How Teachers Measure Progress in Special Education

Measuring student educational progress is important in developing and implementing instructional strategies and evaluating program effectiveness for your child with a learning disability. Learn about the most common ways teachers measure student educational progress for special education programs and gain valuable tips that will help you make educational decisions for their special education program.


Teacher assisting young female student at computer in school library

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Observations can provide highly accurate, detailed, and verifiable information on student strengths and weaknesses. Your special education teachers' observations may include the following types of observations.

  • Systematic observations: The observer gathers data on one or more precisely defined behaviors.
  • Non-systematic observations: The observer watches the child at school in a setting of concern and takes notes on the behaviors, characteristics, and personal interactions that seem significant.
  • Standardized observations: The observer uses professionally published systems.

In special education, observations are important resources because they not only help you understand your child's school day, but they also are usually accompanied by recommendations as to how the learning environment can be improved or changed to suit your child's individual needs.

If you are concerned about a particular aspect of your child's school day, you also have the right to have your child observed by an expert that you choose. Of course, this observation typically must be paid for out of pocket, but it is your right if you choose to exercise it.

Standardized Rating Scales

Rating scales measure things like positive behaviors, problem behaviors, attention, the child's independence skills, and other areas. This information allows the IEP team to:

  • Determine how strong or weak your child's skills are across settings
  • Document performance over time in a reliable, valid manner
  • Measure progress or lack of progress

Rating scales are standardized questionnaires completed by teachers, parents, and other people familiar with the student. They provide national comparisons as well and can be used to gauge your child's progress.

While these scales provide useful information, try not to let the scores derail your real goal, which is that your student receive the best education possible. You want to be sure your child's educational team is addressing problem issues in a reliable and effective manner.

Record Reviews

A third method of measuring student progress is the record review. In a record review, information can be gathered from school cumulative records, school databases, information from previous schools, medical and mental health data, samples of student work accumulated in portfolios, and anecdotal records. Parents also may choose to provide family history for health and social issues if they feel it's relevant.

A record review is a crucial element in formulating a complete picture and history of your child's education.

It's also useful for the special education teacher to develop a clearer picture of the progress your child has made as well as how far they have to go and adjust their education plans accordingly. Be sure to help your child's teacher gather all the information they need to do a record review. Doing so will have an impact on the educational plan the teacher devises.

Criterion Referenced Testing

Criterion-referenced tests measure specific skills a student has learned. They are not designed to provide scores for comparison to peers. Instead, they focus on specific skills within a subject area.

In primary level basic math, for example, the ability to recognize connections between numbers and quantities, the addition of single digits, adding a single digit to a double-digit, or other skills would be addressed.

These tests provide specific information to teachers so that they can design instruction for students' needs.

Criterion-referenced tests are often used to evaluate whether a student is making the expected progress toward the goals laid out in their IEP plan. They can indicate what skills might need to be addressed going forward.

Authentic Assessment

Authentic assessment rates your student's performance on real-world tasks. To perform successfully on these tests, students must know the subject area and be able to use that knowledge to perform problem-solving tasks. Activities used in authentic assessments may include:

  • Conducting research
  • Giving an oral presentation
  • Collaborating with others
  • Revising and discussing papers
  • Writing a news article, poem, or short story

Standardized Achievement Tests

Standardized tests may assess reading, writing, math, and content areas such as social studies and science. They provide information on a student's abilities in these areas. The advantage of these tests is that they tell parents and teachers how students are performing compared to others on a state or national level.

Again, it's important not to get too hung up on the scores. Instead, focus on what this information provides you and the educational team as well as what is being done to help your child improve and achieve their goals.

A Word From Verywell

When it comes to special education, teachers often rely on multiple measures to ensure that they gain an accurate picture of a student's abilities and school performance. While it may seem excessive at times, using multiple forms of assessment is vital because your child may not do well during one type of assessment due to challenges like anxiety or concentration. As a result, having an alternate way to measure their progress might produce different results.

In the end, the teacher can study all the assessments used and formulate a more complete picture of where they need to go next in your child's education. Remember, no single test or evaluation can completely define a child. Assessments merely provide educators with information on how to provide the best services and support for their students.

2 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Suen HK, Li H. Evaluation of student progress in learning. In: Seel NM, ed. Encyclopedia of the Sciences of Learning. Boston: Springer; 2012. doi:10.1007/978-1-4419-1428-6_1367

  2. Ruble LA, McGrew JH, Wong WH, Missall KN. Special education teachers' perceptions and intentions toward data collectionJ Early Interv. 2018;40(2):177-191. doi:10.1177/1053815118771391

Additional Reading

By Ann Logsdon
Ann Logsdon is a school psychologist specializing in helping parents and teachers support students with a range of educational and developmental disabilities.