests were used, or what the results meant. Is it appropriate to report words per minute, without a standardised score or any further information? There was no reading speed, no working memory testing, no potential testing and no auditory testing of phonological awareness. There isn’t even a definition of dyslexia used to compare results with. In short, it fell far short of a dyslexia assessment suited to the purpose of painting a picture suitable for a diagnosis.

I feel really sad for the parent. She’s desperate to know if her child has dyslexia or not, so she can ask for more support. Of course, support should be given for need, not the diagnosis of a condition. Looking at the report, I couldn’t determine if her child has dyslexia or not, the data is insufficient. If I combine it with an out-of-date EP report, I may gain a clearer picture but it would be inappropriate to use the two to diagnose dyslexia.

I am an expert in dyslexia, but in many ways I am not. I lack the subtleties that come with experience, but paradoxically, I have a huge amount of experience, just not in the formal academic arena. It comes through the personal stories and observation of friends. I defer to my colleagues as I know my limitations all too well, and yet, academically, I could arguably be more qualified. Qualifications though only tell part of the story. So I’m back to the JCQs example. If qualifications only tell part of the story, then surely so does experience? Many of us can go about our jobs relatively competently, but would we do them somewhat better is experience matched qualification and vice-versa?

The dyslexia assessment was carried out by an ex-SENCO, so someone who ought to be used to conducting assessments for access arrangements. To repeat the JCQ requirements tests of reading accuracy, reading speed, reading comprehension and spelling’ and ‘selection and objective use of cognitive tests including tests of verbal and non-verbal ability and wider cognitive processing skills’. So why did she not draw on these for her diagnostic report? Indeed, can a diagnostic report not include these?

Jim Rose (2009) states:

Dyslexia is a learning difficulty that primarily affects the skills involved in accurate and fluent word reading and spelling.

  • Characteristic features of dyslexia are difficulties in phonological awareness, verbal memory and verbal processing speed.
  • Dyslexia occurs across the range of intellectual abilities.
  • It is best thought of as a continuum, not a distinct category, and there are no clear cut-off points.
  • Co-occurring difficulties may be seen in aspects of language, motor co-ordination, mental calculation, concentration and personal organisation, but these are not, by themselves, markers of dyslexia.
  • A good indication of the severity and persistence of dyslexic difficulties can be gained by examining how the individual responds or has responded to well-founded intervention

So I think the answer is a resounding no.

I don’t wish to alienate SENCOs here, we’re all on the same side after all. But I have to query why basic core assessments were not completed. Was it that the Head teacher thought the qualification alone sufficient, without a commitment to CPD & a practicing certificate? The report is only sufficient to inform the school of current level of performance. The school’s own SENCO could have done that.

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