On Accommodations: Dispatches from Headstrong Nation

Accommodations are one of the most important–and frequent–topics of discussion in my office. For students with learning differences, accommodations are a key part of their academic program: they’re critical for helping these students  communicate what they know. There are lots of sites out there that discuss accommodations, and I hope to feature and link to as many as possible from this space.

Today’s featured site is Headstrong Nation, a California-based nonprofit that focuses on awareness and empowerment for adults and kids who learn differently. The nonprofit’s site is bold, a little brash, and jam-packed with information, and I definitely recommend taking a spin. Most importantly, check out the eye-catching, plain-spoken Accommodations section here. It’s a great introduction to what accommodations are and how kids and adults can make best use of them at school and at home. Definitely worth a look–enjoy!

Watch the following video to learn more about Headstrong Nation and its mission.


Assistive Technology for Dyslexia

From Jamie Martin’s website, http://atdyslexia.com

I attended a great webinar today sponsored by the amazing people at Learning Ally. Connecticut-based assistive technology consultant and trainer Jamie Martin was the presenter, and he did a terrific talk about different technology to support dyslexic students as they write. I loved one of the first things he mentioned: while these tools will be especially helpful to dyslexic readers, they’re great tools for all readers who want to get strategic about their writing. He talked about three specific challenges that need to be addressed in the writing process: spelling and grammar, organization, and editing. Check out his website and his Twitter feed for the specifics: he has some great recommendations for tools that address each of those three tasks. Highly recommended.

Meanwhile, Learning Ally is putting together a virtual conference next month for the parents of kids with dyslexia. It’s the first event of its kind and it looks really interesting. It might be a little spendy for some (registration looks like it’s $129 and up), but it could be worthwhile. Learn more and register here: Learning Ally’s Spotlight on Dyslexia.

From WBUR’s Here and Now: “I’m not stupid. I’m dyslexic.”

From WBUR.

I heard a great story this afternoon on WBUR’s Here and Now program on the state of research and intervention for students with dyslexia. Things I loved: this story featured kids’ voices, and these wise, seasoned students talked about how tough it is to grow up a dyslexic reader. Also encouraging was the latest-greatest research out of MIT and Harvard about using fMRI technology to better map and understand the differences between the brains of dyslexic and non-dyslexic readers, and the ways that we as educators might use that knowledge to better address every child’s learning needs. Interesting stuff! Check out the embedded story above, and visit the WBUR site here to read, listen, and comment.

Link Round-Up: Changes to the SAT

The details of the changes to the SAT have come out over the last week, and they’re fascinating. You can read the official release on the College Board website here. There’s an increased focus on “real-world” problems and less focus on the so-called “SAT words” that led students to study sometimes obscure (but often pretty valuable) vocabulary. There are good write-ups on the changes in the New York Times and the Washington Post that offer helpful context and information on the changes.

Doesn't the smiley face just say it all?The two pieces that I’m most excited about deal with preparation and grading. College Board is partnering with Khan Academy to offer a suite of free prep courses for the SAT. This is huge–and it could be a huge blow to the testing-industrial complex (see these guys and these guys and these guys). One big criticism of the current SAT is that students who have the resources to do extensive, expensive test preparation are the ones who get the highest scores. Offering high-quality free resources through Khan Academy might offer many, many more students the same sort of leg up.

It’s also exciting that the grading system has changed. It is currently the case that students earn a point for a right answer and lose 1/4 of a point for an incorrect answer. That will go away in Spring 2016. Instead, the SAT will change to the same grading system that’s used by the ACT: students only earn points for correct answers and are not penalized for incorrect answers. Now that the SAT has changed their system–or, now that they’ve removed the so-called “penalty for guessing”–more students might elect to take the SAT. I’ve known many students who’ve elected to take the ACT over the SAT to avoid this very issue. Indeed, it’s been an increasing national trend as students have turned away from the SAT and toward the ACT.

While I know College Board is using a lot of language around fairness and equity as they discuss this change, I can’t help but wonder if this change is partly motivated by a desire to draw students back to their test and away from that of their competitor. These are nonprofits, but they’re also businesses. Additionally, making the SAT’s essay optional–as it was until the last redesign in 2005–also makes the new SAT look a lot more like the essay-optional ACT.

The language the College Board uses to describe the new test aligns well (purposefully so) with the Common Core State Standards, a set of standards being used for curriculum and evaluation in schools across the country. While the Common Core is not without controversy, it is the law of the land in many parts of the country, and it’s interesting to see the SAT aligning itself more closely with its language and content. At best, this means that the folks who design and administer the SAT are eager to test students on what they’re actually learning in schools, and they’re uniquely poised to do so given this new set of national standards that are meant to ensure that all American students are learning certain core academic skills. At best, this means that the College Board is working to make the test more relevant to what’s going on in schools and perhaps a better measure of students’ academic abilities. 

More cynically, though, I think that these changes speak to the SAT’s decreasing relevance. The spin here is that the SAT’s redesign is making it more relevant to high schools and colleges. I’d argue, though, that changing its format may not achieve that goal. A student’s course grades are often a much better indicator of their abilities as a student. There are so many tasks associated with participating in class, turning in regular homework, completing projects, and taking tests in school–all of those grades will say more about a student’s capabilities than two Saturdays when they were locked in a room for several hours with a scantron. It’s hard to design any test that’s going to effectively communicate all of the things that a course grade communicates. In that vein, more and more colleges are moving to test-optional status for their admission applications (see the FairTest.org website to learn more about participating schools), and I wonder how long the SAT lasts as that list gets longer. Truly, I think that the minute Harvard and Princeton go test-optional, the whole model collapses. That may not be imminent–indeed, it may never happen. But I think that’s the real pressure at stake in these changes.

Moreover, none of these ideas are really innovations. The new SAT is more like the ACT (which more kids are taking already), aligns with Common Core State Standards alignment (which most schools are using already), and now partners with Khan Academy (which people already like). None of the is new–instead, it’s a collection of other good things that are done well by other people. 

Overall, I think College Board does a lot of good in the world and I think the people who work there have good intentions for education and advocacy. I also think they’re eager to continue to exist.

Saturday Afternoon Sessions: Ending on a high note

There was no question which session I wanted to see most: Understanding LD, Reading, and Math Brains. Very interesting stuff ahead.

Understanding LD, Reading & Math Brains (RP, PreK-12)

Part I – Practical Applications of Neuroimaging to Practice — Taking Dyslexia (Reading Problems) as an Example, by Fumiko Hoeft, MD, PhD

Part II – Changing Brains Through Learning: Math Abilities, Strategies and Tutoring, by Miriam Rosenberg- Lee, PhD

Part III – Socio- Emotional Aspects of Learning Disorders and Dyslexia, by Chelsea Myers, PhD 

Saturday Morning Keynote Addresses

It’s Day Three of Learning and the Brain! Here are this morning’s keynote speakers.

Welcome Remarks: Silvia A. Bunge, PhD, Building Blocks of Cognition Laboratory, UC, Berkeley

Matthew D. Lieberman, PhD: “Educating the Social Brain”

Louis J. Cozolino, PhD: “Attachment Based Teaching: How Secure Relationships Enhance Learning”

Jean M. Twenge, PhD: “Teaching Generation ‘Me'”

Jim Taylor, PhD: “Teaching Generation Tech: Self Identity, Thinking and Relationships”

Friday Afternoon Sessions: the other really good possibility

And here are the possibilities for the other session that intrigues me this afternoon.

The topic: Raising Resilience for a Standards Age. Read on for why I’m excited about this.

Part I – The Resilient Student: Finding Balance in a High Pressure, Fast-Paced Culture of Standards and Success, by Denise C. Pope, PhD

Part II – ADHD: The Prevalence and Treatment Linked to Performance Pressures and High Stakes Tests, by Stephen P. Hinshaw, PhD 

Part III – A Culture of Perfectionism: Helping Students Overcome Pressure From School, Stress and Social Media, by Ana R. Homayoun, MA