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The assessment of dyslexic students and employees is in dire need for a reassessment itself.
Many institutions have decided that the most expedient way to assess students, job and higher education applicants, employees, and licensed professionals is a timed paper and pencil tests. However, many voices have begun to be raised about how these ways of making assessments are inadequate or discriminatory.
For more reading on this topic, check out We Are Teacher’s post, Could This Be the End of Standardized Test As We Know It, or a different take on it from the University of Massachusetts Law Review HERE.
THE LIMITATIONS OF PAPER AND PENCIL TESTS
The Law Review paper makes the interesting point that standardized tests tend to assess only a narrow aspect of intelligence. At their best, standardized tests can examine rote learning about math, science, history, and english, but often provide little assessment of skill necessary in the real world like creative problem solving, analysis of data, synthesis, or planning and implementation.
Failing pencil and paper tests brings low grades, exclusions from sports, scholarships, majors, and electives, and an increased likelihood of dropping out.
Students who fail find it unavoidable comparing themselves to others, lowering their self-worth and labeling themselves as failures.
Some educational experts attribute the difficulty that dyslexic individuals may have with pencil and paper tests with the demands that such tests place on reading, but that doesn’t seem to be a complete answer.
MULTIPLE CHOICE TESTS
From Dr. Marc Rowe, one of the first pediatric surgeons in the US:
“…if you look at the multiple choices, none of them look completely correct…it was sort of like the first chapter I wrote in a textbook. There is no standard newborn customized (Marc was the author of an authoritative book on pediatric surgery)… there’s always shades….you got a touch of it and a touch of that. So I had tremendous trouble trying to make the choices…I could absolutely pick wrong choices, but to pick right choices. Those that were absolutely right (were hard). So I ended up…picking an answer that seemed righter than all the other ones..”
When we talked to cinematographer Larry Banks, he said this about multiple choice tests:
“Most of the time, I find multiple choice questions very tricky, even when I know things…there was confusion about how much they’re looking for…when a question is asked, all of the pieces of a question aren’t necessarily leading to one way…I might see three or four ways of looking at a particular point.”
Interestingly, because Larry is a teacher himself at Long Island University, he has students go over the answers to questions in class and if students can justify why they arrived at a different answer, him gives them credit.
The more Brock and I have been studying this issue of multiple choice difficulties for dyslexic people, the more we are convinced that it reflects the flipside of strengths in seeing ideas, symbols, and physical objects from multiple perspectives. There are benefits to being able to consider multiple perspectives and exceptions – especially when planning projects, generating ideas, and working on complex projects – but these strengths can be come liabilities in short decontextualized multiple choice questions – and that is why standardized tests involving multiple choice questions should not be used as sole means for assessment or gatekeepers for academic tracks, admissions, or promotions.
In our earlier story on Gary, we spoke about his use of 3 textbooks to learn a topic. Here’s a longer discussion of what his system of work. What I hope you’ll see is that learning with this multiple perspectives approach is much deeper learning. It is not just rote memorization without deeper understanding or awareness of applications – it embeds the principles, but also has added dimensions of flexibility of knowledge that can applied in broader contexts.
“…what I would do is I would go out and buy multiple versions of the subjects textbook. And then I, because different authors explained it different ways. And I would go and I would read the same chapters, because they all basically cover the same material just in their own way. And I would look at it and then I’ll get that aha, that’s how it works. Maybe I needed to see it three different ways in order for it to click, but when it does click I, I get it. And I’m not just regurgitating it and you know, trying to do that, and then I can, and then I can also apply the information, I’m not regurgitating, but I had to learn and develop to use multiple sources. And anytime I can take advantage of talking to an expert, I do it. But I also want to make sure that I’m knowledgeable enough…”
See how the same principle is at work when Gary makes decisions with his electrical device company – about whether to pursue a new direction or project or not:
“…I can come at it from multiple approaches and I can play devil’s advocate. I’ll also get with my other partners or peers, and I’ll have them shoot holes my ideas and have them notice what am I doing wrong. Even if I still choose to continue to go on with an idea with all of the critiques, I’ll be going forward with something better because I was critiqued.”
When I asked Gary about his experience with multiple choice questions, he said the time element definitely added to the likelihood that he might reverse words and read questions or possibilities wrong. He also felt that his being a nonlinear thinker contributed to his misreading or misinterpreting problems. When I asked about what might be helpful in situations like this – he said letting students add explanations to their answers on multiple choice tests might be a way to give more credit to students’ knowledge and understanding.
INDIVIDUALS WITH EXPRESSIVE DIFFICULTIES – THE LATE BLOOM
Dyslexia can present with a very late blooming profile. For young students and individuals of any age with expressive difficulties whether verbal or written or both, teachers and parents should be aware that it may be years before students work can truly reflect the depth and breadth of what they know. Some adults may still prefer expressing their ideas in things they make or do instead of words. That’s one of the beautiful things about our differences.
The old saying, “Still waters run deep,” refers to quiet people who may be interesting, passionate, and complex on the inside.
THE PATTERN OF MULTIPLE CHOICE TESTS
Depending on the individual, standardized assessments can be mastered as a skill in itself; if this is the case for quieter or non-demonstrative people, they can use this to gain admittance to programs that otherwise might miss or overlook them. In situations such as these, training with practice tests where the answers are provided may provide the guide to what is expected. Often the back-and- forth multiple choice question tests are much simpler than students have anticipated. They are not looking for extreme cases or exceptions, but rather if students have ever heard of a topic at all.
Multiple choice tests are no longer a fixed requirement for many schools, and there is a growing awareness of their limitations and potential contributions to discriminatory practices.
These decisions should always be made independently; the goal of this article is to share what we have heard and learned from others.
ALTERNATIVE WAYS TO ASSESS KNOWLEDGE
I recently read an autobiography called Building Wings by Don Johnston (founder of the assistive technology company). A turning point in his life came when he had a teacher who wanted her students to think more deeply about facts and history, not being content to repeat back or remember what she had taught them.
When her teacher talked about people settling North America thousands of years ago, Don asked questions about why they would want to leave their homes and if they came by boat how they could have gotten the tools to make the boats. In truth, these are questions that could occupy the minds of graduate students and professors, but there’s no reason they should be off limits to students of any age.
FOR STUDENTS: CLASSROOM, SMALL GROUP DISCUSSIONS
One way to assess students’ knowledge is to use classroom or small group discussions. Because dyslexic students may have retrieval difficulties, allow them preview to prepare for the discussion the day before, by letting them know the topic in advance.
If students are getting introduced to the discussion format the first time, suggest ways they can scaffold or bullet point ideas and key points they might want to raise. Suggest that some students may like to ask questions or question assumptions in the discussion and consider whether taking a potentially controversial viewpoint may be a way of kickstarting the group’s discussion.
This approach can be undertaken whether students are in a classroom or homeschooling at home with mom or dad.
I remember when we were homeschooling our 3rd grade son and got him together with another family with a twice exceptional child about the same age.
At that time, he was passionately in love with the gargoyles around the campus at the University of Chicago. He had gotten to visit one of the sculptors who also lived in Hyde Park and that he also learned made gargoyle sculptures atop Notre Dame in Paris. He had a little gargoyle candle on his night stand and a Gargoyle calendar on the wall (you get the idea). It was plain for anyone to see what he loved, but he was a child of few words, and it wasn’t easy for him to talk much anything, even something that he loved so much.
This friend of mine had a good intuitive sense about kids and their differences and surprised me (and him) when she began a provocative line of questioning about gargoyles. What makes a gargoyle a gargoyle? Why are they such a good thing? Some people might think they are a waste of time to make and pay for because wouldn’t it be simpler to just have a gutter and a drainspout?
Needless to say, although it required some effort, we were to learn a lot about why gargoyles were so important and wonderful that afternoon. It wasn’t easy for him to defend his precious gargoyles, but he did it and it helped him get one step closer to becoming a confident speaker.
CHALLENGING AND PROVOCATIVE QUESTIONS
Some of the biggest mistakes made in the education of dyslexic children is undervaluing their intellectual strengths. Some of the best efforts of the Next Generation Science Standards involve elevating the level of questions and study and crossing more disciplines to train up students who will be able to solve the complex problems of today and tomorrow. But this standard should not be limited to science – it should in fact cross all disciplines. Studies of the past should reflect on challenges of the present.
ASSESSMENT BASED ON REAL WORLD IMPACT
If your teen decides to waive standardized tests when applying to college, how will they show their value?
Some classrooms or homeschooling teachers may have their students research what they would want to change – and how they could go about it. For some, that could take the form of writing an op-ed letter.
Perhaps if they found an issue that they felt strongly about, they could see how they could help in some meaningful way? When I interviewed Justin Johnson (now a tech executive), he told me how he and a friend wanted to help the victims of sex trafficking, so they organized a concert that was doing good work in this area. Although it didn’t have to do with his career, it was something that everyone asked him about when he interviewed for jobs, and it showed to others that he was a do-er and creator – not someone to stand by on the sidelines. It takes leadership and executive skills to do something like that and and was easy to see how he could create value for an up-and-coming company.
ASSESSMENTS BASED ON REAL LIFE WORK AND PROBLEM SOLVING
I was recently reading an autobiography of a famous geochemist, Wally Broecker (also dyslexic) who first coined the term global warming and the approach his graduate advisor took with him has applications to this current discussion. The challenge of his graduate studies was simple, his advisor said.
#1. Find an important problem to solve.
#2. Solve it.
If the goal is for us to equip young people to solve problems or to teach the lessons of history, or preserve democracy, or fight injustice, then why aren’t we giving students practice…even baby steps at doing that?
In the last few weeks, I also spoke to Dr. Sara Rankin, a professor and scientist at the Imperial College London (yes, she is also dyslexic). Among her many leadership roles and responsibilities, she directs Masters students in Biology and she launched an initiative to overhaul how they were doing assessments.
The standard practice had been to have students take a test involving written essays. She changed that completely. Instead, she had students write grant applications – something that all would do if they decided to conduct original research after graduation. The only thing she asked students to do under exam conditions was data analysis. The nice thing about having students construct a grant proposal is that this was a task that required creative thinking and real world problem solving. It wasn’t a test of facts that should be memorized or could be Google’ed. The other requirements for their degree included developing a public engagement plan where they would describe to their audience what they wanted to communicate and how they would be reached.
For example, a different approach would be taken if the Master’s student wanted to convey information to teenagers vs. policymakers. And finally, Sara is also having all of her Master’s students create a graphical abstract or infographic about their work. Sara had mentioned that creating posters and visual cheat sheets of subjects were vital to how she was able to succeed in school; however, she also realized that communicating information visually is important in this day and age especially when people from all walks of like need to learn from information that scientists are discovering.
WHEN JOB ASSESSMENTS DON’T FIT NEATLY INTO JOBS
Some years ago, now, we were contacted by a person who was up for tenure at a leading university. His academic career was not of a typical academic sort where there was a high number of research papers published, which supported his promotion to Associate Professor. But what he was good at was undertaking projects and coming up with unusual collaborations to advance the area of science that he was working in. He did win tenure, but he also argued that his approach to making original contributions was project-based and not simply through publications.
Hiring practices commonly involve timed multiple choice or other computer-based tests. Some companies state that they allow for accommodations, but many choose not to disclose for fear that disclosing may reduce their chances of being hired. On the other hand, some companies do have strong diversity and neurodiversity-awareness programs and disclosing and then being hired in that context may also help you feel welcomed for all that you are from the very start.
CREATE, DO, AND SOLVE INSTEAD OF ENTERING STANDARD JOB HIRING FUNNELS
In the next decade, it would be our hope that there would more more critical reflection on how multiple choice tests are not a useful way for identifying best workers, professionals, or executives.
Numerous people over the years have told me how they found their dream jobs after succeeding in a position or a project, then being offered promotion on that basis whether within their company or outside of it through clients or colleagues in other businesses.
Those in the computer industry may get their foot in the door by earning certifications and then working as contractors and developing business relationships organically rather than applying for jobs on job sites and competing for those positions.
If you are in college or a new grad, choose your work experiences and summer jobs carefully. Internships and summer jobs can set you up for jobs after you graduate. If you want to switch careers, spend time developing your own projects and portfolio and use your creativity and entrepreneurial instinct to do what you think needs doing.
If you recognize yourself as a non-linear thinker, then anticipate that your advancement outside of education will be non-linear as well. If you have a strength in personal persuasion, then knock on doors until you get a chance or can be heard. Over the years, we have heard many people tell us about how they were able to talk their way into a position at university or job that they otherwise would never have been offered through conventional channels.
Consider this part of your out-of-the-box toolset. There are many ways to get from A to Z and the requirement of pencil and paper standardized tests has never been lower.
If you have a story to tell or a comment to share on this article, please leave us a comment. We’d love to hear from you.