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Posted 26th October, 2017 by Sue Partridge

I recently had reason to be a little nostalgic about the method I learned for assessing adults with dyslexia back in the 1990s. I trained with Cynthia Klein and used a method broadly outlined in Klein, C. (2003) Diagnosing dyslexia: a guide to the assessment of adults, London, The Basic Skills Agency.

A number of colleagues have been preparing for resubmission of evidence to renew their Assessment Practice Certificate (APC), and I am staggered by the length of the diagnostic report now required, the proliferation of assessment tests needed and the depth of analysis expected.  Feedback on the resubmission by expert assessors can run to several pages of intricate recommendations for improved practice and precise wording to be used in reports.

Of course, I am impressed with the rigour of improved analysis is diagnostic reports and the fact that specialist teacher assessments do seem finally to be accepted on a par with those of educational psychologists.  However, two features of current ways of testing give me concern:

  • if there is overreliance on findings from WRIT,
  • if there is insufficient note of qualitative findings and observations during testing.

Let’s take the first point first:

The SpLD Test Evaluation Committee (STEC), the  sub-committee of the SPLD Assessment Standards Committee (SASC) whose purpose is to provide guidance on assessment materials, issued some thoughts on WRIT in 2016:
“The purpose of an ability test is to eliminate general learning difficulties and to examine potential – the WRIT can do both. A comparison between the WRIT and the WAIS is not particularly helpful as Verbal Analogies and Similarities are not measuring the same thing. Most people using the WRIT are well aware that there is some cultural bias as the test was not developed in the UK.
‘Tests don’t diagnose, people do’. An assessment is a differential diagnosis which uses a battery of tests to come to a conclusion about strengths and weaknesses and does not rely on any individual test for a diagnosis. Specialist Dyslexia Assessors do not only rely on the WRIT scores or a working memory deficit to make a diagnosis of dyslexia. They use data from other tests and take into account the verbal abilities of the student throughout the whole assessment process, noting receptive and expressive language skills. The assessment will also look at difficulties with working memory, phonological weakness and speed of processing, literacy weaknesses and specific skills associated with reading and writing. Additional testing may be carried out if supplementary evidence is required.” http://www.sasc.org.uk/SASC_Default.aspx?id=2

This is all well and good, but my nostalgia is for the days when we didn’t use WRIT or any IQ test at all, partly for ideological reasons (is IQ a real and relevant construct when testing?) and partly because we felt we could make a well considered judgement about dyslexia without it.

This leads neatly to the second point about the importance of qualitative data and observations. Which would you believe, a direct observation of an adult learner struggling to put their thoughts down on paper, or an anomalous finding from WRIT? Which is more convincing, a sign that creative strategies are at play when an adult tells you how they use visualisation to manage lapses in memory, or a non-significant difference between digits forward and digits backwards in TOMAL?  Does an overreliance on testing sometimes mean we neglect the clear strengths of dyslexic adults that can be on display?

I know I am showing my age and I am sure I would be embarrassed to read back one of my early reports which were so much shorter, but, weren’t things more simple then?

 

  • Doreen Chappell

    Excellent points. As someone who worked in the many forms of adult literacy for over thirty years and specialised in dyslexia I completely agree. What’s happened to the person with all their background information both positive and negative and the conclusion of the Leicestershire dyslexia study in the eighties that assessment over time was the best solution?

    • Thank you Doreen. Dyslexia Positive assessors still try to put in lots of background information. Ros and Alison both recently had their APC renewals approved by Patoss with glowing comments!

    • Thank you Doreen. Dyslexia Positive assessors still try to include lots of background information. Ros and Alison recently had their APC renewals approved with glowing feedback! If only assessors had the luxury of extended assessment time… However, in my role as a support tutor, I certainly still like to take a problem-solving stance and help the student refine their view of what the dyslexia assessment means for them.

  • Laura Galagon

    Great points.
    A weakness in verbal working memory is usually seen in children with dyslexia. But is it always the case? E.g. Would you consider to diagnose a child with dyslexia if they have weak phonological awareness and weak decoding skills (TOWRE 2) compared to their verbal abilities, but other cognitive areas are as expected (including verbal short-term memory, verbal working memory and rapid naming)? The child reads very slowly and reading tires them a lot. Although he is able to spell familiar words (thus a good score at WRAT 4 spelling test), but finds it difficult to spell unfamiliar words. The child’s reading and writing difficulties have an affect on his attainment at school.

    • Hi Laura
      I am not an expert on assessing children; I always think the pattern of dyslexia takes time to emerge in an individual when they are still at the stage of acquiring literacy skills for the first time. With adults there are lots of extra factors from experience, so I am never surprised by contrasting test scores. Everyone is different. With memory scores, there is always a possibility that the person has used a visual strategy even if the test says it measures phonological memory. That might apply to your child’s recall of basic spelling patterns too. Hope this helps. Have confidence in what you observe!

  • Canonbury Dyslexia

    Dear Sue

    Thank you for raising such cogent points.

    It’s really interesting that you picked up on the STEC statement, as I think it raises a number of interesting issues, such as the following (quotes from STEC):

    1) “The purpose of an ability test is to eliminate general learning difficulties and to examine potential”

    What is meant by general difficulties here? How do we “eliminate” these? I have asked SASC and been told this is something that will be covered in CPD training, but a) which training course covers this? I can’t find any that do; b) why do we get a lengthy guidance document from STEC on other tests e.g. SDMT, but no guidance on this issue? c) using a crystallized and fluid brief intelligence test (which is what WRIT is) to identify potential is a debatable topic (see e.g. Howe’s “IQ in Question”).

    2) “A comparison between the WRIT and the WAIS is not particularly helpful, as Verbal Analogies and Similarities are not measuring the same thing”

    What if we think it is particularly helpful, for the very same reason? Surely some do, e.g. David Grant, whose BPS ADM Magazine article on Verbal Analogies/Similarities discrepancies is, I presume, being responded to here? (https://shop.bps.org.uk/publications/journals-and-periodicals/assessment-development-matters-vol-1-no-4-winter-2009.html)

    3) “Most people using the WRIT are well aware that there is some cultural bias as the test was not developed in the UK.”

    I’d suggest that if a test is culturally or otherwise biased to the point of repeatedly giving invalid or unreliable results, we should find a better test to use, surely? WRIT Verbal Analogies has such low face validity among UK assessors that I’d question its continuing use.

    4) “‘Tests don’t diagnose, people do’.”

    Indeed that is true, but people are expected to use tests in a consistent way according to agreed guidelines, which, as you say, are rather lengthy and prescriptive for dyslexia assessment. I fear that “TDDPD” is sometimes used to deflect critical thinking about these guidelines. Can I, as a person who diagnoses, just remove WRIT from my assessment suite and say “tests don’t diagnose, people do” when questioned on this? Thought not.

    5) “An assessment is a differential diagnosis”

    If by this they mean “the distinguishing of a particular disease or condition from others that present similar clinical features” (Wikipedia definition), then this leads back to my question 1)a) above re. “general learning difficulties”. Where is the guidance for us to carry out such differential diagnosis?

    • I agree it is bad that SASC still talks about general learning difficulties as if this excludes the possibility of dyslexia. I have had the privilege of diagnosing and supporting many learners who were sent to special schools for so called learning difficulties. The assessment is still possible (if harder to tease out) and the specialist problem-solving dyslexia support is still really rewarding, even if progress is slow. Interestingly, I think assessing really high flyers (Dyslexia Positive had a great record of working with trainee doctors) just as hard, not least because you face the disbelief that such people can succeed in the profession and still be dyslexic.

    • I agree it is bad that SASC still talks about general learning difficulties as if this excludes the possibility of dyslexia. I have had the privilege of diagnosing and supporting many learners who were sent to special schools for so called learning difficulties. The assessment is still possible (if harder to tease out) and the specialist problem-solving dyslexia support is still really rewarding, even if progress is slow. Interestingly, I think assessing really high flyers (Dyslexia Positive has a great record of working with trainee doctors) just as hard, not least because you face the disbelief that such people can succeed in the profession and still be dyslexic.

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