Have you ever found yourself in a parent-teacher conference or an IEP/ISP meeting confused about some of the language used? As educators, we (and I include myself!) are guilty of using educational jargon, acronyms, and technical words that mean something to us yet may leave parents scratching their heads. Over the past few weeks, several in the community have asked about different types of assessments and what they mean. At The Craig School, our academic program is comprehensive and evidence-based, that is, we use interventions, supports, and services with proven evidence of effectiveness. Each student’s academic program ultimately is determined by using a data-based decision-making process reliant on assessment.
Assessment informs a teacher’s instructional practices and strategies, decisions regarding supports and services, and the interventions employed for the specific needs of each student in order for students to achieve and grow academically. Assessment may also be used as a marker to indicate a student’s mastery of content or their ability to demonstrate their learning resulting in the student’s earned grades (e.g. projects, papers, tests, etc.). There are many types of assessments and untangling what it all means can be somewhat overwhelming.
While not exhaustive, below is a primer, if you will, of the types of educational assessments typically found in schools. You may find this helpful when discussing progress reports, goals & objectives, IEP/ISPs, or Present Levels of Academic Achievement and Functional Performance (PLAAFP).
Assessment Terminology Primer
Assessment is data collected about a student in order to make decisions. These decisions may be diagnostic (information about the specific nature of the student’s learning disability) and evaluative (information about the student’s strengths, overall progress, and areas for growth). Additionally, assessments help in the development of IEPs/ISPs, for planning instruction based on the needs of the student, for eligibility decisions (i.e. student eligibility for special education and related services), and educational placement (general education, self-contained classroom, etc).
This type of assessment lets us know what the student can and can not do. Criterion-referenced assessments are seen in the classroom (e.g. tests, quizzes, etc.) and measure a student’s performance against a pre-determined set of knowledge and skills. For example, our middle school math teachers may give students a quiz on 8th-grade math computation problems.
Curriculum-Based Measurements (CBM)
Teachers use CBM to find out how their students are progressing in learning the content for the academic year. CBM is typically applied to core academic areas such as spelling, writing, math, and reading. CBM can be used for progress monitoring. Oral Reading Fluency (ORF), a measure found in all divisions of the school (dependent upon student need) is an example of CBM.
Formative & Summative Assessment
These two types of assessments are most commonly applied in the everyday classroom setting and are used so students can express their level of content knowledge, skills, and understanding. Formative assessment is used to indicate where students are in the process of learning. They are “forming” their learning. Summative assessment can be thought of as an endpoint. Through summative assessment, students show their mastery of the content. Final exams in our high school are summative assessments and quizzes and projects sprinkled throughout the trimester, are examples of formative assessment.
Formal & Informal Assessment
Formal assessments are not content and performance-driven, rather they are data-driven assessments. They are standardized and typically have percentiles, stanines, and standard scores. Norm-referenced tests, like the GORT-5 (Gray Oral Reading Test), are examples of a formal assessment. Informal assessments are content and performance-driven and not data-driven. A writing sample or essay can be used as an informal assessment of literary and narrative writing (e.g. use of hyperbole, simile, metaphor, etc.)
Goals & Objectives
In the Lower and Middle School, Goals & Objectives describe what students will learn or focus on. Goals are the big concepts that run throughout the school year, objectives are how a student reaches the goal, evaluation is made up of the tools used for assessment, and criteria provide an explanation of the expectation for student performance. In middle school science, a goal for the year is to “use scientific skills and processes to interpret, model, and explain phenomena.”
One objective to reach that goal is to “read science texts to determine main ideas, gather technical information, and identify patterns in data.” The way the teacher will assess the student is through class assignments and projects. Finally, academic achievement is shown when the student can perform this skill with 80% accuracy.
A norm-referenced assessment compares student performance to other students’ performance with similar age and/or grade in school. The TOWL (Test of Written Language), GMADE (Group Mathematics Assessment and Diagnostic Evaluation), and GRADE (Group Reading Assessment and Diagnostic Evaluation), all used in the lower and middle school are norm-referenced assessments. In the high school, the SAT or ACT are examples.
Progress reports, used in the high school, provide information necessary to understand a student’s strengths and challenges, the instructional strategies most effective for a particular student’s educational needs, current student performance status with numerical grades, and how teachers are addressing areas of concern. Grades in a progress report are not final. These reports illustrate how well the student is doing, giving students information needed for corrective action to meet their educational goals.
Progress monitoring helps teachers determine if the student is improving towards their goals and is an indicator of the appropriateness of a student’s educational program/intervention. Progress monitoring gives teachers the information needed to adjust their approach with the student. Sometimes you may hear the word, benchmark, used with progress monitoring. A benchmark tells us where the student is at in a specific content area. A good example of this is in our Orton-Gillingham classes. Orton-Gillingham is prescriptive and diagnostic, however, there is also consistent reflection and analysis of student progress embedded within the instructional approach.
Screening helps identify students who are at risk for not meeting a certain academic standard or benchmark. For example, in Mrs. Gallagher’s English class at the high school, all of her students take the Self-Regulation Questionnaire (Brown, Miller, & Lawendowski, 1999) at the beginning of the school year. This short screen helps her identify which students may need skill-building and additional support as they develop a greater ability to self-regulate for optimal learning.
Fluency is the gateway to reading comprehension and comprehension is the ultimate goal of reading.
Reading comprehension provides a path for our students to identify simple facts presented in texts, make judgments or evaluate the contents of texts, and finally, connect one text to other texts or situations; simply, it allows our students to make meaning from what they read. Structured literacy programs, like what we provide at The Craig School, address fluency instruction distinctly from the components of structural language that we, as parents and educators, may hear spoken of often, such as phonemes, morphemes, syntax, and semantics. Fluency, however, is much more complex than “automaticity” or decoding a word at a steady rate without any additions, substitutions, or omissions.
Reading fluency, has three major components, and each needs attending to, a) accuracy, b) rate of reading, and c) prosody. When students can decode unfamiliar words accurately, use context to help correct errors in word reading, and have mastered a number of sight words, they are said to be accurate readers. Rate of reading can be defined as one’s ability to recognize words automatically or almost automatically, read at a sufficient rate per minute, and to maintain rate or adjust rate in accordance with increasingly more difficult texts. Finally, prosody, or expression, is how the student attends to punctuation, it is a measure of phrasing, intonation, and timing, and it is the vehicle in which students express and communicate the meaning of the text.
Fluency is measured through informal and formal means, such as curriculum-based measurements (CBM) like the Hasbrouck-Tindal Oral Reading Fluency (ORF), or a norm-referenced assessment, like the Group Reading Assessment and Diagnostic Evaluation (GRADE), both among evaluation tools used at The Craig School. The benefit of an informal assessment is screening and progress monitoring. When used as progress monitoring tools, the extent to which the student is improving from the instruction and intervention is measured. Having a clearer picture of the student’s progress allows our reading and Orton Gillingham teachers to make adjustments to programs and goals or to determine if they should stay the course. It allows us to be responsive to the instructional needs of our students in a thoughtful and timely manner. Norm-referenced assessments, such as the GRADE, include measures of reading comprehension, language comprehension, semantics, decoding, cipher knowledge, and letter knowledge and give us benchmarks from which to build a comprehensive, customized reading program.
Once we have a gauge of where the student is at in terms of reading fluency, the instructional program shifts to the students’ specific needs so that the students begin to read with ease and are able to devote all of their attention to comprehension. For students with dyslexia, a great amount of energy is placed on decoding or word identification. Little is left for understanding what was read. Moreover, a reduced rate of reading increases subsequent challenges with comprehension. However, as Mrs. Cozine wrote in last week’s newsletter, “fluent reading increases comprehension but parents, what you need to realize is, if we push students to read faster than they can comprehend, it is counterproductive.” Reading and Orton Gillingham teachers engage in a delicate dance to balance all five core components of reading—phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension (National Reading Panel) and to do so in a manner that is uniquely suited to the needs of the individual student.
Kindly, I ask you to continue our parent-school partnership by making the space and time for your student to read aloud to you at home. Fluency takes practice and the best practice is through oral reading. You, too, should read aloud to your student as explicit modeling of fluent reading (e.g., “I do, We do, You do” method) is one of the most effective ways of improving reading fluency (Chard, Vaughn, & Tyler, 2002). Don’t forget the power of positive and meaningful feedback as an effective tool as well. Fluency practice applies not only to our students in the lower school but also to our middle and high school students. Teens may improve their fluency through listening to an adult read a text aloud to model fluent reading, by reading along with an audiobook, or by partner-reading when studying for an upcoming test.
By opening the door to fluency, our students explore a new world of understanding and are able to benefit from, and perhaps even learn to enjoy, the process of reading, resulting in higher levels of student engagement and motivation.
October is known world-wide as Dyslexia Awareness month and as such this letter highlights a particular student profile that is near and dear to my heart as I have seen over the last two decades working with students who learn differently, that these students frequently are overlooked in traditional schools when determining appropriate interventions and services. A true testament to The Craig School is our ability to tease out the unique strengths and challenges of our students to individualize a structured literacy program that best suits their needs.
Most of you may know that Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), a developmental impairment of the brain’s self-management system, its executive functions, affects approximately 11% of school-aged children (CDC). This can present as daydreaming, absent-mindedness, fidgeting, restlessness, or a combination of these traits, among others. We also know that about 20% of school-aged children struggle with reading, writing, and spelling significantly enough to meet diagnostic criteria for dyslexia (IDA). What is interesting is to notice where the two meet. For students diagnosed with ADHD as the primary barrier to their educational progress, anywhere between 8% and 39% have a secondary diagnosis of a reading disability. The cognitive profile of students with co-occurring ADHD and dyslexia is unique from students with dyslexia alone as social and emotional skill deficits are present in addition to academic (phonological, orthographical, and comprehension) deficits. Many studies confirm a cognitive relationship between dyslexia and ADHD diagnoses pertaining to executive functions, which include attention, inhibition, planning, organizing, time perception, and working memory. For example, poor reading performance may be attributed to deficits in sustained attention, working memory, planning, organizing, and processing speed. Additionally, there may be a significant difference in the reading speed between those with ADHD and neuro-typical students. This may point to underlying issues concerning working memory and its role in processing speed, reading fluency, and spelling accuracy.
At The Craig School, our teachers use instructional strategies to address working memory deficits, like graphic organizers, metacognitive skill development, and using summary strategies. However, these tools will not address reading fluency. A structured literacy program, found at The Craig School with our extensive use of Orton-Gillingham methodology, coupled with executive function skill development allows us to better meet the needs of our students. Working memory, processing speed, and sustained attention, for example, are woven through our curriculum from second through twelfth grade.
A parent recently remarked speaking of her child who has been diagnosed with both ADHD and dyslexia, “Like many students with learning differences, the public schools have beaten him down and given up on him…and he knew it!” Teachers at The Craig School are immersed in evidence-based instructional practices and programs designed to bring out the best in students who learn differently and are incredibly committed to doing the hard work that is necessary to see each student reach success.
Sitting down to write this blog today, I find myself wanting to express thoughts about my passion for educating students with learning disabilities, the joy of teaching, and being part of those “aha” moments when a student finally breaks through and is able to not only understand a concept but to synthesize understanding and even transfer their knowledge to other meaningful moments of discovery. I yearn for our discourse to reflect the values, purpose, and mission of The Craig School and our conversation filled to the brim with the excitement of a new school year and the rich possibility that accompanies new beginnings.
Nonetheless, at the forefront of my thoughts this week is an article I recently read comparing the national current educational climate as a see-saw of balance between Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and Bloom’s Taxonomy, an educational theory on the hierarchy of learning that begins by first remembering, then understanding, followed by applying, analyzing, and evaluating information, finally culminating in the production of new or original work, called the creative stage of learning.
Teachers are busy polishing lesson plans, writing learning targets, and creating engaging and meaningful learning opportunities while also fully cognizant that a student’s basic needs must first be met to allow for learning to happen, to prime the pump, if you will, for the most optimal learning experiences moving a student to the realization of their full potential. On a very basic physiological level, our students need food, water, and shelter. In this basic level Maslow includes safety. According to Maslow, safety is the experience of order, predictability, and a sense of control of one’s own life. It is at this crossroads where I, along with countless educators find myself as we prepare for a new year full of learning and growth. We are balancing the real-life issues of the present unknown with our plans for bringing out the best in all of our students.
Planning for our school opening on September 3rd, we are remembering “Maslow before Bloom.” At The Craig School, this is evident through the preparation of our classrooms and play spaces for healthy and safe learning environments that address not only the present need for sanitization, disinfection, and appropriate health measures for the mitigation of COVID 19, but it is also through the intentional work and focus of our team of Social Clinicians who, partnering with our faculty, foster key tenets of social and emotional health leading to safe spaces for students and safe spaces for learning. These social-emotional aptitudes and skills, such as self-awareness and self-confidence, emotional regulation and stress management, respect for others and empathy, social engagement and relationship building, and finally, ethical responsibility and reflection, create what researcher Amy Edmondson calls “psychological safety” and are necessary to cultivate so that our students’ strengths, capabilities, and intellect can shine. Providing for Maslow before Bloom provides a path to fulfill The Craig School’s mission to address the academic, social, emotional, and moral growth of students with language-based learning disabilities.
My intention in this letter is to give you a sense of who I am as a leader and my excitement regarding beginning my journey as the Head of School at The Craig School. My journey teaching students with language-based learning disabilities began many years ago with humble means. I started teaching in 1998, originally as a music teacher in a college preparatory boarding high school. What I didn’t know at the time was that this experience would lead me on a journey that would forever change the trajectory of my career. It was there, that first year, that I became acutely aware that some students thrived and others did not and that motivation or drive had little to nothing to do with it. I witnessed bright students who were not moving into their full potential, into the fullness of their being. As an educator, I yearned to find out how and what I could do so that all of my students succeeded. After those first experiences teaching students, it wasn’t until 2010 when I understood more fully that students “do well when they can.” So much of what I was seeing with my students was a fundamental lack of skill development, whether it was linked to executive functioning skills, social-emotional skills, behavioral skills, or academic skills. One of my students, in particular, was diagnosed with dyslexia early on in second grade, had yet to attend a school that understood and provided evidence-based practices for students with dyslexia, but now found himself in high school, struggling, and with me as his teacher. It saddens me, but I too, at that point, did not have the specialized knowledge to teach him in the ways that would elicit his best and encourage the development of comprehensive learning and higher-order thinking. Rather than sitting idle, I did something about it. This is where my life’s journey really changed. It started with a Master’s of Education degree in Special Education, specifically focused on Dyslexia, one of the few programs in the country, and ended with a Doctorate of Philosophy in Special Education where my culminating doctoral research furthered the literature on strengths-based diagnostic and progress monitoring assessments examining the role of biases in terms of student self-report and gender. This research provided suggestions for improved training protocols for teachers and others administering strengths-based assessments for students with learning disabilities.
Not only did I equip myself with the knowledge to truly influence the lives of my students with learning disabilities, but I also began a program at that same school I started out in 1998. The program was and still is based on the ideals of full inclusion, embracing neurodiversity, building student self-confidence, resilience, and nurturing a deep acceptance and respect for all human beings. Initiated with a small group of boys who were on the verge of school failure, this program developed into a unique hybrid school-within-a-school model dedicated to the needs of the whole child that focused on leveraging student competencies and strengths while acknowledging and addressing areas for growth. From these beginnings, I concluded my tenure there with a staff of 18, a student enrollment of over 100 students yearly, and a new facility dedicated as a learning space for students with learning disabilities.
Now that you have an overarching view of my career and educational background, there are three central tenets that drive what I do and how I do it. The first is my profound adherence to the respect of the individual and the dignity of humankind. This is followed by the belief that education is not only an equalizer, but also a powerful tool to lift up society and break down barriers between individuals of different backgrounds, values, and abilities. Finally, I believe as an educator it is my role to celebrate the strengths of each child and to seek to understand how to bolster growth areas by first understanding the student’s strengths, competencies, and abilities.
The most effective school-home partnerships are bi-directional and use child-focused approaches wherein families and educators cooperate, coordinate, and collaborate to enhance opportunities for success for students across social, emotional, behavioral, and academic domains. What we know from a vast body of research over the past four decades is that home-school partnerships steeped in open and honest communication, along with responsibility-taking for working together as a team and shared common goals, resulting in mutual child-centered decision-making focused on positive student outcomes. It is within this relationship of families and professionals that every child’s education takes place. As parents and schools learn the value of collaboration, communication, and creating meaningful partnerships, together we create an educational environment that supports the abilities of all children to succeed.
The following provides a guide to navigate through the Parent-Teacher Conference process:
A Parent’s Guide to Successful Parent-Teacher Conferences
Before the Conference
During the Conference
After the Conference
A Teacher’s Guide to Successful Parent-Teacher Conferences
Before the Conference
During the Conference
After the Conference
This week, I have had a few conversations with parents regarding play in a socially-distanced world. Whether your child is learning remotely or attending school in-person, in second grade, or 12th grade, we acknowledge that times for unstructured movement and peer interactions, commonly called recess or break in a traditional school setting, are essential parts of the school day. This notion is also detailed in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child which states, young people have the "right to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child." Not only is there a body of evidence indicating cognitive performance and attention increases with play, learning components such as memory and retrieval, attention, dexterity, reading, verbal fluency, semantic fluency, and enhanced student motivation and morale are potential outcomes from incorporating play in a school day. Furthermore, studies show the power of play as a tool in the development of important prosocial behaviors; behaviors such as sharing, helping, cooperating, and comforting others. In younger students, recess develops socialization skills that lead to friendships, and for our older students, these socialization skills continue and become more peer-based as adolescents forge a sense of belonging and identity. Throughout the school years, these unstructured times for socialization are one strategy to help students cope with emotions during stressful times; in our current climate, play remains essential to healthy child and adolescent development.
If you have emailed me, you may have noticed my email signature line quote that reads, “When a flower doesn’t bloom, you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower” (Alexander den Heijer). This one phrase perfectly sums up my educational philosophy. As an educator, I believe that children are beautiful, whole, and perfect beings. They are messy, they are works in progress, and they represent the wonder of possibility. I believe that it is not the child that needs to be somehow “fixed,” rather, that when our children are given the right opportunities, support, kindness, and genuine care, they begin to blossom, they begin to move more fully into their potential.
As an educator, I find myself immersed in the “how” and the “what” of the education of young minds. For example, how do we increase academic engagement for students with learning disabilities, and what instructional practices will best suit the students’ unique learning needs? Sometimes the “why” is more nebulous. Why do we do what we do? I believe that in order to truly be successful, we must more fully understand our “why.” This is true for me as an educator and is just as important for The Craig School community to understand.
A school’s mission statement and core values drive the “why” of the community. These form the basis for our decisions. I would argue that the most successful schools are, at their core, mission-driven, and purpose-focused. Just like the beacon atop a lighthouse illuminates a path in the midst of the unknown, our mission and values guide decisions both great and small. As I begin a new chapter as the Head of School at The Craig School it is of utmost importance that together, we are reminded of our shared “why.”
At The Craig School we acknowledge learning differences, we understand them, and we provide the instructional strategies and supports that allow the student to grow and learn. We believe in a firm foundation of academic knowledge and higher-order thinking skills; we believe in whole child development and that social, emotional, and moral growth are integral to a student’s education; we believe that with the right environment and opportunities that all students can and will thrive. Our mission is focused on a strategy-based, comprehensive, and challenging education that is designed for the unique academic needs of students with learning disabilities while also celebrating and bringing out each students’ aptitudes and strengths. To this end, fostering a child’s self-esteem and self-awareness is paramount.
I encourage you to take a moment to read through the Statement of Core Values of The Craig School and the Mission Statement of The Craig School. These are our collective “whys.” May they provide for you a light and a path forward as we work hand in hand to nurture the true potential and abilities of all of our students.
“Speaking is natural, and reading is not. Reading is an acquired act, an invention of man…” (Shaywitz, 2003).
As most of you will attest, reading does not come naturally, easily, or incidentally for countless children. It is a tough hill to climb that takes patience, time, and tenacity. Through decades of research, we understand that dyslexia can vary widely in students from a phonological deficit, orthographic deficit, a naming-speed deficit, or a combination of one or more of these challenges. Additionally, adding on processing speed, working memory, rapid automatic naming, and visual-verbal paired-associate learning challenges, the complexity increases exponentially and the need to use a proven, evidence-based approach is more critical than ever before.
The extraordinary level of expertise among our faculty in the Orton Gillingham program has benefited countless students over four decades. Known as the “Gold Standard” in literacy instruction for language-based learning differences, in particular dyslexia, this signature program at The Craig School is multi-sensory, language-based, sequential, cumulative, and flexible. It is not a scripted program, rather it is diagnostic and prescriptive in nature allowing our teachers the ability to customize and individualize each student’s Orton Gillingham program. Orton-Gillingham is not whole-word reading. Whole-word, a typical literacy practice found in many schools, in its simplest form is the act of teaching students to read by sight, memorization, and context. Unfortunately, these instructional practices remain in schools around the country, even though the science of reading clearly refutes their efficacy. What is clear is that structured literacy, of which Orton Gillingham is a prime example, is paramount for students with dyslexia.
Orton-Gillingham instruction directly takes on core weaknesses in phonological skills, decoding, and spelling, through explicit, systematic, and sequential instruction on phonemes, letter-sound relationships, syllable patterns, morphemes, vocabulary, sentence structure, paragraph structure, and text structure. Additionally, this approach has been described as direct instruction with a high level of student-teacher interaction, carefully selected, decodable words and nonsense words, text at the instructional level, rather than the frustrational level, and prompt, corrective feedback. In a typical school literacy program, many teachers will not have the background knowledge nor training, let alone the time, they need to implement with fidelity a research-based, valid, and reliable reading program. The teachers at The Craig School do not fall into that category. Rather, they are highly skilled and trained in the science of reading and understand a vast array of instructional strategies, approaches, and practices that align to the best of available research on teaching students with dyslexia how to read, write, and spell.
This week we join our fellow New Jersey schools for the Week of Respect, a week dedicated to bringing awareness to the importance of cultivating a healthy, supportive, safe, and positive school climate through character development and social-emotional learning, all with the goal of sustaining a school void of harassment, intimidation, and bullying. At The Craig School, this work is done by creating a physically, emotionally, and socially safe learning environment that values each person as a contributor, is respectful of our community members, promotes collaboration and communication among families, students, and school staff, and most importantly is modeled by our adult community for students. Students with language-based learning disabilities may struggle with receptive language, which is the ability to understand and comprehend spoken language, as well as expressive language, one’s ability to use words to express themselves. These variables alone may impact a student’s risk of victimization. Additionally, students with learning disabilities who also have secondary or comorbid conditions, such as ADHD, may experience increased social skill challenges, creating a need for focused and intentional social-emotional learning opportunities. We recognize that a school’s work to this end is one of progress, rather than a finished, perfect endeavor. At The Craig School, we are committed to continuing this work.