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Teachers struggling to track development of children with intellectual disabilities

Teachers at special schools are struggling to track the development of children with intellectual disabilities following the withdrawal of standardised assessments such as P-levels, researchers at The Open University have found.

Published in Disability & Society, the peer-reviewed research shows there is currently no national progress levels for children with severe or profound intellectual disabilities – meaning teachers have no standardised way of tracking the development of students in both academic and non-academic learning areas.

Currently, the intellectual and academic progress of pupils at UK schools is assessed through SATS test at ages 7 and 11. But these tests are not suitable for pupils with severe intellectual disabilities being taught in special schools, as these pupils will be operating far below the levels being tested.

Researchers say because pupils with severe intellectual disabilities should still make progress over time, their progress needs to be assessed just like pupils in mainstream schools, both to determine what kind of continuing support they need and to show at what level a pupil is working if they change schools.

Until recently, the progress of children with severe intellectual disabilities was determined via standardised assessments known as Pre-National Curriculum Performance Levels, or P-levels, which were specially designed for pupils working below the level of the standard tests and assessments.

In 2016 a review of P-levels said they were no longer ‘fit for purpose’ because they were too restricted and limited to assess the complex difficulties associated with many children in special schools.

The government then discontinued P-levels for all pupils except those with the most profound intellectual disabilities and instead ask special schools to develop their own assessment programmes.

According to lead researcher Elizabeth Smith, although this move did allow schools to tailor their assessments to the specific needs and abilities of their pupils, it has also created lots of problems and placed extra burdens on the schools. She and her colleagues argue that these downsides have not been properly considered.

Ms Smith said: ‘While some teachers welcome the chance to re-organise or design a new curriculum and associated assessments, many teachers are left perplexed and exasperated by the fact that they have no statutory guidelines or framework to work with and are expected to create their own,” says Smith.

‘And if schools are creating their own assessments, how can they ensure these systems are not just viewpoints or opinions but are valid assessment frameworks grounded in theory? With each school creating their own assessments, it will also be difficult for them to know at what level a pupil joining from a different school is working at.’

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