Cognitive referencing is the practice of using IQ scores to establish eligibility for special education services, specifically in areas of language and learning disabilities. It’s often called by it’s gentler label, the “discrepancy model.” Many others disapprovingly call it the “wait to fail” model. Cognitive referencing has been denounced by groups such as the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (link), the President’s Commission on Excellence in Special Education, 2002, and very explicitly, by the U.S. Department of Education (link, pg. 31). It has been eliminated in many states, but persists in many others. Even those who don’t come right out and denounce this practice (as they should), state that it should be only one component of a larger process used to determine eligibility (e.g. this CEC link). The problem is that wherever it is used, the IQ-Academic discrepancy becomes the sole method of determining eligibility in nearly all cases. In my state of Missouri, our state law very specifically mandates this discrepancy, unless a school district is willing to go through much expense and work to use other methods, such as RTI. My guess is that 99% of kids tested for LD and Language Impairment in our state use only IQ comparison to determine eligibility.
Despite its prevalence, cognitive referencing is wrong on many levels.
- It uses a single IQ score, ignoring standard deviation. A kid that scores 80, may actually have a “true” IQ of something like 85 or 90, but could have performed poorly on that one day, for various reasons. Tough luck for that kid. An IQ score of 80 usually means that your academic or language scores have to be 58 or lower, an extremely difficult thing to do.
- By even using IQ at all, the assumption is that this is as good as a kid can get. That was the initial rational for the discrepancy model way back before we knew better. Now we know that IQ can go up (or down) in relationship to environmental factors. (When IQ scores of large groups of children are studied, IQ scores do tend to remain stable, especially in older children. However, this skews the fact that a smaller percentage of children do show substantial IQ fluctuations over time. For more on this interesting topic, see Sigelman and Rider, 2008.)
- IQ and language are correlated. Vocabulary and IQ especially correlate well. This means that children with low language scores tend to have comparably low IQ scores. It is virtually impossible to obtain a low IQ score and say that language difficulties didn’t have something to do with that score.
- Kids with certain scores are especially difficult to qualify for special education under this model. Whenever a child scores in the 70s you can just about rest assured that the kid will not qualify, and you will be testing that kid again, perversely hoping that the academic and/or language scores have fallen enough to qualify the next time. In effect a child is punished for having an IQ score that just happens to be in that one certain range.
- IQ scores can set artificially low levels of expectation for kids, teachers, and parents. IQs describe obstacles, not limits. It may be harder for someone with a lower IQ to learn, but it is never impossible. Only comatose or dead people can’t learn, and IQ scores too often allow somebody to say, “Well he’s achieving close to his level.” IQs can provide a stimulus to somebody with a high IQ who is not motivated to learn, and can provide a bit of insight into why a particular student may be having trouble learning, but to withhold helping a child because of a lower then average IQ is at the least dishonest, and borders on unethical.
So how can this horrible practice persist? For starters, no states have been forced to abandon cognitive referencing. It is almost amazing that so many have, considering the financial implications of having to provide more help to kids. That nobody has come up with anything better seems to be the main excuse given for continuing the discrepancy model. I don’t really understand why this practice hasn’t been challenged in court. Perhaps someday, somebody such as these special ed lawyers with a great web site, will.
That cognitive referencing can continue to exist is a symptom of a larger problem in our society. We attempt to find labels and categories to justify providing (a good thing) or withholding (not so good) help to kids that could really benefit from extra help. In my opinion the most ethical method of providing special education services would be to establish a bare minimum of expected competence in various areas, and at least offer to help any child achieve the next step toward reaching that bare minimum. If this were to happen those of us in special education might then be able to spend more effort looking for ways to help, and less time looking for excuses not to.
- Testing takes too much time.
- There is too much pressure to teach to the test.
- Tests measure limited aspects of a student.
- Ignores standard error of measurement.
- Increases anxiety and stress
I don’t think I even have to write an introductory sentence for this post – if I did, it would be something like, “The way group testing is done now creates a lot of problems.” It’s become almost cliche to say that No Child Left Behind’s emphasis on testing has created a lot of headaches and hassles. The testing emphasis and the accompanying problems have been shared by other countries. Research has been mounting in support of the overwhelming mountain of testimonies from educators, and even the general media at large has joined the bandwagon. (For example: CBS news story; Boston Globe article; UK Daily Telegraph study story) Everyone agrees that accountability is a good thing, and there’s only one way to measure how our children are learning. Well, actually, there’s something wrong with that last part… There is another way. Individual testing.
I’ll go ahead and get my bias out of the way, because I am a diagnostician. I test students for speech and language competency in order to decide special education eligibility, and to help provide planning for appropriate speech and language therapy. I work with a team of other diagnosticians serving 13 school districts. Most students that we test receive IQ and educational testing, and probably two-thirds get speech and language testing. I am not exaggerating when I say that when we finish testing a child parents, teachers, and the students themselves know the tested child like never before. We can tell exactly what’s wrong, and exactly how to fix it. Individual testing trumps group testing in so many ways. Individual testing specifically…
- takes less time with greater accuracy.
- is impossible to teach to the test.
- We can measure any educationally relevant aspect of the student that we want.
- takes special circumstances into account.
- has less anxiety.
Additionally, individual testing …
- specifically measures progress (or lack of) in very specific areas.
That’s the only bullet there, but its important enough to merit its own list. Put another way, this means that when we are able to test kids this way, we can determine exactly what a student knows, and what a student should know, but doesn’t. We can also tell what’s developmentally appropriate for each student to learn next.
So why don’t we just test each kid individually then? Well, it would require a lot of change – change sparked and implemented by bureaucrats in an educational system who would only do so in response to mandates from politicians in a government who would only mandate in response to political pressure which would require much greater media attention. As the ongoing attempt to overhaul health care has demonstrated, real change in our country is often extremely difficult. Especially systematic change. And even when the need for change is obvious.
Earlier I composed a short commentary on what I called the “Language Fingerprint” – each person’s unique language profile. It went like this: Each child demonstrates a unique “fingerprint” when it comes to the units in their language repertoire. Just as no two fingerprints are alike, no two language profiles are alike. Kids learn words, word parts, and word combinations that they’ve realized are important in their own lives, and so there are as many different language fingerprints, or language profiles, as there are word learning environments: approximately 300 million in the United States alone. The emphasis is that each one is unique. The implication is that the most effective language teaching paradigm would account for this individuality.
The notion of a language fingerprint supports why language therapists continue to use pull-out therapy in the face of mounting opposition and pressure to go into the classroom. Pull-out works because this is the only time in school that many of kids with language problems feel compelled to speak. When one person is speaking to twenty or thirty children feedback is hard enough to come by anyway. When one of those children has difficulty speaking feeback from that child becomes near impossible. Language impaired children often compensate for weak language by developing excellent skills of quietly blending into their environment.
The fewer kids there are in any given teaching situation, the greater is the possible feedback for each kid. Because kids don’t have the same language fingerprint, the more individually tailored the feedback, the greater the potential that specific needs are being addressed.
Studies have been done comparing pull-out versus classroom based models of speech and language therapy. While many of these studies have been inconclusive or incomplete (McGinty and Justice, 2006)*, the trend has been toward greater use of classroom based intervention. Justification for this trend has been supported by increased carryover, providing a natural environment for learning goals, and increased teacher involvement. (Al-Sa’bi, 2004). *
Two points seem to be missing, however. 1) While the classroom is a natural environment when compared to other classrooms, this sort of situation is relatively rare outside of school. And the setting where one leader encourages constant feedback and participation from a group under her care is uncommon even as classroom populations advance into secondary school and college. 2) Language impaired children have few times for one on one interactions with a language professional as it is. Compare the 30 or 60 minutes weekly usually given for language therapy to the thousand or more minutes during the week that the child is in class. Classroom intervention may have it’s merits, but why should it come out of the 30 or 60 minutes rather than the other large chunk of time?
Many normally developing kids have their own personal language therapist – their parents. That some parents are so effective in this role should fit right into the notion of a language fingerprint. Attentive parents know at just the right time when a word that appears in the life of their child is one not well known. These parents automatically know when a word is new to their child because they are around their children much more than teachers or any other adult. There is no better time to learn new words than in the course of everyday life. For instance a child may play hide and seek and when found (after closing the always open bathroom door) may ask “How did you find me?” An attentive parent may instinctively say, “You left evidence,” knowing that he will have to ask what evidence is in order to understand the answer. Examples like this add up exponentially over time.
Individual attention doesn’t just work well at home. What should be obvious, though, is often disregarded for reasons other than the best welfare of children.
American architectural great Louis Sullivan adopted this now famous phrase in the 19th century to help bring about a revolution in building design. A change was necessary in part because changing tastes of the time no longer called for the traditional ornamentation that had been habitually maintained. While language certainly can possess its own form of ornamentation, such as flowery prose, lyrical cadences, and stylistic fiction, the language of communication owes its existence to function. Anything that consistently exists in language exists to assist.
Take for example, the use of categories. It is possible to form categories in a great many ways where words possess feature overlap. We do this when it serves our purposes. By classifying trees into deciduous and evergreen we can better understand and describe trees. For instance,
Husband: “I planted a new tree in front of the house today.”
Wife: “What kind?”
Husband: “An arborvitae. It’s an evergreen.”
Wife: “Good. We’ll have something to screen our front window year round.”
There are two main ways of describing this aspect of the husband’s new tree. If he didn’t understand the classification of trees into deciduous and evergreen, he could have said “I bought an arborvitae. It does not lose its foliage for much of the year like some trees do.” Here is one instance of where a category has saved time, effort and potential confusion. Because any two words that share features can potentially be categorized, and that some words are and some aren’t, demonstrates our power over language. We could categorize all tall buildings as skyscrapers, which we have done, but only recently. This categorization was not helpful before the 19th century, and was not done even though “tall” buildings did exist. We could just as easily give some label to short buildings (groundgrazer?) but we have not found it in our interests to do so.
All of this has implications for where words come from, and consequently where language comes from. The existance of language has been explained in a myriad of ways, from nativism, universal grammar, statistical computation, connection, behaviorism, and so on. All of these explanations exclude a particularly human element, that of human ingenuity, creativity, and motivation. These attempts to systematically explain language may touch upon key linguistic aspects, but any one that omits the human element, ignores something critical.
More on this topic can be found in this earlier post.
I like learning new things that may have future relevance. That’s why this story from Science Daily especially appealed to me. It taught me about the Baldwin Effect, an effect relevant enough to have over 9 million Google search results, and a Wikipedia entry, yet something I’d never heard of. Essentially, the Baldwin Effect can be a sort of an evolutionary short cut from learning to instinct. Animals that have a predisposition to learning anything (like language) that enhances its survivability can turn that anything into an instinct under lengthy continuous circumstances. The study authors conclude that a “universal grammar” must have arisen by societal impetus that predates the relatively recent divergence of language over the last 100,000 years.
I personally believe the univeral grammar is an invention that describes a phenomenon that occurs because of universal human needs. Because (nearly) all humans need to describe things that have happened, we get past tense, for instance. There are guys and gals in all human cultures, and they all possess things, so we get possessive pronouns. What linguistic construct exists that has been used as support for universal grammar, and is useful to one group of humans, but not another? Let me know if you come up with one.
Is Pragmatic Language Teaching Too Often Ignored?
On some occasion a while back I came across a pragmatic language situation that I thought could be taught in therapy. Since that occasion the regularity with which new social language situations that would be ripe for therapy has surprised me. They just keep popping up. The frequency of these situations varies. What do you say to a friend who has just lost a loved one? There are two similar questions on the Pragmatic Judgment subtest of the Comprehensive Assessment of Spoken Language (CASL), though hopefully this situation occurs less frequently in the lives of most people reading this. I for one have not been good at these kind of situtations, but I’ve tried to identify my inadequacies, observed what others with these skills have said in these situations, and I think, I have improved.
For children who may learn these aptitudes eventually, early learning is both possible and preventative of potential conflict. What do you say when someone is in your way? I have not yet seen this question on a test, but people are in my way all the time, just as I find myself often in the way of others. Nonetheless, it’s astonishing how many children I’ve worked with that don’t know the power of a simple “excuse me,” accompanied with a smile. Even more astonishing is that despite how easy it is to teach this, how often it goes untaught. It seems the usual assumption is that it will eventually be learned without direct teaching, implying that we rely on observation and/or learning by trial and error to teach this and many other pragmatic skills. And because this kind of incidental teaching works for some, pragmatic skills are rarely the targets of teachers and language interventionists.
Consider these other situations: What do you say when someone shows you pictures of his normal looking children? What do you say when you still can’t hear a question after its already been repeated? Or how about when you’re asked how another person looks? Or how about when someone accidentally insults you? What should you say, and how should you say it, if you have an honest disagreent with another’s opinion? Or, …well, believe me, this list can go on and on. If you have children, it’s possible that you understand how each one of these situations must be individually taught, and also how once taught, it’s probably no longer necessary to work on each individual situation again. Conversely, consider how frequently kids with impaired language have simply not been taught these things. And we all know people that are exceptional at knowing what to say at the right time, just as we know others who aren’t. Was this knowledge surgically infused, or inherited? Or did they have better role models than most?
Perhaps for starters, we need a list. An abbreviated one can be found by clicking below.