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A Shift in Special Education Assessment to Embrace Multiple Intelligences

By David Graham Farnsworth

Special learners' instructors are tempted to “teach test answers” for standardized achievement exams. However, multiple intelligences theory promotes that students personally compose an essay about their reading, instead of answering multiple-choice questions about it.

IQ Test Assessments Inadequate

The historic definition of intelligence does not go far enough — intelligence as measured by IQ tests. Assessments measured by IQ tests are an inadequate means of learner evaluation. The objective, standard IQ tests do not completely define the representation of intelligence. Howard Gardner's research shows the IQ concentration on merely particular intelligences offers an inferior view in light of today's knowledge of multiple types of intelligences. Only some intelligences can be measured by IQ tests. By focusing on the other intelligent capacities of students through assessment, an instructor may change assumptions and alter the instructional plan.

Employing this method, devised education can accommodate the governing of one or more intelligences in learners to maximize learning. Assorted different assessments and processes to further traditional learning in conjunction with multiple intelligences (MI) theory even increases skill development of the special-needs child — right along with regular classmates. In essence, assessments must furnish the learner the chance to demonstrate his stronger intelligences — instead of multiple-choice, short-answer questions with a bias toward logical mathematical and linguistic ability. The desired outcome remains that assessments appropriately reflect Howard Gardner's nine intelligences to reflect student achievement. This way individually targeted learning-disabled students (along with mainstream students) may even stumble upon the possible dynamic interaction between assorted intelligences. The instructor must familiarize himself with students' individual learning styles to produce assessment strategies that reflect true intelligence.

Shift Focus from Raw Test Scores

Undoubtedly, in light of these facts, the need exists for new assessment methods that shift the focus from raw test scores to authentic student work. New strategies and activities such as visual work, portfolios and the like help implement reflective and collaborative examination. The multiple intelligence approach to testing is closely related to authentic assessment: the approach allows learners to demonstrate the depth of their comprehension, connect their work to real life and use this application of knowledge to novel situations.

This type of assessment involves evaluation and progress that's ongoing — asking continuously if and how learners have improved their skills. MI assessment should be a regular component of life in the classroom (part of the learning process, not a stressful thing). Tools, instruments and procedures involve some, maybe all, the multiple intelligences. The emphasis remains on various assessment tools that measure a learner's abilities and skills. Feedback is paramount. Also noteworthy, some states offer tests that value process over the final answer — instead of assessment tests that only measure rote memorization skills and a learner's ability to do well on tests that are short answer. These tests include PAM (Performance and Assessment in Math) and PAL (Performance Assessment in Language).

Alternate Assessments

Despite the knowledge of MI theory, teachers still attempt (through other methods) to discover the optimal manner of evaluating learners with dissimilar learning styles who show various academic strengths. No singular approach to assessment is effective for every student. The challenge continues to be discovering the best type of assessment to match student learning style. An assessment must mirror intelligence diversity and classroom learning styles. For example, students who possess bodily kinesthetic intelligence will not demonstrate their total knowledge range on an essay test.

Additionally, the environment of special learners is altering quickly — a world that requires fresh skills, knowledge and capabilities for success for critical thought, inference and analysis. Assessment alterations must meet these changing needs. Plus, educators understand better how students learn. Adjusting content standards at the national level — then assessments to perform differently — is necessary to meet competencies required in the current work environment shift. Present content standards do not align with standardized tests. Relying on standardized test evaluations results in an instructional emphasis on too much knowledge and not-so-relevant basic skills that lack learner engagement and promote passivity. It is paramount to remember that the evaluation format bears upon the method of instruction. The future of assessments must move away from true/false and multiple-choice assessments that rarely allow learners to demonstrate their real knowledge and capabilities in real-life situations. "The notion that learning comes about by the accretion of little bits is outmoded learning theory. Current models of learning based on cognitive psychology contend that learners gain understanding when they construct their own cognitive maps of the interconnections among concepts and facts. Thus, real learning cannot be spoon-fed, one skill at a time." (Shepard, 1989, pp. 5-6).

Of course among assessment issues in special education, basic skills remain important for educational goals. However, the flaw lies in the emphasis of basic skills merely to raise standardized test scores. Ideally, assessments should reflect the basic skills learners achieve in the classroom and those skills required when entering real-world situations. Student performance on alternate assessments (in lieu of standardized tests) lets special learners demonstrate these capabilities.