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Testing the Limits

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Testing the Limits, recorded for the Ohio Center for Autism and Low Incidence

The testing limits procedures often used by educational professionals during an assessment of a student with special needs. This modification is designed to help educators gain additional information about an individual's abilities, ability to learn, and types of assistance required so that the student can demonstrate competence.

This procedure can be very useful when making placement and instructional decisions. Testing the limits is known by several names: interactive assessment, dynamic assessment, mediated assessment, instruction-oriented assessment, and testing of limits are all terms synonymous with testing the limits.

Several guidelines exist when making the decision to test the limits. First of all, testing the limits should occur after a standardized measure is administered in its entirety. In addition, when scoring a measure on which you've used testing the limits, make sure that you do not score any item correct that the student answered while testing the limits.

There are several methods that can be used when incorporating the testing the limits procedure. These include: providing additional cues; altering the item and/or response modality and the structure; eliminating time limits; providing additional structure; increasing motivation; administering additional items; and providing diagnostic teaching. Each of these will be discussed further.

Some students need additional cues in order to respond to an item that they may already know. For example, when testing the limits an evaluator may say, There's another answer to this question. Could you please find it"? Or, a helpful procedure includes completing the first step for the student so that the student understands what it is he or she is supposed to do. Another way to provide an additional cue is to show the student the incorrect answer, indicate that there is an error in his or her response and ask the student to find it. Finally, additional cues can be provided by breaking the item into discrete tasks and asking the student to complete one item at a time.

Some students with special needs require that the item on the assessment measure be altered. Or, that their response mode be altered. For example, when testing the limits a math word problem could be rewritten as a numerical problem or the mathematical notation could be provided. This will help answer the question Can the student complete the math and is it perhaps the words that are used in the problem that are confusing"?

Some of our students are concrete learners instead of abstract learners and so introducing concrete items often helps our students to demonstrate competence.

Students on the autism spectrum quite often are visual learners. Many items on standardized tests are presented verbally. So, altering a particular item to provide the instructions in a written format or a pictorial format may allow the child to show competence.

Using task analysis to break an item into steps and perhaps prompting the student through the steps can be effective.

Some assessors may create a jig, a more concrete way of breaking an item into steps so that the student knows exactly what to do.

Many students on the autism spectrum may show competence if they can point to an item instead of responding verbally. Even those students who are highly verbal under assessment situations may have problems responding using that format.

Additional ways to alter an item or response mode include taking an essay question or a question requiring a short answer and substituting a multiple-choice format or a true/false format will allow the assessor to determine whether or not the student knows a response to a question.

In addition, providing assistance in the form of a calculator instead of paper and pencil. Rewording the item using language the student is familiar with. And then finally, providing a visual timer to allow the child to see the passage of time.

Many students respond well when testing the limits when they are asked to indicate how they solved a problem. Asking things such as, Tell me what you were thinking when you solved this." How did you get this answer or why did you choose"? allows the assessor to understand the student's thought process which can help in planning a program.

In addition using the think aloud" process is one that can be beneficial for the assessor. If the student talks through the steps as she solves them, again, additional information will be gained about the thought process.

Many of our students respond adversely to time limits, even if the student has enough time. The idea that time limits exist can cause anxiety. So, eliminating any references to speed or time limits is one way to test the limits or to do away with time limits so that the child has adequate time to complete the task at her own speed.

Participating in the assessment process can be extremely problematic for many of our students. Thus, it's important to ensure that our student is adequately motivated, using praise, providing tangible reinforcers, or even rewording items to incorporate a special interest. For example, in a word problem that might traditionally refer to apples and oranges, if the student likes insects, to reword that problem to incorporate different types of insects may motivate the child.

Quite often our individuals on the autism spectrum have what are known as splinter skills or a scattered array of skills. Thus, it may be advantageous for the assessor to administer additional items that go beyond the ceiling or the cut off point of a standardized measure to determine whether or not the student can answer more difficult items correctly.

One procedure that is particularly important in the testing the limits procedure is Test-Teach-Retest. If a student does not know a specific item the assessor can teach that item or a similar item and then have the child solve the problem after the instruction. It is also helpful to provide a time lapse to determine if the student retains that information. And so you may have test-teach-retest-time lapse-retest, all of which will provide valuable information.

These simple steps in the testing the limits procedure can be valuable when administering standardized instruments. They allow you not only to determine what the student knows under standardized conditions, but it allows for probing to determine whether or not the student has a different set of skills or a different way of showing competence that is not compatible with that particular measure.

It is important to remember, however, that this procedure is one that should be incorporated only after an entire measure has been given. After the student has completed a specific test, the assessor who understands the student can go back, select specific items, and use any of the aforementioned methods to test the limits. But when the test is scored, those items that the student answered correctly following the testing of the limits are not included in the score. They can, however, provide helpful information that can be shared with a multi-disciplinary, trans-disciplinary school team who are working together to determine placement and an instructional program.

This slide contains three references that can be helpful when using the testing the limits procedure.

Thank you very much.