Assessment is a crucial part of learning. It can be difficult to know how to identify learners with special educational needs (SENs) in the classroom and how to include learners with SENs in the assessment process. 

The comments below highlight some of the problems for teachers when thinking about learners with SENs and assessment.

'I think there is a learner in my class with SEN but I’m not sure, because I don’t know what I should be looking for and I don’t know what to do next. I probably should talk to the parent but don’t know how.’

Eliza, primary teacher from Italy

'We have to do state exams at the end of the year and I know some of the learners with SENs in my class won’t be at the right standard. What can I do? How do I give them some confidence when they know they are behind the others?'

Maria, secondary teacher from Spain

There are two main challenges with assessment for learners with SENs.:

Challenge 1

How do we know if a learner has a SEN?

It is not our job as teachers to diagnose special needs and to give labels to learners. It is our job to get to know our learners and to pay attention to any factors which support or impede their learning. As a teacher, you may be the first person to notice that a learner is having a difficulty with learning in the group situation. A common definition of a SEN is that the learner is having significantly greater difficulties in learning than the majority of children of the same age, or has a difficulty which prevents them for making use of general educational facilities provided for children of the same age.

How do we recognise these difficulties as teachers?

The easiest way is to do what teachers do best, pay attention to the learner and their learning. In particular, look beyond any bad behaviour to recognise any potential signs of learning difficulties. Indicators that a learner might be having learning difficulties are:

  • The learner is not following or understanding instructions, even when the other learners know what to do
  • The learner finds it difficult to focus on their work for longer periods of time
  • The learner finds it difficult to sit still and wait their turn
  • There is a huge difference in the learner’s verbal and written abilities
  • The learner finds it difficult to start tasks or never seems to finish
  • The learner avoids doing the task, often through poor behaviour such as arguing with the teacher
  • The learner does not speak in groups
  • The learner often seems to be disengaged or daydreaming
  • The learner has problems socializing with their peers

Of course, all learners may show these behaviours sometimes. It is important to notice any recurring patterns and then to do some further investigation. For example, the teacher can ask :

  • Is the problem across all classes and at all times of day? If not, the problem might be with a specific subject, teaching style or the timetabling of a subject.
  • Is the problem with certain groups, the problem might be with peers. 
  • Is there a problem with where the child is sitting? Can the learner see and hear what is happening?
  • Is the work too easy or difficult? Does it suit the child’s learning style? 
  • Is the pace of the lesson too slow or fast?

These are all questions the teacher needs to ask before assuming that the child is having some special learning difficulty. A change in seating plan or type of task might make a big difference.

When enough information has been collected, it might then be useful to refer to an educational psychologist for more help and assessment. It is important that this is done in partnership with the parent/carer. Be careful when discussing this sensitive issue with the parent/carer. As one parent’s comment shows, you can create a divide between home and school.

'My son’s teacher told us after 3 days of school that she thought our child was autistic. We are really annoyed, she’s not qualified to say that after such a short time, we are thinking of taking her out of that school and don’t want to talk to that that teacher any more.'

You can, however, explain the problems you see the child having in class and ask for the parents/carers’ support and discuss whether this is happenng at home as well.

Tip - Use descriptive, factual language rather than judgemental. Acknowledge the parents anxieties and emphasis the child’s positive qualities. ‘I know this is worrying, but I can see John is really trying hard and would like to support him more

Challenge 2

How can we assess the learning of children with SENs?

The other challenge for teachers is the evaluation and assessment of the progress of learners with SENs. This can be more difficult. Children with SENs can find normal methods of testing difficult and de-motivating. They might have problems writing their answers in the required time, with sitting still for long periods of time in an exam and some might find it difficult to understand the test requirements. Learners with SEN can also lose confidence if they continually do worse than their peers in tests and assessments.

Tip – Find out what extra help is allowed for learners with SENs in state exams. It can be possible to get more time or to get someone to write for the learner, it can be possible to do the exam on a laptop or in a smaller room.

What can the teacher do during the year?

Even if end of year testing is difficult, you can work with the learner during the year on assessing their own progress and showing what they can do in different ways. Assessment for Learning (AfL) is an approach which involves the learners in their own assessments and allows them to set their own goals. It can be very helpful for learners with SEN to measure their progress against their own targets rather than those of others. Above all, aim to build learner confidence outside exam times.

Some strategies to build learner confidence

In class give opportunities to show understanding in different ways. For example, learners can make up a role play, a podcast, a poster, a presentation, or a 3D model. They can use mini-whiteboards to show their answers rather than speaking out.

  • Allow learners to work in groups on projects where they have different roles which utilize their strengths.
  • Encourage them to measure what they know now, compared to what they knew earlier in the year.
  • Work continuously with learner on acknowledging their feelings and difficulties but also their strengths: ‘ I know it can be de-motivating when you do the tests, but you have great perseverance and never give up, that’s a great skill'.
  • Praise and reward other skills. For example, the most helpful student, the student who is most responsible, the most creative thinker.
  • Remind them at all times that we are only assessing a certain type of work, not the whole person.

And a final thought...

Remember the learner is more than their school results.

A 6 year old boy was sent home from school with a note which said:

‘This boy is too stupid to learn’.

That boy was Thomas Edison!

Author: 
Marie Delaney
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