This week, Texas celebrates Educational Diagnosticians’ Week. In recognition, NCSER highlights the important work that one Texas-based educational diagnostician, Mahnaz (Nazzie) Pater-Rov, has been doing to disseminate information from IES researchers to practitioners on improving reading outcomes.
Nazzie conducts assessments of students who have been referred for testing within multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS) to determine whether they have a learning disability (LD) and makes recommendations for intervention/instruction to improve their literacy and achieve their Individualized Education Plan goals. Working in this field requires an understanding of district/school policies and research-based evidence on identifying students with disabilities. To do this, Nazzie has immersed herself in current research by reading many of the resources IES provides through the What Works Clearinghouse and IES-funded grants so that she can use valid measures and recommend evidence-based interventions. After 16 years in the profession, Nazzie has realized that she is not alone and wants to help other diagnosticians understand the latest developments in LD identification and intervention. Nazzie uses a social media audio application called Clubhouse to share what she is learning, including hosting researchers for chats to present current work on related topics. Nazzie’s chat room is called ED. DIAGNOSTICIANS and has over 900 members, mostly education diagnosticians. Some of her speakers have been IES-funded researchers.
We asked Nazzie to share some of her top concerns and recommendations for research.
Responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.
What stimulated your desire to bring about changes not only in your school but across the state?
When Texas removed its cap on the number of students that could be identified as in need of special education, and districts changed procedures for identifying need, we started to experience a “tsunami” of referrals. Now we are creating a whole population of children identified with LDs without also simultaneously looking at ways to improve our system of policies, procedures, and instruction to ensure we meet the needs of all students through preventative practices.
How has the role of education diagnostician changed since the reauthorization of IDEA (2004)?
Prior to the reauthorization of IDEA, we would compare a student’s IQ with their academic performance. If there was a discrepancy, they were identified as LD. Many states now use a pattern of strengths and weaknesses (PSW) for identification, which is based on multiple measures of cognitive processes.
In Texas, there is also an increased demand for the specialized, evidence-based instruction now that we are better understanding how to identify students as LD and parents are seeing the need for identification and services for their children. However, this has led to doubling the LD identification rate in many districts. This, in turn, is increasing our caseloads and burning us out!
Some experts in the field advocate for using a tiered systems approach, such as MTSS, to identify when a student is not responding to instruction or intervention rather than relying only on the PSW approach. However, the challenge is that there are not enough evidence-based interventions in place across the tiers within MTSS for this identification process to work. In other words, can students appropriately be identified as not responding to instruction when evidence-based interventions are not being used? By not making these types of evidence-based interventions accessible at younger ages to general education students within MTSS, I worry that we are just helping kids tread water when we could have helped them learn to swim earlier.
What are your recommendations for systemic reform?
We need to find a better way to weave intervention implementation into teachers’ everyday practice so it is not viewed as “extra work.” Tiered models are general education approaches to intervention, but it is important for special education teachers and educational diagnosticians to also be involved. My worry is that diagnosticians, including myself, are helping to enable deficit thinking by reinforcing the idea that the child’s performance is more a result of their inherited traits rather than a result of instruction when, instead, we could focus our energy on finding better ways to provide instruction. Without well-developed tiered models, I worry that we end up working so hard because what we are doing is not working.
Are there specific training needs you feel exist for education diagnosticians?
Many new diagnosticians are trained on tools or methods that are outdated and no longer relevant to current evidence-based testing recommendations. This is a problem because instructional decisions can only be as good as the data on which they are based. We need training programs that enable us to guide school staff in selecting the appropriate assessments for specific needs. If diagnosticians were trained in data-based individualization or curriculum-based measures for instructional design rather than just how to dissect performance on subtests of cognitive processing (the PSW approach), they could be helping to drive instruction to improve student outcomes. The focus of an assessment for an LD should not be on a static test but be on learning, which is a moving target that cannot be measured in one day.
What feedback do you have for education funding agencies?
Implementing a system of academic interventions is challenging, especially after COVID-19, where social-emotional concerns and teacher shortages remain a top priority in many schools. Funding agencies should consider encouraging more research on policies and processes for the adoption of evidence-based interventions. Diagnosticians can be important partners in the effort.
This blog was authored by Sarah Brasiel (Sarah.Brasiel@ed.gov), program officer at NCSER. IES encourages special education researchers to partners with practitioners to submit to our research grant funding opportunities.