Universal Design for Special Education

“Universal Design Applied to Large Scale Assessments

National Center on Educational Outcomes

Sandra J. Thompson
Christopher J. Johnstone
Martha L. Thurlow

June 2002

Universal design is a concept that began in the field of architecture, but has been quickly expanding into environmental initiatives, recreation, the arts, health care, and now, education. Despite a slow but steady start in its application to instruction, the potential for dramatically affecting the design of large scale assessments is great. There is a tremendous push to expand national and state testing, and at the same time to require that assessment systems include all students – including those with disabilities and those with limited English proficiency—many of whom have not been included in these systems in the past. Rather than having to retrofit existing assessments to include these students (through the use of large numbers of accommodations or a variety of alternative assessments), new assessments can be designed and developed from the beginning to allow participation of the widest possible range of students, in a way that results in valid inferences about performance for all students who participate in the assessment.”

“Universal design is consistent with Response To Intervention approaches in the school setting.  It can be used to sidestep the artificial division between special education and general education.  Assessments can honor a gradation of abilities without categorization of any kind.  Low scores do not have to lead automatically to special education placement, allowing time for non-disabled children to be sorted out, helped and supported in the regular classroom.  Speech and language variations associated with language differences, dialects and slight delays can be programmed through collaborative efforts among general education teachers, special education teachers and related-services personnel.  Reading can continue to be the foundation of intervention without special education placement.  School speech therapists can promote oral language and language-based reading skills to contribute to the effort.  SLPs can move easily into the regular classroom and serve as general educators.  Dynamic assessment extends clinical assessment, consistent with a hybrid model of school speech and language as described in SSP.  This overall approach is different from inclusive education where children’s placements are forced on their performances for categorization purposes. 

How do we prepare school SLPs for this new age of non-categorizal thinking?  There is every indication that old academic training models are antiquated and the college professors must change the curriculum.  There is no reason to throw the baby out with the bath water but the language component needs expansion, updating and focus.  At this point reading appears to be nothing more than an item under language, when it represents an entire domain of learning.  A hybrid model of practice has far-reaching implications for basic theory and research.  The legal arena stemming from IDEA 2004 cannot be dropped into a course and covered in a single lecture.  Current school speech-language pathology is simply not nimble enough for Response to Intervention thinking.  University clinics have changed little since 1950.

On the other hand professional associations put out policy statements, trend information and continuing education materials that have no roots in academic curricula.  They are trying to invigorate change without coordination with SLPs in the schools and academic leaders.  Researchers are left out of the picture as they are engaged in scientific publication and trying to win tenure.

Some courses for school SLPs focus in on materials, methods and techniques as though there is no context for their applications.  The context entails questions about generalization of learning beyond the therapy room, and how reading techniques interface with speech and language methods.

The bridging point is full support for cognitive-linguistic theories of speech and language practice.  One-shot diagnostic prescriptive therapies based on conditioning paradigms have to be seriously questioned as to validity. 

The notion of “clinical population” has to be reworked and the notion of “struggling students” has to be integrated with current thinking.  Categories derived from clinical models can invite incorrect placement in special education.  This is evident when a standardized language test is given on language different pupils and a set cut off level is used for placement.   The discrepancy model  has been called into question.

The implications of  the clear problem of the overidentification and over-retention of at-risk children, particularly, non-disabled minority children, must be spelled out and addressed.  Perhaps it will help decision makers by saying it is an “opportunity” rather than a scandal.  One can make school SLP assessment exciting in that placement and retention decisions can be aligned with vital public policy and educational trends helping SLPs fit into the times.  Clarity and accuracy can be fun goals to reach.

Key is reducing special eligibility placement and dismissal rates while minimizing least restrictive environment.


Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: