In the past few years, Response to Intervention (RTI) has significantly impacted the way SLPs practice in public schools. In the past, students qualified for special education services primarily using standardized testing under an IQ-achievement discrepancy model.
Using RTI, SLPs can start intervention before testing. This approach was authorized in IDEA '04 through the following provisions: (a) local education agencies (LEAs) may use a student's response to scientifically based instruction as part of the evaluation process, and (b) when identifying a disability, LEAs shall not be required to take into consideration whether a child has a severe discrepancy between achievement and intellectual ability.
Start treatment without testing first? How will SLPs know what to target? Standardized tests give us hard numbers and definitely tell us that a child is disordered! Why wouldn’t we do these?
National Norms May not be Appropriate Comparisons: Standardized assessments compare students to national norms. However, does a low score on a standardized test always require special education services? What about students who are new to the school experience? What about students who are learning English?
Students' relative performance in school, as compared to peers and as compared to individual growth over time, is often much more important data than how students perform compared to national norms on one testing date. If all the students in a school are high achievers, a slightly below average student will need extra help to keep pace with the class. In a school with many students who perform at or below average, the general education teacher needs to adjust the pace of the curriculum in order to meet the needs of the majority of students. Special Education help will be required for outliers from the middle of the school's local bell curve.
For students who are English Language Learners (ELL), national norms with monolingual students are never appropriate comparisons. It is more appropriate to monitor rate of growth in order to determine if ELL students have difficulty learning language.
Of course, it is important to keep national norms in mind, but an RTI approach primarily uses local norms for decision making purposes.
Alternatives to Standardized Testing
Universal Benchmarking: Under an RTI model, especially in the younger grades, SLPs universally screen all the students. Universal screening data helps identify who most needs extra help, based on comparison to peers and individual growth.
Dynamic Assessment: Dynamic assessment looks at how a student learns. The idea is to take a baseline, teach a skill, and see if the student can generalize this skill within the same session. A student's ability to aquire new skills is much more predictive of long term learning difficulties than a snapshot of abilities.
Do Standardized Assessments Still Have a Place?
School based educational teams may still choose to use standardized tests to qualify students. However, they are not required. ASHA suggests that if schools use an RTI model, that schools adapt early universal benchmarking. Data must be also collected on different educational approaches attempted. If a student does not progress, a school team can still use standardized assessments as part of the evaluation process.