Our question aims to solve the issue of delayed detection of dyslexia in at-risk youth across the country. Our solution, a standardized test, could help screen students across the country for flags that may/may not lead to dyslexia.
Meet Our Expert: Dr. Guinevere Eden:
Dr. Guinevere Eden is a full-time Professor at Georgetown University. Her research involves studying the neurological and biological bases of dyslexia and her lab uses imaging techniques to do this. She also teaches at interdisciplinary neuroscience at Georgetown, and has served on boards dealing with topics of dyslexia, the brain, and language (ref 3).
Feedback #1: Standardized tests are already established in schools
In explaining our potential project to Dr. Eden, she illuminated that schools already have standardized testing (benchmarks assessments) to detect learning disabilities, like dyslexia. In the 1980s, there was lots of research on evaluations of children in reading, phonemic awareness, etc. Studies asked the question “how well do these tests predict how children perform in 4th and 5th grade?” They found that dyslexic children have difficulty in isolating and manipulating phonemes and tests were successful in predicting dyslexia. So, companies began to create tests for children to be established in schools. One such test is the “DIBELS.”
What is the “DIBELS?”
The “DIBELS” (Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills) is a language battery (evaluation) that takes one minute.”It can be used for universal screening, benchmark assessment, and progress monitoring in Kindergarten - 8th grade” (ref 1). This test includes questions evaluating phonemic fluency, phonemic awareness, spelling, reading, oral reading, comprehension, and more. This test allows teachers to determine their students’ performances in this area. It has been established in all schools, and most have to give the test three times each year. If you want to learn more, check out the references below!
Since standardized testing was already created and implemented in schools, we were almost ready to toss our project idea out the window. However, Dr. Eden told us a very interesting and upsetting story about these tests in schools. Her daughter was going to school in Maryland and Dr. Eden could see that she was having difficulty reading. So, she went to the school and asked her daughter’s teachers if they were concerned, but they kept saying that they thought she was fine. Dr. Eden was persistent and asked for her child’s DIBELS. The response she got is appalling. “We give out the DIBELS,” the examiner said, “but we don’t score it.” So, the test that is meant to detect dyslexia in children is, basically, useless. “They shove it in a drawer, and do nothing with it,” Dr. Eden said. Further, even if schools give these examinations and score them, they often don’t have the resources to do anything to help the child once it’s learned that they have a learning disability. Dr. Eden, who was at a rally for dyslexia, also told us that she learned that the dyslexia policy to examine children and help them in schools, is not fully funded right now. Thus, the exam isn’t the problem. Dr. Eden puts it nicely: “the key is implementation. There’s so much there, but we’re missing this piece.”
(Dyslexia Rally, 2019)
The problem with our project idea was trying to implement this exam in schools. It has already been done, and, not effectively either. Changing education policy and establishing this exam would be difficult, especially for under-resourced schools. It hasn’t been successful yet, regardless of those pushing for it now, so we see no reason to continue down this path. We have decided to change our project focus. Instead of establishing exams in schools, we want to have a “DIBELS-like” exam implemented in the clinical setting (aka our physicians’ offices). Physicians already have assessments they have to do during every check up: heart rate, blood work, scoliosis, etc. Implementing a short 5-minute assessment for dyslexia would be an easy addition. Further, in the clinical office, evaluation for dyslexia would be more feasible and reliable.
Feedback #2: Testing in schools puts more burden on the teachers and school staff
Testing in schools puts more burden on the teachers and school staff, which already are juggling enough with dozens of students, existing regulation, and curriculums to focus on. Dr. Eden was very quick to mention that schools are not looking to put more on their plate; more so, adding another test would require training, staff, and time dedicated to the execution and grading of these new tests. More concerning are the limited levels of resources available for schools to use to create effective learning plans for at-risk youth. This puts a very large hold on the implementation of this plan and our idea. If the people who will be the main driving force for our plan cannot commit to giving it their focus and effort, what use does it have? Dr. Eden’s daughter’s situation made us realize that as many as a few to thousands of young students can fail to be recognized as students at risk for dyslexia and other learning disorders. Thus, this further supports changing our course of action with our project.
Feedback #3: Standardized test measures don’t take cultural, country, and other differences into account
Another issue with standardized testing that we discussed with Dr. Eden involves the problem of representation. Test measures are based on African Americans and Latinos in the U.S. In order for the evaluation to be accurate, it must limit the number of confounds that can affect scores. The test must be generalized across all cultures, countries, and other factors (like socioeconomic status). This is to ensure nobody is incorrectly diagnosed and nobody falls through the cracks. In designing our solution and how the test will be implemented in clinical settings, we will keep this information in mind.
Revision of Solution:
After speaking with our expert, we decided that while our solution does have potential, it may need some modifications. Learning that there are tests available that help detect the potential for a learning disability such as dyslexia was very important in the implementation of our solution. Rather than forming a new idea, we decided that it would be best to build upon dyslexia tests already created and come up with an idea on how to implement them more effectively in the community. We also understand that teachers should not be given any more responsibilities than they already. So, we decided that it would be more efficient to move the test from the school setting to the clinical setting. Our expert explained to us that the schools have a hard time gathering funds for the resources needed for children with learning disabilities. This is why we think it would be more effective to place this test into the clinical setting instead. Also, we believe automating the test would be great, so that it could be scored automatically. Our new and improved solution lies in a digital dyslexia test given at the time of a child’s checkup in the pediatrician’s office every year. Our plan is to use the existing tests to create one where the nurses supervise the child in a 5-minute “DIBELS-like” test to screen for dyslexia. This way, the pediatrician could talk to the parents right then and there to discuss the options present to help their child. This prevents the wait and problems associated with having the evaluations done in school. Further, the test would include a question asking about learning disabilities in the family, because this indicates higher risk of having a learning disability. It is our hope that, with these changes, the preexisting dyslexia tests will become more effective in screening children.