Nervous about conducting a good evaluation or reevaluation? Maybe you’re unsure about where to start, or maybe you just have no idea how (or when) you are going to get it all done! Screening and evaluating can be important parts of a school SLP’s job, but they can also be some of the hardest parts to find time for. If you’re new to the setting or just looking for some ideas, check out these tips.
Nail down those deadlines
Timelines and deadlines are important to note at the beginning of any new position. While many aspects of an SLP’s job allow for creativity and flexibility, the deadlines for important reports and documents aren’t so flexible. Make sure you know when evaluations and reevaluations are due so that you don’t miss any deadlines. You’ll need to know the special education timelines in your state (for example, you may have 60 days to complete the evaluation when permission is received), as well as when each current student was last evaluated. Ask a supervisor, principal, coworker, or another special education professional in your building for assistance.
Take stock of your resources
Figuring out which assessments you have access to can help you plan ahead. Find out if there are standardized assessments on site, or how to acquire them. There may be a lending library you can borrow from, and if so, it’s important to know the process for obtaining tests. Additionally, take note of what space you have to complete testing. If you’re lacking a quiet space, see if there is another room you can use for the testing itself.
Find out your site’s expectations
Your building, company, or school district may have specific requirements for you to follow when it comes to assessments. You could be required to complete a certain number of standardized tests or include specific kinds of tests. There may be guidelines for cutoff scores to use when determining presence of disorders (remember, though, that these should be guidelines and not definitive rules). If your boss, supervisor, mentor, or coworker can provide you with sample reports, that will help you get an idea of what’s expected. If you can’t access any examples that way, try looking at previous reports in your students’ files to see what was done in the past.
Consult guardians and teachers
Parent and teacher input are necessary components of evaluation reports, but it can be helpful to consult these individuals early in the process. Getting a sense of others’ concerns about a student’s communication can hint at what to look for in an evaluation. It can also provide insight into the impact communication difficulties are having on a student, which is an important consideration when it comes to decision-making about treatment. Try observing the student in class or requesting a work sample from a teacher. Be efficient—you can send input forms to parents/guardians when you send the testing permission forms!
Choosing speech and language assessments
If the child is verbal, you’ll likely include a comprehensive language assessment. Popular examples in schools include the CELF, CASL, TOLD-I, TELD, OWLS, REEL, CELF-P, TOLD-P, and PLS (just be sure to look for the latest editions and at the age ranges of these tests). Your options may be limited by your site’s resources, but your priority is to cover the main language areas such as receptive language, expressive language, semantics, syntax, and pragmatics, and you’ll want to make sure the child is within the age range for the test.
In most cases, you will also conduct an assessment of speech articulation/phonology. These are often more straightforward in their procedures, and common tests include the GFTA, Arizona, CAAP, and Khan Lewis.
When time and/or resources permit, it can be helpful to include additional tests that focus on specific areas of concern. Narrative skills, receptive/expressive vocabulary, word finding, problem-solving, fluency, and pragmatics are examples of areas that can be assessed further through testing. This may even be necessary in cases where fluency or pragmatics are the primary concerns.
Note: If the student is bilingual or nonverbal, be sure to consult someone at your site for assistance or seek additional resources.
Don’t neglect the dreaded language sample
You might have learned to do a full language sample analysis in graduate school, and you might now be wondering how you’ll ever have time for it in your job. Frankly, it does not always get done, and anyone who’s worked in a school can surely understand why. However, there are quicker ways to get a sample of a child’s conversational speech and language, and doing so—even on a small scale—is extremely useful. A child does not communicate by completing standardized tests every day! You’ll need to see how the child is using speech and language to communicate in a more natural format.
At the very least, attempt to elicit some narrative and engage the student in conversation. This can be done by showing interesting picture scenes and asking open-ended questions. If you can’t record the sample to revisit later, take notes on what you observe and jot down some of the child’s utterances. Look for noticeable trends or errors, such as short utterances, grammatical errors, word finding difficulties, articulation errors, disfluencies, or pragmatic difficulties.
This part of an evaluation can be especially daunting, but with experience, you’ll get more efficient and pick up on things more readily. If you’ve never recorded and transcribed a sample, make it a goal to give it a try on an upcoming evaluation. There are ways to do an analysis using just a word processor (the SUGAR method is an example).
Cover your bases
Don’t forget about oral mechanisms! While an oral mechanism exam can be another overlooked portion of an assessment, the primary goal is to determine whether physical differences are impacting or causing communication difficulties. This can be a quick look at the child’s oral structures, facial symmetry, and tongue movement. If there are voice aspects to note, include them in the report. Be sure to comment on all relevant areas, from the mouth and voice to fluency and pragmatics, even if to say there were not concerns in these areas.
If there were hearing tests, auditory processing evaluations, feeding evaluations, assistive technology consultations, or other types of tests completed, you’ll likely want to include those in the report as well.
Use your clinical judgment
Once you’ve gathered your information and scored your tests, how do you make decisions? Diagnostic and therapeutic decisions can be difficult, even for seasoned SLPs. Some cases may appear to be straightforward, but many are not. Keep these tips in mind when making decisions:
- Interpret test results with caution: all tests have their limitations, so avoid placing too much weight in scores. Parents and other professionals tend to trust hard data, but keep in mind that it should not be the only factor in decision-making.
- Look at the full picture: look at the conversational sample, others’ concerns, and educational impact. The difficulty a child is having communicating in class should weigh more than test scores. On the flip side, a child may score low in one area that does not appear to impact education at all.
- Consider developmental age and milestones: this can be especially helpful when prioritizing which skills to address in IEP goals. Look to address functional skills that will be most beneficial for the individual student.
- Seek advice as needed: while you have the prerequisite background in communication development and should trust your judgment, some diagnostic decisions are especially challenging. If you aren’t sure about something, reach out to whomever you can for help.
Write and proofread
Any sample reports you were provided or have found can be useful in creating templates for various tests and types of reports. While you need to ensure the information is individualized and accurate, certain phrasing and tables can be repeated if you are using a test frequently. This will save you time in the future and help create a level of consistency in your documentation.
Before you finalize any reports, go through to check for errors. It might be helpful to print out a draft and come back to it another day with fresh eyes. If you’re nervous about the content of your reports, see if a mentor or someone with more experience can review it for you. If you need a check on grammatical errors alone, you might even be able to ask a friend with no expertise. Either way, you’ll be embarrassed if you finalize a report with mistakes, or even with the wrong student’s name embedded in there from a template (it happens!).
Don’t tackle it all at once
Completing every component of an evaluation takes time. If you view it as one gigantic task, it can be intimidating. Try to pace yourself and set small goals along the way. Schedule a time for the testing—and don’t be surprised if you don’t get it all done on the first try. You may not have a large chunk of time to sit down and test, but even if you can find thirty minutes here and there, you’ll make progress. You may gather input and observe one week, test the following week, and write up the report the next . . . and that’s okay! Just focus on getting it done before that deadline.