HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal
Early Assessment for Effective Intervention
Schools must take seriously the need to provide early support to students who show signs of struggle. Far fewer students would lag behind their classmates academically and require remediation if our Jewish day schools were to invest in a systematic process of schoolwide prevention in the form of solid teaching practices, high quality curricula, assessment and intervention. With this proactive paradigm shift, Jewish day schools will be able to meet the challenges of the ever increasing diversity that exists in our schools and begin to identify and support those most in need.
Writing about the importance of early academic intervention, I am reminded of the words of Winston Churchill in 1935: “When the situation was manageable, it was neglected. Now that it is thoroughly out of hand, we apply too late the remedies which then might have affected a cure.”
According to the National Institute of Child and Health Development, by the 4th grade, two hours of specialized daily instruction is required to make the same gains in student achievement that would have resulted from only 30 minutes of daily instruction if begun when the child was in kindergarten. Another daunting statistic from the NICHD is that if students are not reading at grade level by the third grade, the odds that they will ever read at grade level are 1 in 17. The reason for this is that in grades 1 and 2 students learn to read and from grades 3 and up students read to learn. In other words, reading instruction takes place during the first two years of schooling. If children have not learned to read by the end of grade 2, it is unlikely that they will have the formal reading instruction to teach them to do so.
In order to identify those students with challenges, all students need to be assessed. The goal of early intervention is not to label children who appear to need more time to develop their basic skills. The goal is to assess if young children are acquiring their basic early skills, especially in the areas of language, reading, social/behavioral acuity and numeracy. The old adage that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure certainly holds true in the case of early intervention.
One model that is shown to be highly effective to address the issue of early intervention is Response to Intervention (RtI). RtI is a multileveled approach to identifying students who are lacking in some area of basic skill development and to intervene early and efficiently. There are different facets to RtI, all of which are critical to the success of this model. First, all students beginning in kindergarten are assessed using a curriculum-based measure to ascertain their reading and numeracy skills. Curriculum measures refers to assessing students on the skills that they are expected to master in any given grade. For example with regard to reading, students in first grade need to know the names and sounds of all letters, the sounds of each of the phonemes in a word and the ability to read nonsense words (plob). Assessing students’ ability to read nonsense words is an essential skill, because many students with a learning disability in the area of reading are not decoding but rather are memorizing words by their visual form. This skill, while impressive, will not enable them to become proficient readers. The only way to ensure that students are decoding is to provide them with words that they have never seen before.
With regard to math, kindergarten students need to master the skills of next-number fluency (to know number names and the count sequence), and one-to-one correspondence (number one refers to one object).
Behavioral skills are important as well. In order to gain maximum benefit from the school experience, both academic and social, students must continue to develop skills such as ability to attend for an extended period of time and impulse control. Many schools are now adopting Positive Behavior Intervention Supports (PBIS) as a method of assessing students’ behavioral acumen and intervening early when a problem is detected. The goal is not to turn teachers into alarmists, but to provide intervention early because of its critical impact on averting later more serious issues from arising.
Within the concept of early intervention, prevention is of paramount importance. Good teaching, research-based curricula and adaptive school environments that have clear but fair parameters and parent involvement allow students to develop into healthy young adults who are engaged in the learning process and leave school with a sense of accomplishment and positive academic self-regard.
This model or new paradigm empowers classroom teachers. Teachers, rather than other personnel, become proficient at identifying potential difficulties before they actually begin to impede the child’s functioning. Expert teachers are therefore expert detectives. The first step is to identify that a problem exists; the next phase is to intervene, early and effectively. Without intervention we can liken the process to taking your temperature, determining that you have a fever but doing nothing about it.
Intervention should first occur within the confines of the classroom schedule, but if the student is not showing adequate progress (through assessments referred to as progress monitoring) additional support is provided. Important to note: the physical place where the intervention occurs is not relevant. Rather, the emphasis should be on the effectiveness of the intervention. A plethora of information is available about research-based interventions. The three most useful websites are The Florida Center for Reading Research (FCRR), Best Evidence Encyclopedia (BEE) and What Works Clearinghouse.
Within the RtI model, the collection and analysis of data allow teachers to make sound decisions. No more are the days of “I feel as though the child is making progress.” These gut responses shouldn’t be used to determine something as important as whether a child is achieving critical lifelong skills. Data on student progress is examined by educators to determine if the intervention is effective or if a different course of action should be taken.
Research has repeatedly shown that effective intervention provided early (and the emphasis here is on both effective and early) can have a significant impact on later reading development. There are many effective programs that can be used as long as they develop the fundamental skills. With regard to reading, these skills must involve phonemic awareness (the ability to segment and blend the individual sounds that make up words), phonics (the ability to connect each grapheme or letter to a sound), reading fluency (the ability to read accurately and with little effort), and vocabulary development. Of course, reading comprehension, the ultimate goal of reading, must be explicitly taught to students as well.
There are many assessments that are readily available to measure students’ early skills. Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy (DIBELS) is available on-line. All materials are free of charge unless you choose to use the system that allows for more sophisticated inputting of data and outputs of student scores. Parts of the DIBELS assessment have been translated into Hebrew and is titled MaDYK. An explanation of the Hebrew assessment tool can be found here. There are other assessment and progress monitoring programs such as STAR and Aimsweb.
In Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning, John Hattie presents 150 strategies and influences on students’ academic growth. The list of strategies is categorized into three groupings: highly effective or what he terms the winners, strategies with average impact and ineffective strategies. Of all of the 150 strategies cited, Response to Intervention is among the top five most effective. This model that entails a multipronged approach to prevention, assessment and early intervention has a significant impact on the academic growth of students.
The most significant change that needs to take place in our school system is to recognize that intervention must be based on effective practice and should not be seen as merely the physical space where students go when they are struggling in school. There are too many Individual Education Programs (IEPs) that state “resource room” under the section titled strategies for intervention. Where students receive remediation is not relevant, but the type of intervention is. Intervention must begin early, must be research-based, and the remediator must have expertise in the area of remediation.
There are educators who believe that children must progress at their own rate and not be pressured to accomplish skills until they are ready to do so. This belief is problematic. A large amount of data exists espousing the benefits of early intervention; when children are not provided with early support, they face an ever growing gap between their abilities and grade level expectations. The goal is to provide children as early as possible with every opportunity to reach grade-level milestones and develop positive feelings toward learning.
Karen Gazith PhD is the academic dean at Talmud Torah | Herzliah, faculty lecturer in the department of education and counselling psychology and adjunct faculty in the department of integrated studies in education at McGill University. She is an educational consultant who has done work in the area of assessment, intervention, understanding diverse learners and creating the brain-friendly classroom in Canada, the US, Australia, England and Israel.
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