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Putting the individual into aptitude-treatment interaction.

Putting the Individual Into Aptitude-Treatment Interaction

The report of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) Panel on Selection and Placement of Students in Programs for the Mentally Retarded (NAS report; Heller, Holtzman, & Messick, 1982) addressed important issues in assessment and in programming for mildly mentally retarded persons. It addressed most of the issues in a timely, well-reasoned manner, reflecting careful thought. On the surface, there is little with which to disagree; certainly the spirit of the report is in keeping with humanitarian ideals, and few would take issue with the overall goals for special education of the mildly retarded reflected therein.

On closer examination, however, the NAS report is flawed in several regards. It is permeated with a certain naivete in at least three important respects:

1. Its treatment of aptitude-treatment interaction (ATI) research.

2. Its neglect of what effective school psychologists and other professional special education staff have been attempting to do for nearly a century (at least since the establishment of Lightner Witmer's Experimental School for Backwards Children).

3. Its failure to recognize the lack of support for deficit-centered models of remediation and their similarity to the models of assessment and programming proposed in the NAS report.

Each of these issues will be addressed in turn. Keep in mind, however, the limited nature of the NAS report. Despite its grandiose title ("Placing Children in Special Education: A Strategy for Equity"), it discusses only special education for the mildly mentally retarded, a small segment of special education as a whole.


The NAS report cites the failure of traditional norm-referenced approaches to the identification of individual differences--and the concomitant failure of the ATI approach to the development of effective special education interventions--as central reasons for change in assessment and programming. The issue is more complex than presented. ATI research has not lived up to its early promise. Norm-referenced assessment lives up to little of its promise when used for classification; grouping, classification, and treatment are related but represent only crude and evolutionary models of ATIs. The crude beginnings of ATI research have not been particularly effective.

The research is viewed as crude because typically investigators have looked at levels of one or two aptitudes (as opposed to complex patterns of aptitude or traits) as the key to designing effective instruction. In such research, those with IQs from 55 to 69 might be grouped in one class, 70 to 89 in another, and so on; different methods of instruction might then be used with each class as dictated by the differences in aptitude. While an extreme example, the failure of such work to demonstrate differential effectiveness of instructional techniques has been used to condemn both the testing techniques used for classification (as being useless in the design of instruction) as well as the concept of the ATI. Such reasoning is faulty.

For one thing, ATIs have been found looking at such group data (Corno, 1980; Phillips, 1986). Even though ATI research usually has looked at differentiating samples on the basis of simple test scores--most often related to level and not pattern of performance--and then applying grossly defined treatments (in this case instructional strategies), some generally positive results have been noted. The effects are not dramatic, but neither are the matching techniques sophisticated. Phillips (1986) has reviewed several examples related to anxiety (also see Reynolds & Richmond, 1985).

One fact remains clear: Few reliable ATIs have been found. There is at least some agreement by those who have examined the work in detail that this is most likely due to the methodological inadequacy of the research (Cronbach & Snow, 1977; Phillips, 1986). Progress on this front is being made specifically for application in special education and by school psychologists (see, e.g., Hung & Walberg, 1986, and Willson, 1986, for statistical models); but it is unlikely that more rigorous designs or more adept statistical methods will be of much help. The problem is a conceptual one.

Research on ATI has consistently looked for communalities among individuals based on gross characteristics, ignoring multivariate considerations to a large extent, and thereby ignoring the individual and the individual's unique pattern of aptitudes in treatment design. The NAS report and others are correct in arguing that testing and placement into special education should be for the purpose of improving instruction and that ATI research has not been satisfactory in this regard. Inferences that tests and the ATI model are to blame for the widely noted academic failure of special education for the mildly retarded are faulty in logic, but also ignore the organizational system and climate of schools, the demands placed on teachers, and their mode of responding. For ATI (or any other model that uses student characteristics to invoke more effective learning in special education programs) to work, differentiated instruction must occur. Differentiated instruction must be driven by student characteristics. The NAS report seems in wholehearted agreement, but it is argued that traditional assessment and classification methods do not lead to differentiated instruction and should be abandoned in favor of dynamic assessment techniques that have "instructional validity" and that subsequently lead to differentiated instruction.

Traditional assessment and classification do not lead to differentiated instruction, but not because they cannot. Neither dynamic assessment nor any other assessment approach will cause differentiated instruction. The fault lies not with norm-referenced testing techniques, which most certainly can be used to design differential models of instruction (e.g., Kamphaus & Reynolds, 1987; Kaufman, 1979; Reynolds, 1981a). Typically, special education programs, particularly those involving mildly mentally retarded and learning disabled students, provide the same instruction and use the same fundamental teaching methods that have already failed the child in the regular classroom--students get more of the same, just in smaller classes and at a slower pace. The lack of differentiated instruction has been widely known to practitioners in special education.

The lack of differentiated instruction has been documented empirically as well (Haynes & Jenkins, 1986). These authors found that, despite the availability of numerous curriculum approaches, training in specialized teaching techniques, and certification as special education teachers, special education teachers did not engage in differentiated instruction that was in any way related to student characteristics. The changes recommended by the NAS report are superficial in fostering differentiated instruction. It is a system-level problem that requires a change of structure, attitudes, and access to psychological consultations directed at problem solving. Differentiated instruction is possible and, indeed, special education is founded on the principle of the necessity of differentiated instruction and its probability of success is related to the degree to which instruction is based also on individual differences in student characteristics.

Given that differentiated instruction is possible, a move from group ATI research to the individual ATI is needed. Only through putting the individual into the ATI can effective matching of instructional techniques to students take place. Before such matching can occur, regardless of how much knowledge exists about how to teach children with any given set of characteristics, there is a crying need to access the spirit and intent of Public Law 94-142 (the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975) and not to be satisfied with meeting the letter of the law. The "checklist," or mimeographed individualized education plan (IEP), is antithetical to differentiated instruction, yet it is becoming more common, as are computer program checklists that do little more than add an authoritative look to these bogus documents. The computer-generated psychological report of an individual assessment is a similar culprit. All defy the logic of the term individualized. An IEP is one designed uniquely for each student, including the design of unique teaching strategies and methods. Differentiated instruction is a result of the melding of all of these factors and more, not a result of a modified system of assessment and placement, as implied in the NAS report.



The NAS report is not the only source of the contention that school psychologists are interested and involved only in classification decisions. School psychologists do spend more of their time engaged in determining eligibility for special education services than in any other activity, and even school psychology research is focused more on assessment and related issues than on any other single topic (Reynolds & Clark, 1984). This is not by choice. School psychologists prefer consultation as a service delivery model and are trained extensively in psychological consultation (Reynolds, Gutkin, Elliott, & Witt, 1984). The structure of special education, however, demands that school psychologists spend the majority of their time engaged in assessment (e.g., see discussion in Reynolds, 1986a).

In the context of the assessment process, effective school psychologists and other assessment staff attempt to delineate individual ATIs. Aside from determining entitlement to services and specifying the nature of the problem, assessment has as a major purpose the provision of assistance in the habilitation of learning. Good school psychologists have been attempting to do what the NAS report recommends concerning instructional design for many, many years. One conceptualization of this process is Kaufman's (1979) model of "intelligent testing" (also see Reynolds, 1987).

Intelligent testing is a philosophy wherein the psychologists' role has been likened to that of a detective attempting to ferret out the relevant strengths and weaknesses of a child so that the best possible hypotheses about how to remediate the child's academic or other problems are derived. The result is making the individual's own personality the focus of the ATI--not grouping students for broad treatments, but specifically tailoring a treatment to the distinctive characteristics of the individual, in the intended spirit of an IEP.

There are three central components of the "Individual ATI," each corresponding to the following questions:

1. What content is the child to be taught?

2. How is the child to be instructed? Not only the educational setting is to be considered here, although this may be an integral component, but also how the content is to be organized and presented to that it can be best acquired.

3. Why will the child acquire the information? What will provide the student with motivation for learning?

Each component must be addressed, and each seems best suited to a different set of psychological and educational tests and perhaps even different models of human behavior. Well-designed, technically adequate tests of all types may be useful in the process, including tests of intelligence, achievement, and special aptitudes. Any one test or approach is most likely to be incomplete; different tests and models should be chosen as complementary.


"What" represents the content of education and is determined by an analysis of academic skills that should include at least a good normreferenced evaluation of achievement (to determine actual deficiencies relative to age and to intellectual level as well as to pinpoint well-developed areas of function) and more detailed diagnostic forms of achievement testing. The latter might include criterion-referenced tests, task analysis, informal assessment, or diagnostic achievement tests. Determining what to teach should result in a specification of the child's relative academic strengths and weaknesses in a general area (reading, math, spelling, etc.) and a detailed description of specific skills to be taught (e.g., phonemen recognition, sound blending, addition of two-digit numbers that use carrying, etc., or even more specific subskillse. Several models may be useful in designating what to teach. Behavioral, psychoeducational, and direct-instruction models may all contribute to the process at this level.


"How" describes the process of education in terms of how the content is to be organized and presented so that the child has the best possible opportunity to acquire the information. This process requires differential instruction.

Differentiated instruction is most crucial here, and at this point the individual (I) is added to the ATI, creating the IATI. Student characteristics should drive the process at this stage--which clearly has not been happening. In determining the how of instruction, processing models, be they cognitive, neuropsychological, or even traditional ability models, have the most to offer. They do not tell us what to teach, however. This is another point of confusion in the NAS report, which alludes to approval of cognitive, dynamic assessment models that encourage the teaching of processes, not content. Dynamic assessment may be helpful with the "how," but not the "what."


Children must have a motive for learning. Most are intrinsically motivated by the time they reach school age, but many special education children are already discouraged and do not believe they can learn. Behavioral models, particularly positive-reinforcement models, seem best suited to developing motivation. Other models may be useful, but children must be given a reason to acquire the knowledge designated by the analysis of "what" and presented and organized by the "how."

Each of these components must be addressed. Too many approaches to special education deal with only one of these three factors, assuming that the others are unimportant, are all the same, or will take care of themselves.




To its credit, the NAS report states, "Children are or should be assessed in order to identify strengths and weaknesses that necessitate specific forms of remediation or educational practice" (Heller, Holtzman, & Messick, 1982, p. 72). The proposed method of assessment, however, has its shortcomings. In giving direction for the future, the authors of the NAS report seem to have been led askew. The NAS report seems to endorse, at least covertly, the basic concept of dynamic assessment and its accompanying procedures for remediation, the mediated learning experience.

The NAS report endorses the methodology of dynamic assessment by its rejection of traditional norm-referenced models of individual differences as being relevant to instructional design, and by referring its readers to explore the writings of Budoff (e.g., 1968) and Feuerstein (e.g., Feuerstein, Rand, & Hoffman, 1979). The approach suggested is gaining popularity and is in use in parts of California (noted by the NAS report as a state having "successfully" ceased using IQ tests); yet the entire approach is extremely controversial (see, for example, the exchange in Gresham, 1986; Haywood & Switzky, 1986a, 1986b; and Reynolds, 1986b).

Haywood and Switzky (1986a) have proposed a model of dynamic assessment practices for mildly retarded students that stems principally from the work of Feuerstein and his colleagues. It is a model consistent with current applications in San Francisco and is largely cognate to the Budoff and Feuerstein models noted in the NAS report.

Haywood and Switzky (1986a) have sketched a conceptualization of intelligence and its development that is transactional. That is, it denotes an interaction between nature and nurture, but goes beyond the simple interaction to view each of these components as being proactive and reactive at specific points during development. In doing so, Haywood and Switzky divided intelligence into two fundamental components: (a) classically defined intelligence, developing along a predetermined trajectory, with the strengths of the developmental trends largely genetically baed; and (b) cognitive processes, more akin to the expression of intelligence through the performance of a variety of what we consider cognitive tasks as well as certain nonintellective features that are much like Wechsler described them 30 years ago (Wechsler, 1958). Haywood and Switzky's distinction is an appealing one and is similar to models proposed elsewhere (e.g., Reynolds, 1981b).

The model Haywood and Switzky propose is similar to other models endorsed to some degree by the NAS report, most notably the Feuerstein model now adopted in several school districts. The model of intelligence is a good one, but the implications drawn for the remediation of children with intellectual and academic problems are neither new nor likely to be effective.

Haywood and Switzky's approach, along with those of Feuerstein, Budoff, and others, are deficit-centered models of remediation. These models propose that through such techniques as Feuerstein's Learning Potential Assessment Device, deficiencies in children's cognitive processes be identified and targeted for remediation. Conceptually, this is no different from other deficit-centered models of remediation that have been in use in special education since at least the 1930s and likely even earlier. The belief of such programs is that once the underlying deficit has been removed, academic learning will occur at a more or less normal pace. Many other assessment techniques and programs exist that identify weaknesses or deficits in cognitive processes for subsequent intervention and that promote special emphases on treating the child's greatest area of weakness in cognitive processing (see Ayres, 1974; Bannatyne, 1980; Ferinden & Jacobson, 1969). Support for the effectiveness of these deficitcentered models of remediation in the treatment of disorders of learning is nil, particularly when it comes to reading and mathematics (see, e.g., Arter & Jenkins, 1979; Glass & Robbins, 1967; Mann, 1979; Reynolds, 1981a, 1981b).

Why should the outcome of the new process approaches be any different from other, previous attempts at deficit-centered remediation? It should not. Haywood and Switzky and others who promote the new cognitive model recommend assessing a different set of cognitive processes from prior approaches. They cite evidence that scores on such tests as Raven's Matrices improve after cognitive remediation. Such techniques have been shown to be successful in the rehabilitation of brain-injured children and adults (e.g., Edelstein & Couture, 1984; Golden, 1978). Yet, as an approach to the remediation of academic problems, Haywood and Switzky's model fails. Claims for the effectiveness of Feuerstein's remedial training, the mediated learning experience, seem outrageous at best. At an American Psychological Association debate in August 1986, Feuerstein stated that the use of his techniques leads to normalization of handicapped chidlren regardless of the severity of the mental handicap, its etiology, or its age of onset!

Many of the cognitive processes targeted by the so-called cognitive science approach have been in some cases overtly included in other deficit-centered programs, and in many cases are implied. What results then are only a few "new" abilities that are trained--and new labels for others. The test-score improvement reported by Feuerstein, Haywood, and others (see Haywood & Switsky, 1986a) is likely due to teaching the test. I was far more optimistic regarding these results until about 5 years ago when I attended a workshop conducted by Feuerstein on how to carry out his Instrumental Enrichment Program (which, at least conceptually, is the approach noted by the NAS report). Feuerstein convinced me that he was simply teaching the test. Even if he is not, there is no evidence to demonstrate that the skills developed are generalized to real-world tasks, including learning to read, write, and cipher. It actually matters very little whether a child can solve Raven's Matrices. Can the child acquire appropriate academic and other life skills?

In the rehabilitation of brain-injured individuals, retraining or rehabilitation of the cognitive processes described by Haywood and others has met with significant but limited success. Nevertheless, cognitive retraining in this instance is just that, retraining, not the generation of new processes or taking them to a higher or deeper level than in the premorbid condition. Even in cognitive retraining, direct instruction of academic skills almost always is undertaken, particularly with children.

Somewhere along the road to progress, we as educators seem to have forgotten that the best remedial approach for a child who can't read is to teach the child reading, not metacognition, not grouping or rehearsal strategies, not auditory reception, not classification, but reading. This idea is far from original, and as Mann (1974, 1979) periodically reminds us, we are better off training directly for the task at hand, remediating the extant problem, not blindly following the latest process. Is process then useless? Definitely not, but efforts to use process approaches seem better built on strength models of remediation than on deficit-centered models.

In strength models of remediation, direct instruction is encouraged in the area(s) of academic or behavioral difficulty. Instruction is formatted around the child's best developed processes, avoiding those processes that are poorly developed or inept in their function. "The strength model is based on processes that are sufficiently intact so as to subserve the successful accomplishment of the steps in the educational program, so that the interface between cognitive strengths . . . determined from the assessment and the intervention strategy is the cornerstone of meaningfulness for the entire diagnostic-intervention process" (Reynolds, 1981b, p. 344). In Lurian terms, what is needed is a complex functional system that operates sufficiently well enough to take control of and moderate the learning process necessary to acquire the academic skills in question. Differentiated instruction based on student characteristics is required.

Strength models of remediation do not indicate what to teach as would deficit-centered models (the latter telling us to teach processes). The specifics of what to teach come from task analysis and diagnostic achievement testing that delineate precisely what academic skills are problematic for the child. The strength model of remediation tells about how to teach, not what, and how the material should be organized and presented so that learning has the best opportunity to occur. It is a model of habilitation. Theoretical guidance is sorely needed in this process, and Haywood's theory is as promising in this regard as any, though others seem equally useful at this point, particularly neuropsychologically based models (e.g., Hartlage & Reynolds, 1981; Reynolds, 1981a, 1981b). The techniques of strength approaches to remediation have been elaborated elsewhere (Hartlage & Reynolds, 1981; Reynolds, 1981a, 1981b), as has validity evidence for the approach (though it is admittedly scanty).

Building on strengths has another key advantage over deficit-centered models. Deficit models focus on the child's weakest, least developed areas of cognitive processing, the areas in which failure has been experienced most frequently. The stress and anxiety that can result from such an approach can be intolerable for many children. Can such an inherently unpleasant focus be in the child's best educational interests?

It is better to teach academic skills using techniques determined from knowledge of a child's cognitive-processing strengths. I hold to the axiom that the best remedial program for a child who can't read is to teach the child to read. This approach allows cognitive, behavioral, neuropsychological, and psychoeducational models to blend nicely, using the strengths of each approach. Behavioral and psychoeducational models that focus on academic skills and behaviors can tell best what to teach; cognitive and neuropsychological models can tell best how to organize, present, and teach the content and behaviors; and behavioral models, particularly positive-reinforcement-based operant approaches best give the child purpose, reason, and motivation for learning. In a more or less unstructured manner and often without theoretical guidance, this is what many educators have been attempting for some time. As children are so different, an abundance of theories is required to design accurately a strength model of remediation for a specific child. Cognitive theory will be useful in this regard. However, as a model from which to train processes, it can only lead further away from academic skills, in a sea of new terminology, following another of the perennial revivals of process training so adeptly traced by Mann (1979).

Traditional intelligence tests and other norm-referenced scales can certainly be useful in this process, particularly with regard to determining how to organize and present materials so that children have the greatest opportunity to acquire the information. Details of how to use traditional IQ measures in this process are explained at length in a range of sources including Kamphaus and Reynolds (1987), Kaufman (1979), Reynolds (1987), and Reynolds and Clark (1983). Research to test the IATI model is needed and will be a lengthy task, but much portends its success (e.g., see Reynolds, 1981a, 1981b). The research design for IATI will be different than that of traditional ATI research and will need refinement. Essentially, it will require the generation of individualized treatment plans based on a multitude of relevant student characteristics for many students, each of whom has an individualized plan. The collection of plans for how to teach can then be randomly assigned to a like group, and academic outcomes compared. The designs will be lengthy and tedious, and they will require a team of researchers much like a multidisciplinary team in the schools.


The resistance to consultation and the resistance to implementation and use of differentiated instruction driven by student characteristics are the major hurdles to any form of progress or change in special education whether it be the model proffered here, the NAS report model, or any other model. Only through a careful, considered process of organizational and individual consultation is chage likely (see Reynolds, Gutkin, Elliot, & Witt, 1984, for a review of this process). Haynes and Jenkins' (1986) results are devastating in their condemnation of current practice. Until educators adopt and enthusiastically embrace the spirit and intent of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975, academic discussions and debate will remain just that, academic. Haynes and Jenkins, among others, show that efforts to devise individual education for handicapped students have not been successful. These efforts must be successful before any evaluation of individual education, no matter what model of individualized education is adopted. Lest I seem too critical, let me emphasize that the NAS report is bold and accurate in principle. My disagreement is over a few fundamental assumptions, but assumptions with great implications for the academic outcomes for students and for the structuring of special education. Before abandoning any model or proposal, let educators first achieve individualized education, particularly in the form of differentiated instruction on the basis of student characteristics--let the Individual be placed into the ATI. Then the debate on strategies, models, and processes of teaching in special education can resume.


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CECIL R. REYNOLDS is Professor of Educational Psychology at Texas A & M University, College Station
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Author:Reynolds, Cecil R.
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Date:Jan 1, 1988
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