Future Reflections        Winter 2013

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The National Reading Media Assessment

by Carol Castellano

Carol CastellanoFrom the Editor: For nearly thirty years, Carol Castellano has been a vocal advocate on behalf of blind and visually impaired children. She is the author of four books, including Making It Work and Getting Ready for College Begins in Third Grade. She is a past president of the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children (NOPBC), currently serves as the NOPBC director of programs, and was part of the committee that created the National Reading Media Assessment (NRMA).

We know how to make the education of blind/visually impaired children work. We know what services these children require and which techniques they need to master. We can adapt materials and teach access technology so that they can participate fully throughout the school day, learning alongside their sighted peers. My daughter, totally blind and a Braille reader, is a product of this system. She received excellent services in elementary and high school, and she has just earned a graduate degree.

However, I believe there is a subgroup of students that is not so well served. In my role as long-time NOPBC board member and advocate, I get phone calls from parents across the country who are seeking assistance with their children's education. In one six-month period, I received calls from six families with children from age four to twenty-four. Strangely, all of these parents had the same story to tell. Their children had low vision. They were taught to use vision for all tasks. They were not doing well in school, or, in the case of the older ones, were not able to get jobs. Clearly, they were not receiving the training they needed in order to develop academic and life skills or the ability to self-advocate. The parents were worried about their children and felt sorry for them. They watched as their children's lives became more and more restricted.

Over the years I, like many others, have come to the conclusion that these children are being short-changed. I believe we need to do a better job of educating this segment of the visually impaired population. A central issue seems to be the student's reading medium. These children read print in school, but were unable to keep up with their classmates. The students read at a slower rate than their peers and were shifted to audio materials very early in their academic careers. Their assignments were cut in half. A classmate or classroom aide was assigned to take notes for them. The students did not enjoy reading and were not developing full literacy skills. Having seen how Braille enabled my daughter to develop literacy and excel, I wondered why these children were not given the opportunity to learn Braille.

In an effort to remedy this widespread problem, the National Federation of the Blind formed a committee to examine the issue in depth. The committee was composed of experienced teachers of blind students (TBSs), professors in TBS training programs, specialists in deafblindness and multiple disabilities, and experienced parent advocates. It determined that in order to facilitate academic success for partially sighted students, there was a need for a new evaluation instrument to identify a student's appropriate reading medium or media. The target population for the new assessment tool would be visually impaired youth from preschool to twelfth grade who have enough functional vision to identify print letters or shapes by sight.

In preparing to create the new assessment tool, the committee researched the learning media assessments on the market, surveyed teachers, and consulted with reading specialist Jerry Johns. We found that the teachers surveyed felt that current assessments were too long. Instead of using one particular tool, they were picking and choosing parts that they liked from several different instruments. In reviewing the available assessments, we found that the information collected was inconsistent and allowed for a great deal of subjectivity. Much of the information collected was not related to determining a student's reading medium. The assessments tended to rely on student preference and operated on the assumption that this preference was the most efficient practice. Also, there was an acceptance of slower reading rates for print-reading partially sighted students. We found the use of the progress standard--the premise that, as long as the student shows some progress from one year to the next, the pace of learning is acceptable. This approach stands in sharp contrast with the peer standard, which compares the student's progress to that of peers of similar cognitive ability.

The new assessment is based on very different assumptions.

The new instrument, the National Reading Media Assessment (NRMA), is thorough, but not time-consuming to administer. On average, it can be completed in about seventy-five minutes. It is given under standardized conditions, using standardized materials in order to obtain objective results that correctly identify the student's reading media needs.

The NRMA collects only data relevant to determining the student's reading medium. It takes into account future literacy needs, as mandated by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and it is RTI (response to intervention) compatible. Scoring is numerical and objective. NRMA results yield a quantitative summary indicating the extent to which the student is able to function using print materials in comparison to sighted peers. The NRMA provides a literacy scale indicating the level at which print loses effectiveness and Braille or a combination of print and Braille should be employed for educational purposes.

The NRMA is the first and only research-based, standardized assessment tool of its kind for the identification of reading medium or media. It has undergone three years of field testing and data analysis in which quantitative results determined modifications in content and procedures. An article providing a detailed account of the research and findings is presently under peer review. An additional research section to examine reading speed and the ability to do sustained reading when using accommodations is in the planning stages.

The National Reading Media Assessment is available online free of charge. The NRMA is meant to be administered primarily by teachers of blind/visually impaired students, though there may be occasions when it could be administered by other evaluators. Parents and teachers are welcome to view the NRMA via training videos to determine if its use would benefit their child or student. Use of the NRMA also provides the opportunity to participate in ongoing research on the subject. Instructional videos can be accessed at <www.nfbnrma.org> (no login required). To access the evaluation itself, create an account at <www.nfbnrma.org> by entering a username (your email address) and password. After you receive an email notifying you that your account has been created (within twenty-four to forty-eight hours), log in at <www.nfbnrma.org>.

An additional resource available free of charge online is the new book, Integrating Print and Braille: A Recipe for Literacy, edited by Sharon Maneki, a long-time NFB leader and education advocate. The goal of the book is to ensure full literacy for the partially sighted student through the successful integration of print and Braille into the student's school and home life. The book provides teaching strategies, case studies, personal stories, documented research, and practical tips. With chapter topics such as "Enhancing Vision Through Touch" and "Creating the Dual Media Integration Plan," the book emphasizes the thorough teaching of print and Braille so that the student can use both media efficiently and effectively. Another focus of the book is to develop the student's ability to choose the appropriate medium for the task at hand. Integrating Print and Braille: A Recipe for Literacy is available at <www.nfbnrma.org> (create an account and log in) and at <https://nfb.org/images/nfb/publications/books/integrating-print-braille/integratingprintandbrailletoc.html> (no login required).

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