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Rabbi Dr. Ahron Hersh Fried Responds to: "Why Test?"
Chicago Community Kollel Interactive Parenting Column #70 - Educational Testing
by Rabbi Yakov Horowitz
This article orignally appeared in Chicago Community Kollel

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12/11/08

Dear Rabbi Horowitz:

We are married and have 3 lovely children, the oldest of whom is our son who is in third grade. He is a bright and energetic child but seems to have underachieved in school for the past two years. We were recently invited to meet with his principal who validated our concerns and suggested that we take him for ‘testing.’

We are familiar with the overall notion of ‘testing,’ as some of our friends have taken their children to be tested, but we would be very grateful if you can give us a quick primer into

1) Why testing is needed?

2) What types of testing are there?

3) If we agree to have him tested, where should we go to have it done?

4) Are we able to get it free of charge from the local public school?

Thank you in advance

Respectfully

Yael and Avi

Rabbi Dr. Ahron Hersh Fried Responds

Note: Rabbi Dr. Ahron Hersh (Herschel) Fried, one of the outstanding mechanchim of our generation, graciously accepted my invitation to share his thoughts with our readers on this complex and often misunderstood subject. Below; please find his responses to the questions posed by Yael and Avi, which were slightly edited for publication. (My notes are in script font and followed by my initials.)

Reb Herschel, an accomplished talmid chacham and brilliant scholar, founded Chush more than 30 years ago – when learning disabilities were hardly understood, let alone dealt with. I had the pleasure of attending many Torah Umesorah lectures of Reb Herschel and he has had a great impact on my thinking about educating ‘special ed’ and mainstream children.

On behalf of our readers, I would like to express my gratitude to Dr. Fried for taking the time from his busy schedule to respond to these questions.

YH

1) Why is testing needed?

Some History:

It used to be that when a child was doing poorly in school, the teacher would conclude, and the parents would reluctantly agree, that he simply “didn’t have a good head.” Thus the child would be allowed to wallow through his school years, with great damage to his self-concept. Some parents, noting evidence to the contrary, and recalling many instances when their child had demonstrated intelligence outside of school would qualify this and conclude that he “just didn’t have a good head for school.” As it became evident that many children who seemed quite intelligent outside of school were doing poorly in their studies, the child’s not doing well in school came to be attributed to an “emotional block” against schoolwork. Children went into therapy to free them of their emotional aversion to school work. These often protracted therapies didn’t help children learn. Then, with what is called the “cognitive revolution” came a better multi-disciplinary understanding of how human beings learn, how we take in and “process” information; how we pay attention to information, how we hold on to it in memory, how we work with it, organize it, and store it for later use. It also brought an understanding that how information was presented, whether visually or auditorially, how it was organized, could make a great difference to children’s ability to learn. This understanding shed light on the complexity of learning, and the many varied tasks that we engage in when we learn. It also brought the realization that if there was a weakness or a breakdown in any one or in a number of these processes, learning would be very difficult if not impossible for the person with that weakness, despite their otherwise having a “good head” and demonstrable intelligence.

Thus came the concept of a “specific learning disability”, in other words, the idea that someone who is intelligent in many other ways, may nevertheless experience difficulties in learning. It also brought with it the hope that if we could identify the nature of that specific difficulty we would be able to teach the child by a different path and overcome it. One result of this is that today when a child is experiencing difficulties learning we do not simply accept that “he just doesn’t have a head for learning”, instead we try to pinpoint the specific nature of the difficulty and try to teach by another method or approach, and where possible to remediate the difficulty at its source.

Why Test?

When teachers and parents noticea child having difficulties in their studies they are seeing what we might call a “symptom” - a sign of something not going right. There are many factors that may explain why the child is not doing well in school. The child may indeed just be “weak”. On the other hand, he may have difficulty listening to and holding on to his teachers’ mostly oral and often fast-paced presentation of lots of information, but could learn if the information was presented visually and at a more deliberate pace.

He may have difficulty visually scanning a page of print quickly and thus keeping his place in some of our Seforim, or he may have difficulty sustaining attention for any length of time. Many children in our Chadorim and Yeshivos do well in their General Studies, but poorly in the Judaic Studies, primarily because, due to the way their brain process sounds (or fails to) they have difficulties with picking up a new language, which is of course a basic requirement in all of Judaic Studies. (This problem is made exponentially more difficult for a child who’s native and home language is English who must learn to translate one language they don’t understand, i.e. the Hebrew of the Chumash into Yiddish, another language they don’t understand).

Sometimes also, testing will bring to the fore emotional issues or concerns which make it difficult for children to keep their minds on their studies. Testing is thus needed in order to understand what the underlying factors are that are making learning difficult for children so that they may be better helped.

But in truth there is an even more basic need for testing. Testing is often necessary simply to give us a clear picture of the child’s achievements thus far. In other words what does he know? What can he do? What can he not do? Has he mastered reading? Does he understand what he’s reading? How much of a vocabulary has he amassed in English? In Hebrew? Does he understand Mathematical concepts? Can he calculate at age or grade level? All too often both parents and teachers cannot give a clear answer to these basic questions, without which we cannot begin to help the child. Many children whose parents and teachers thought they could read have, through testing, been discovered to be able to read only highly frequent, and by now, memorized sight-words. They could not sound-out and decipher new unfamiliar words. I have often been told that a child reads books, some voraciously, only to discover through testing that they gain only a global understanding of what they are reading, missing many of the details and subtleties of the texts. Often children have failed to gain a basic skill in the primary grades, and then continue to do poorly throughout school because nobody is teaching the basic skill again in the 6th or 7th grades.

Sometimes testing reveals some very basic information about a child that requires a “sea change” in how one views and works with the child. I recently tested a boy who was having difficulty in his studies. I found that he was having difficulty with auditory processing, in other words, he was not correctly interpreting, discriminating between, remembering, and organizing the sounds he was hearing. I suggested an evaluation by an audiologist. The child’s mother called me back a few weeks later to report that her son was discovered to have a severe hearing loss in one ear! This was not great news, but it did provide guidance for how to work with him.

In summation: Testing is important in order to gain a clear picture of what the child knows and does not know. It is also sought in the hope of understanding how the child functions, to discover the child’s strengths and weaknesses, so as to be able to help him. And at times to reveal very basic information about the child that in the turbulence of our daily existence we may have missed

I should add in conclusion that if the results of the test and the recommendations made by the evaluator are in any case going to be ignored and remain unimplemented, testing should not be done. Testing will not in and of itself help the child, just as going to the doctor and then failing to take his prescription will not cure the patient.

2) What types of testing are there, and what does it involve?

There are many kinds of tests. There are tests of achievement, which help clarify what skills a child has mastered and to what level.

• There are tests of general intelligence which help us gain an understanding of a child’s thinking abilities, and also of relative strengths and weaknesses in different areas of cognition (thinking with words, thinking with pictures or shapes and forms, remembering and organizing information, and how quickly we process information).

• There are specific aptitude tests that examine a child’s abilities in areas like Language, Spatial Organization, Memory, Attention and Executive Function (the ability to work with information to solve a problem, to stay focused, to plan a path towards a solution, and to monitor one’s progress through the task).

• Finally, there are tests designed to assess a child’s emotion and mood.

Depending on the evaluator, how s/he works, how thorough the evaluation is to be; an evaluation could take anywhere from 2 to 10 hours of work. This is of course not done on one session, but usually spread over a number of days, but not too far apart.

Testing is a sort of “detective work”. We are in pursuit of the answer to the question of “what makes this child tick?” On the way, as a result of a finding on one test or another, hypothesis are generated, these then need to be verified by further testing. Ultimately, a clinical decision has to be arrived at. This is done by the evaluator’s studying his amassed store of information gained from testing, and with knowledge of the child’s family background, learning history, and the curriculum and learning tasks he faces at school, arriving at an understanding of the child’s strengths and weaknesses, and a recommendations for helping him.

I always tell my students, tests should be used like a microscope, not like a thermometer. (emphasis mine. YH)

A thermometer gives you a number. You accept that number without question and with no need to interpret it. If the thermometer says the child has 103 degrees of temperature, that’s what he has. (You don’t really stop to wonder whether he held it near the radiator when you weren’t looking.) What we see in a microscope is different. The microscope doesn’t give us fixed numbers or conclusions. The microscope highlights what we want to look at. It helps us to see more clearly. This is how test results need to be worked with. They highlight and allow us to more clearly see the child’s functioning. Ultimately the evaluator has to take a holistic view of the child and his environment to arrive at conclusions and recommendations.

3) If we agree to have him tested, where should we go to have it done?

In all fields people seek out professionals whom they can trust. In this case, I believe you should seek out professionals who are professionally well trained, experienced, and knowledgeable about children as well as about schools and learning. Preferably the professional should understand the curriculum your child needs to work with. (I strongly suggest that you contact an administration member of your child’s school as you will invariably need their assistance to implement the educational adjustments your child will gain from as a result of the testing. Additionally, I suggest that you ask them for a referral early in the game. YH)

4) Are we able to get it free of charge from the local public school?

Testing can be gotten free of charge at the local public school district. You need to write to the local district office, state that you reside in the district and have a child who is experiencing difficulty at school and need help for him. An appointment for an assessment must be given within a legally set time frame (depending on the locality).

(If you are finding it difficult to access district services, consider contacting Mrs. Leah Steinberg, Director of Agudath Israel’s Project LEARN (Limud Education Advocacy and Referral Network). LEARN helps parents navigate the path from determining that their child has special education needs to obtaining the services that they are entitled to by law. Mrs Steinberg can be contacted at (212) 797-9000, ext. 325, or via email at lsteinberg@thejnet.com. YH)

© 2008 Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, all rights reserved



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