I have had a number of instances over the last couple of weeks where I saw some tablet apps where I had to question whether it was helping the child learn or if it’s sole purpose was to teach a skill in the exact format as what is present in some very popular assessments of speech and language.
First off, the problem. Teaching to the test has become a hot button issue ever since school teachers have had to endure the increasing push to pack as many standardized assessments and benchmarks in the school year as possible. Then tying financial incentives to student performance on those tests puts otherwise good teachers in a moral battle with educating students or helping them study for a test…giving practice in environmental conditions, concepts, and sometimes question formats very similar to the test. Why is this a problem? Because if your primary focus is to learn how to take that specific test, it gives an inflated score that doesn’t exactly represent whether the concepts were actually learned.
What you should get from a speech and language evaluation is a list of concerns put into the context of the evaluation setting (and more specifically to the task requirements), how your child performed when remediation strategies were attempted, and then recommendations that he/she could benefit from. Speech and language treatment sessions address goals based upon those recommendations with proven evidence based strategies and individual modifications. What you should not get is therapy that is simply drills, using the same task or stimulus items seen in the assessment.
How do you know if your child’s therapist is teaching to the test? Great question. It’s not easy to tell as a casual observer, but the therapist should know the difference. If you want to know, just ask:
“How does this activity we are practicing help my child with his deficits when at school/with friends/at home/etc?”
“How similar is this activity to the tasks presented during my child’s evaluation? Can you show me the differences?”
Here’s an example: A child demonstrates poor word retrieval skills (they can’t remember the word they wanted to say, aka “tip of the tongue” issues) Testing often includes naming items within a specified period of time with the results compared to age-matched peers. If treatment sessions practice naming items in a category at a fast rate, they are teaching to the test and not helping much with processes underlying word retrieval issues…even though scores on the naming test will likely increase over time. To better address word retrieval deficits, issues with categorization and association of vocabulary need to be addressed in engaging, leveled activities as well as strategies to adequately describe the words when they are at the tip of the tongue. This will provide a longer-lasting result that carries over into a variety of situations rather than just when naming items rapidly.
So far I have seen a few apps (often “brain-trainer” type apps or those that have you chose from a group of items) that use the exact same format as what is in the standardized tests I give. At SZ Therapies we want you to know exactly what is being done in therapy so that you can be the therapy support when at home. We also provide detailed evaluations that identify and describe the tasks that were difficult including why they may have been difficult, so that treatment can focus on the specific issues rather than relying only on the tasks to determine accurate treatment goals. Contact me if you have additional questions or want to know more about how our process at SZ Therapies sets us apart.