An evaluation is only as effective as the questions it aims to answer. And often, evaluators fail to see the precise, critical questions that need answering.

They don't know the child or situation well enough to identify them. Therefore, they tend to do what they normally do, often leading to boilerplate evaluations and reports that leave parents and teachers wondering, "What new and valuable answers and recommendations did the evaluator provide?"

The parents and teachers can't find any, because they made a major but common mistake. Before the evaluation, they didn't give a set of critical questions to the evaluator or work with him to formulate them.

To influence evaluations, parents and school personnel must give or work with the evaluator to develop lists of precisely phrased, critical questions that will help him identify the factors he needs to examine.

These questions will help determine if he administers ...

  • tests of cognitive abilities
  • norm-referenced reading tests that rank children's achievement above or below one another (e.g., the Gray Silent Reading Tests)
  • informal reading inventories that help identify children's independent, instructional and frustration levels (e.g., the Qualitative Reading Inventory)
  • diagnostic teaching
  • six hours of structured, systematic observations of the child at home and in various classes
  • two 30-minute observations of the child on the playground
  • a combination of these and other sources of information

In other words, giving or working with the evaluator to develop a list of critical questions will influence the factors his evaluation emphasizes or minimizes. It will also influence how he assesses these, and how he seeks confirming or disconfirming information.

Such questions, precisely phrased, can dramatically improve the usefulness of evaluations. They can better help children, parents, teachers and evaluators succeed.

To illustrate the nature of critical questions, I listed critical questions for evaluating two fictional children. As I often function as an independent evaluator or a reading and special education consultant, I typically help parents and school personnel develop their questions.

If you lack sufficient knowledge and experience, it's probably wise to work with your evaluators or consultants to develop the questions.

Critical questions that Beth's parents asked

Beth was recently suspended from kindergarten for "unprovoked explosive outbursts." Below are some of the questions they and the evaluator jointly developed.

  1. Exactly what school and home factors are provoking Beth's explosive outbursts?
  2. For what positive behaviors should we reinforce Beth?
  3. What reinforcers will be so powerful to Beth that she will work persistently to replace her outbursts with socially-acceptable behaviors?
  4. What are the necessary characteristics of a kindergarten program that will help Beth develop the self-control and socially-acceptable behaviors she needs to thrive in kindergarten and first grade?
  5. What do we, as parents, need to learn and consistently do to prevent Beth's outbursts and replace them with socially-acceptable behaviors?
  6. How do we, as parents, and Beth's school, eliminate any artificial or contrived reinforcers (e.g., bits of cookies) used to begin her behavioral program?

Critical questions that Tyrone's evaluation team asked

Tyrone, a third-grader, had been "struggling painfully with dyslexia." The evaluator interviewed his parents, classroom teacher and reading teacher. They agreed that his independent evaluation should answer these and several other groups of questions:

  1. What common, high-frequency words does Tyrone have difficulty recognizing at sight?
  2. If Tyrone's sight vocabulary is below that of average-achieving readers in his grade, exactly what is blocking him from developing a grade-level sight vocabulary? What can the school do to remove these blocks and strengthen his sight vocabulary?
  3. What decoding knowledge and skills does Tyrone have? With materials at his instructional level, how smoothly and effortlessly does he apply his knowledge and skills? What critical decoding knowledge and skills does he need to learn?
  4. Compared to grade-level standards, how extensive are Tyrone's listening and speaking vocabularies? If his vocabulary is below average, exactly what is blocking him from developing a far better vocabulary? What can the school do to remove these blocks and strengthen his vocabulary?
  5. In school, how motivated is Tyrone to learn to read? If he's not highly motivated, what are the causes? What can the school do to remove or weaken these causes and strengthen his motivation?
  6. On what types of homework assignments is Tyrone likely to succeed, if he works alone and makes a moderate effort? On what types is he likely to frustrate if he works alone and makes a moderate effort?
  7. In the past, which instructional strategies and reading methods have substantially improved Tyrone's reading and motivation for reading? Which haven't?


Number and organization of questions

When interested and knowledgeable parents, professionals and teaching assistants get together to discuss an issue of importance, such as identifying and solving a child's problems, their list of questions can seem endless. Thus, after the first list is created, it's important to prioritize and thereby limit the number and complexity of questions, as the child's time and energy have limits.

For many children, the testing parts of evaluations are anxiety-provoking and fatiguing. Testing can erode a child's attention, stamina, motivation and self-control, lessening the trustworthiness of her test scores. Thus, delete unnecessary questions.

At first glance, Tyrone's questions look overwhelming. But after they were organized into logically-related groups, they're not. Their organization markedly streamlines the time needed to test Tyrone and to write a reflective, insightful report. And logically, in quality programs, several questions should not require new testing.

Time and complexity

Yes, evaluations can be complex and take untold hours. The extent of this depends upon the child's problems and the critical questions that need answering. Short-circuiting evaluations, by neglecting critical questions, typically backfires: Little, if anything improves.

As such, the progress of average-achieving children creates greater regression for the struggling child, causing more time-consuming and complex financial, emotional and social problems for schools, families and children. Everyone loses. Everyone pays the price.

But if well-targeted evaluations are simple and speedy, or complex and lengthy, what can they offer? Guaranteed solutions? No. Infallible cures? No. They may appear to, and the evaluator's credentials may be superb and his work outstanding, but evaluations can't promise anything but the likelihood of valid, relevant data that generates logical recommendations based on relevant research, best practices and the evaluator's reflective insight.

These logical recommendations are well-substantiated guesses that professionals call hypotheses. If the evaluation's findings and recommendations match the child's needs, her teachers' habits, abilities and knowledge, and eliminate presumed roadblocks to learning, will its recommendations work? "Probably yes," which doesn't mean "Yes, absolutely yes."

That's why parents and teachers need to ask one more critical question.

1 more question and always ...

Here's the question: How can the school efficiently and validly assess my child's (or student's) weekly progress, and what should we, as a group, do if she shows three consecutive weeks of stagnation or regression?

Why three weeks? Because it's a strong sign that something is blocking the child's progress, that the block(s) needs to be identified and her program modified or another one substituted. If stagnation or regression is ignored, the child may stay in an inappropriate program for years. Like taking the wrong medicine, the problem gets worse, intensifying the child's suffering.

So, always ask this critical question. And always monitor, monitor, monitor.