Children with Communication Disorders and Academic Assessment
Communication disorders may arise from myriad disabilities like autism spectrum disorder, cerebral palsy, hearing impairment, intellectual disability, learning disabilities, motor impairments, or other speech-language disorders. Regardless of the causative condition, they may affect the development and employment of listening-speaking and/or reading-writing skills in children. And these happen to be the primary modes of teaching and testing in our conventional classrooms. As a result, these children face great difficulty in gainful participation in classroom instruction and ensuing profitable performance.
Educational administrators at various levels in India have undertaken several legislative and policy initiatives as well as practical measures to alleviate these difficulties and facilitate better learning outcomes. Especially, several benefits and concessions have been implemented to ensure equal participation and equitable performance in educational evaluation at the school level. Many of these measures are functional in summative assessments such as term-end evaluation, school-final board examinations, and the like. However, optimal fruition of these endeavours requires comprehensive and consistent implementation at the grassroots, that is, in each classroom by every teacher as part of formative assessment as well.
Adapting Academic Assessment in Classrooms
Some strategies that may be useful in adapting classroom-based assessments are:
Alternate Input and Output
The majority of children with communication disorders face difficulty in listening comprehension and/or reading comprehension. They may also have subsequent difficulty in speaking, writing, or both. These modes of reception and expression in turn are the most common means of classroom testing of children. Hence teachers will have to identify alternate sensory modes in which they are able to receive information maximally. So also the functional means that enable them to optimally demonstrate their knowledge and skills. It may even involve visual-manual modes involving images, gestures, and practical activities. Teachers should be compliant to permit and promote such alternate modes of test stimuli and responses.
Altered Quantity and Frequency
Communication disorders of physical-motor or cognitive origins may limit the physical and psychological energy levels in children. For such children who tire easily, testing can involve a lesser quantity of work. On one hand, this may imply a lesser number of test items. This is feasible by considering minimal items representing each crucial testing criterion. Items of redundant nature, which are usually included to extend the scope for correction of errors over trials, can be exempted. On the other hand, altering quantity can also involve breaking down tedious test items into manageable constituent tasks with relaxing breaks in-between.
For some children with limited energy levels, test anxiety is said to have adverse energy-draining effects. The frequency of conspicuous testing can be reduced in such instances. For example, two or three months or unit tests can be substituted with one mid-term test. These could be supplemented with inconspicuous observational assessment through classroom tasks.
Flexible Schedule and Time
Many children with communication disorders are encumbered with comorbid conditions like attention deficits, hyperactivity, and epileptic seizures among others. This prevents them from focusing on the assessment activity continuously for a considerable duration. These children could also be helped by segmenting assessment activities into shorter tasks. And administering them over several spells of shorter duration interspersed with sensory breathers that help renew their focus.
On the contrary, certain other children may take a longer duration to complete the work at hand. Among children with communication disorders, motor and/or cognitive constraints due to the presence of cerebral palsy and/or intellectual disability may restrict cognitive competence and retard motor momentum. Consequently, the allowance of extended time for task completion may be necessary.
Alleviating Difficulty Level and Augmenting Supports
For children whose functional abilities are constrained due to the presence of communication disorders, the difficulty level of the test items will have to be altered. This can be carried out through two crucial courses. One is reducing the complexity of the communication or language involved. This is usually done by replacing descriptive items requiring detailed answers with shorter objective items requiring brief answers. The other means for altering difficulty level is minimizing the cognitive demand. This in turn can be realized by simplifying tasks, like having sums of simple addition instead of addition with carrying over. It can also involve providing clues to the answers as in replacing open-set objective items like filling-in-blanks with closed-set items with multiple choices.
Another way of alleviating the difficulty faced in taking assessment tasks is by offering supports that facilitate functioning. These supports can be rendered through human interaction like readers who read and explain written test items to learners who have difficulty reading; scribes who transcribe oral answers of those who have difficulty writing; or prompters who regulate behaviors of distractive and disruptive learners. Supports could also be in the form of assistive technology. These may comprise aids like calculators, typewriters, and word processors that help with academic functions of literacy and numeracy. And also devices to help in hand functioning and mobility in the learning environment.
Differentiated Criteria, Alternate Grading, and Constructive Feedback
The expected outcome of adapting academic assessment is enabling equitable participation and performance in children with special needs. However, at times the modifications made to the assessment structure, content, and process may be too drastic. Qualitative standards may be compromised to focus on the individualistically relevant criteria. Consequently comparing performances of these children with their peers especially in mainstream learning environments may be impossible or irrelevant. In such circumstances, teachers and schools may adopt alternate criteria for analysing and appraising learning outcomes. Compiling results in terms of academic performance can be alternated with affective participation. Modified versions of reports which overtly appear similar in structure, but may slightly differ in content, context, and/or criteria may be issued. Distribution of reports and dissemination of results should be carried out sensitively and sensibly, taking care to avoid hints of discrimination that may disrupt inclusive ambiance. Measuring against standards may not be much useful and comparing with peer performances may turn out to be detrimental. Hence should be avoided. Rather feedback should be rendered highlighting the existing appreciable attributes and accomplishments in children followed by suggestions for personally relevant and realistic targets for future efforts and endeavours.
Teachers should always be conscious that many learners with significant disabilities might also bear special educational needs arising from differential learning styles or disadvantageous circumstantial conditions. The above-described adaptation strategies will be beneficial for them as well. Ultimately, inclusive education should envision teaching and testing that ensures emancipation, equity, and elevation for all learners including those with special educational needs.
Dr. G. Malar¹ & Prof S. P. Goswami²
¹ Post-Doctoral Research Fellow
² Head – Department of Speech-Language Pathology & Mentor – Post-Doctoral Research
All India Institute of Speech and Hearing, Manasagangothri (University of Mysore), Mysuru, Karnataka 570 006, India.