Examining reading skills of students with intellectual disabilities

Teacher and student. Istockphoto.com

Researchers collected supplemental alternate assessment data on 7,440 students with intellectual disabilities to measure reading performance, to identify variables associated with differences in performance, and to explore the potential utility of the alternate assessment to guide improvements in reading instruction.

Curriculum-Based Measurement (CBM) is a reliable and valid academic progress monitoring tool that traditionally has been used for students who are at risk of developing or who have learning disabilities. Following a line of research that he began at the University of Pittsburgh, Chris Lemons, Ph.D., assistant professor of Special Education and a Vanderbilt Kennedy Center member, has investigated whether early-grade word and passage reading fluency CBM could also be administered to students with intellectual disabilities to inform best practices in assessment and reading intervention delivery.

“Alternate assessments based on alternate academic achievement standards (AA-AAS) have been used for 10 years to evaluate schools’ efforts to teach students with intellectual disabilities, autism, and learning disabilities” said Lemons. “Some concerns about the AA-AAS have been that it does not measure the academic skills of students who participate and that there are little data gathered from it that can accurately inform teacher instruction and intervention. We had the opportunity to include curriculum-based measures in the state alternate assessment for more than 7,000 students with intellectual disabilities, in Grades 3-8 and 11, to evaluate their reading performance, and to examine relationships between reading and demographic variables.”

Chris Lemons, Ph.D.

Chris Lemons, Ph.D.

Teachers administered the CBM in a kind of leveled system, starting with the Kindergarten word reading fluency assessment. If students scored above a certain point, they would move on to the 1st grade assessment, then the 2nd grade, and so on. They found that 50% of 3rd graders were able to hit the benchmark on Kindergarten word reading, and 15.5% were able to meet the benchmark on 1st grade passage reading. Lemons reported that the outcomes are promising in that the percentage of students meeting each benchmark may increase as students get older.

“It’s encouraging because we can see the students still make progress in reading, even all the way up to 11th grade,” said Lemons. “It’s a good indication that students are continuing to increase their reading skills and that they don’t really plateau. Something discouraging that we learned is that even if you look at kids in 11th grade, only 3.5% of those kids are able to read a passage at a 5th grade level, so it’s also an indication that we still have a long way to go. A lot of these kids likely could do better given more intense reading interventions.”

Lemons’ team also was able to demonstrate that the measures did capture differentiation of reading abilities across the students that they evaluated.

“On the curriculum-based measures, students with autism scored better than students with intellectual disabilities,” said Lemons. “However, on the AA-AAS, students with intellectual disabilities do better than the students with autism. I think, at least when they are young, many kids with autism are able to decode words but not to understand them. So, for kids with autism, their performance on CBM may be a little deceptive. It may make them seem as if they are stronger readers than they actually are. ”

In the article, “Performance of Students With Significant Cognitive Disabilities on Early Grade Curriculum-Based Measures of Word and Passage Reading Fluency,” published in Exceptional Children, Lemons outlines recommendations for test developers and teachers. Because we know that students are reading well below grade level, Lemons suggests that CBM be integrated into the instruction for students who take the AA-AAS, because it can provide teachers with more consistent progress monitoring and more formative assessment to guide their instruction.

Finally, the investigators call for additional research into the usefulness of CBM for students with intellectual disabilities, and point out the need for an understanding of growth over time of the students on CBM. Additional research also is needed to better understand how teachers are able to integrate CBM into their instruction practices, and to document its value in improving reading outcomes for students with intellectual disabilities.

For more information, contact chris.lemons@vanderbilt.edu.

Lemons, C. J., Zigmond, N., Kloo, A., Hill*, D. R., Mrachko*, A. A., Paterra, M. F., Bost, T. J., & Davis, S. M. (2013). Performance of students with significant cognitive disabilities on early grade Curriculum-Based Measures of word and passage reading fluency. Exceptional Children, 79(4), 408-426.

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