Assessment in the Special Education Setting

Why I Assess Even My Most Affected Students

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I spent almost 10 years in a classroom serving the most severely affected students in the elementary school where I worked.  The challenges were real and daily, but my ultimate challenge was trying to determine if what I was doing was working.  One of the ways I answered this question for myself was to give weekly assessment on the material I was teaching.  It was a great way to determine if my students were grasping the content.  The difficulty came in trying to find a way to assess them that was meaningful and accurate.  Here are tips I found to be critical when assessing my most affected students.


When I was getting ready to start a new unit, I would develop the assessment first.  It helped me focus on what was truly important to cover in the upcoming week or two.  I would then administer the assessment before starting to teach the material.  This had multiple benefits:

  • Gave me a baseline I can use to measure growth when I gave the post-assessment
  • Revealed what the student my already know and gave me time to enrich those areas
  • Gave the student more practice with assessment


I found there was a LOT of diversity in my classroom.  I had some students who were completely non-verbal, some students had extreme physical limitation, and some were actually working close to grade-level but had such extreme behaviors, they could not be in a setting with their typical peers.  That meant, I often had 3 different assessment formats.

  • I would use a simple multiple choice test for my grade-level kiddos.  Quick and easy to make and interpret.
  • For students who were not yet on grade level, and early or emergent readers, I would add pictures to my multiple choices assessments.  For the most part, the students would still complete these independently, although for some I would read the question.Aviary Photo_130921583018948528
  • For my most severely affected students, I would enlarge and print out the answer choices and mount to index cards.  I would then state the question and, using their own response mode, the student would indicate their choice.  This may have been pointing or eye gaze.  Often, it was a non-response.  BUT, I still had by baseline.
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Once I was done teaching the material, I would give the same assessment I used for the pre-assessment.  I would then have some data to analyze to see if the students had made any growth.  So here is the reality:  some of my students made little to no growth but many did.  I then had to decide if I needed to reteach the content or not.  The answer to that vital question was: it depended.  If the content was critical or the student made some growth, and I felt he or she could make even more either I or my assistant would reteach the material the following week.   Again, the reality was that I could teach the same material every week for a year, and some of my students would still show little to no growth on the assessment.  But, I still assessed, because there were enough times over the years that I was truly amazed how some of them would perform on the post-assessment as compared to the pre-assessment.  I just never knew, so I had to assess to find out.


Another great thing about doing these assessments was that I had actual data to share with parents and administrators.  As a parent of a severely affected child myself, I know how important it is to know what my child is learning.  One way a parent can feel confident you are doing your job as a teacher is to see an assessment.  In addition, in IEP meetings I had some work samples to share that were data rich and meaningful.  This helped us develop new and better goals for the upcoming year.  Finally, my students received report cards every quarter.  The EXACT same report cards that their typical peers received.  By having valid assessments, I had something to use when filling out report cards.  Of course, my students had a differentiated grading system (to be addressed in a later post) that I established at the very start of the year, but the students’ grades were always based on true data.


The best thing I learned about giving assessments to even my non-responsive students were there turned out to be all these positive effects I had not planned on. Many of my older students were going to have to take an end-of-year assessment given by the state.  By giving my assessments throughout the year, my students became more comfortable with the format and would perform better on these end of the year tests.  In addition, there were a lot of skills I could observe and work on while giving these assessments.  I was able to really focus in on the student’s best method of responding to my questions.  Was it eye gaze or pointing?  Should I put the cards on the table or on a vertical surface?  Was there a difference if I used color versus black and white?  All these little pieces of information fit into a bigger picture that would help not only me but teachers in the future who would work with my students.  Finally, all my students had IEP goals that pertained to attention and engagement.  This was a great time to gather that data as well since we were often in a one on one setting with minimal distractions.

Giving these pre and post-assessments took me less than 5 minutes per student, and it was definitely worth the time and preparation.  I would encourage every teacher, regardless of the severity of your population, to try giving formal assessments.  I know in this day and time most of us complain about over-testing, but I have found many forget about testing this population at all.  How else can we know if we are making a difference?

Click on the image below to download a FREE copy of an assessment that is provided with my unit on Colonial America in my TPT store.  assessment Slide1

Adding Literacy to your Math Lesson and a FREEBIE

If you know me or have visited my store on teacherspayteachers, you know I write a book for EVERYTHING even math.  When I was teaching in an autism classroom, I loved starting my lessons with a book, and so did my students.  Of course, I had a hard time always finding a book that was at an appropriate level for my students, but it got to the point I could write one up in about 20 minutes.  So, I wanted to share some reasons why this is such an effective strategy for starting your math lesson as well as some FREEBIES at the end so you can give it a try yourself.

Predictable, Calming, and Repetition

We know students with disabilities struggle with unstructured time as well as an inconsistent flow to the day.  Starting your math lesson with a story is a great way to cue your students that there is a change in subject matter, and it gives them time to settle in.  Reading can be a calming routine especially when it is paired with engaging pictures and simple language.Aviary Photo_130912213848278144

If you had kids yourself who liked to watch Nickelodeon, you may have noticed that the same episode of Blue’s Clues would run every day for 5 days.  That was not a way for the network to save money.  It was actually based on research!  There was a study done by the creators of Blue’s Clues (click here for the link) that demonstrated typical children need to see and hear subject matter about 5 times before they begin to internalize the material and make those personal connections. I had heard that in a training early in my teaching career, and it totally made sense.  So, I decided I would use the same book to start my math lesson for 5 days.  On day 1, many of the kids were fiddling with toys, falling out of their chairs, and seeming to not even hear me reading.  But, by the end of the week, many were chiming in and following along.  It took that much consistency to get their attention.  Of course, by mid-year, they were following along much more quickly, but I always kept the same book for 5 days.

IEP Data

When you read a story, it is a perfect time to work in some of those IEP goals and gather data.  My assistant and myself always had our clipboards with the IEP goals  for each student with us.  That way as I was reading I could work in lots of “wh” questions as well as measure and track level of engagement.  Of course, as these stories were dealing with math content I had lots of opportunities to work on counting, identifying numerals, size, and other topics that were addressed on individual IEPs.

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Students with disabilities, especially autism, have a lot of difficulty generalizing information they have learned to new situations.  This is very true of math.  I often had a student that could count an array of objects as long as they were in a straight line.  But show them a picture with a group of puppies, and they were totally unable to count them.  Very, very typical and very challenging as a teacher.  You think your student has mastered a skill, but when you attempt it in a more real-life situation, and they seem to have no clue what to do.  Pulling literacy into your math lessons is the PERFECT way to work on some of these generalization skills.  It forces you as a teacher to present math in a less traditional format.  While keeping IEP data, I would have different codes if a student was successful at a skill in a traditional format or was successful in a new, more generalized format.  It was a great way to ensure I continued working on skills I thought the student has mastered until I could prove they could do it across environments, people, and material or stimuli.

Typical Math Lesson

So, what would a typical math lesson look like in my classroom which consisted of students kindergarten through 5th grade with significant autism?  The lesson would be about 30 minutes.

  • 5 min : Counting or other math song
  • 5 min : Read a math story
  • 10 min : Group activity using manipulativesAviary Photo_130911388756621850
  • 5 min : Individual work (This usually meant that my assistant and myself would have to help students one on one to complete a product for the parent to see what we are working on and for me to keep as a data point.  While helping one student, the other students were given access to the book for the week, previous math stories or other math manipulatives.  This would keep them engaged with appropriate materials while we were focused on other students.  They actually loved “reading” these books on their own.)
  • 5 min : Math game

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Reading a story to start your math lesson has many benefits.  Students find it calming and predictable, you can gather IEP data and generalize skills to make more personal connections, and the repetition reinforces the math concepts you are currently trying to teach.

Below are some free stories I have used in the past.  Click on the buttons below to download them for free.  If you find this strategy works for you, try writing your own stories.  It is quick and easy to do!

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