The Best Methods

Transforming special education through measurement science.

GUEST COLUMN | by Rick Kubina

credit-chartlyticsSince the passage of the landmark Public Law 94-142 in 1975, special education has grown as a field. Yet special education finds itself a young applied science continuing to discover the best methods for providing differentiated and appropriate education for all students.

As an example, the Supreme Court may soon tackle the issue of what constitutes a “meaningful” educational benefit. The petition to the Supreme Court shows the circuit courts disagree as to what an appropriate level of education means. From the SCOTUS blog:

“Two circuits – the Sixth and the Third – hold that a child’s individualized education program (IEP) must be calculated to provide the child with a substantial educational benefit … Five other circuits expressly reject that view and hold that this Court’s decision in Rowley requires no more than a just-above-trivial educational benefit … Three circuits also appear to apply the just-above-trivial standard but without expressly rejecting the higher standard … And the Ninth Circuit is internally conflicted, with different panels aligning with opposite sides of the circuit split.”

My company took the Precision Teaching (PT) process and transformed it into a simple-to-use, web-based platform.

The disheartening state affairs special education finds itself in stems from the lack of adoption of a robust measurement science. A “meaningful educational benefit” derives from an intensive, individualized, precise data monitoring system. The field of special education has had such an engine of measurement, Precision Teaching.

Measurement science

Precision Teaching (PT) began in late ’60s and has given rise to thousands of peer-reviewed articles, an annual international conference, a professional journal, and an organizational body governing its members. Even with all research showing PT’s effectiveness, the measurement science finds itself a niche community due to its paper-based roots.

In recent years, PT is finding a resurgence, as online tools become available to help simplify the “charting” process. Chartlytics is one of these companies, and today teachers are able to apply the power of PT into their classrooms with minimal workload to great effect.

My company took the Precision Teaching process and transformed it into a simple-to-use, web-based platform. Through the app, teachers first generate a “pinpoint.” The pinpoint describes a target behavior generated from a precision framework that enhances the detectability of behavior earmarked for change. The second step called “record” helps teacher measure a pinpoint with real units of measurement (i.e., frequency, duration, latency). It turns out most teachers use percent correct as their principal metric for understanding behavior change. However, percent correct has many limitations and provides only basic information.

The third step of Precision Teaching helps the teacher decide whether or not they need to make a “change.” A specialized visual display called the Standard Celeration Chart offers a ratio chart designed to depict data with standard slope and quantification of learning rates. The fourth and last step of PT shows teacher how to “try again” and apply recursive problem solving strategies gleaned from individualized learning statistics and a record of past interventions.

Case study in blending compassion and measurement science

Stephanie Slavick, a special education teacher at Intermediate Unit 1 in southwestern Pennsylvania, began using the principles of precision measurement in her autistic support classroom. Stephanie started by redesigning all of her Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) with pinpoints. Common terms such as aggression, tantrums, and participation had to go.

Examples of IEP terminology changes:

Before                                                 After

Property destruction                      Throws object in the classroom

Elopement                                        Walks self out of classroom without permission

Noncompliance                                Rips paper when presented instructional material

When reading the list, the accuracy and countability standards necessary to observe a student’s behavior and/or apply an positive intervention dramatically shift when comparing the before and after columns. Labeling behavior with precision requires skill. Without pinpoints, discerning the presence or absence of targeted IEP objectives can pose a challenge for the teacher and staff.

Changing vague targets and unclear objectives to laser-focused, precision objectives marks the first step for crafting an appropriate, relevant, constructive IEP.

Stephanie also added a dimensional measure into all of her IEPS: frequency. The inadequacy of percent correct bothered Stephanie because she realized achieving 90 percent accuracy provided a false standard of mastery. For instance, a student scored 9 out 10 on a spelling test but took five minutes to achieve the goal. The student’s painfully slow spelling behavior meant she could perform the behavior with accuracy, but without speed. And with almost all skill, speed matters.

Stephanie now writes all of her objectives with a frequency measure. Frequency refers to the count of a behavior over time. Frequency advances time sensitive allowing comparisons of behavior to a frequency standard. For example, fluent typists can keyboard 60 to 90 words per minute. A student keyboarding only 10 words per minute would immediately reveal the discrepancy between the present level of behavior compared to the standard.

The careful selection of a target behavior (i.e., pinpoint) and its measurement with frequency show the course of change when placed on a Standard Celeration Chart (SCC). The SCC functions similar to an electrocardiogram:

-standard visual display reduces interpretation errors and facilities accurate decision making

-precise, quantitative metrics lead to a rich description of behavior change

-data conventions and pattern recognition enhance communication of important intervention effects

Taken together, pinpoints, units of measurement such as frequency, and a standard universal visual display like the Standard Celeration Chart, reveal “meaningful education benefits.” Teachers like Stephanie provide hope and epitomize the compassion and science necessary to transform special education.

Rick Kubina, Ph.D., is a professor of special education at Penn State and co-founder of Chartlytics, helping people create dramatic performance improvement. Write to:


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