Steve has done many things over the course of his life. He’s been a school psychologist for nearly 25 years now. He has co-authored the Feifer Assessment of Reading and the Feifer Assessment of Math, two academic measures that have gained a lot of positive recognition in the field over the last few years. He is now in private practice where he assesses kids and splits his time between the speaking circuit, giving presentations and whatnot, and continuing to work on tests and books. He has also co-authored a few books on bridging neuropsychology and school psychology.
So Steve has a wealth of information and he is [00:01:00] a great guy to talk to. So I hope y’all will enjoy our conversation and let’s get right to it.
Hello, and welcome to another episode of The Testing Psychologist podcast. I’m Dr. Jeremy Sharp.
Today, I’m here talking with Dr. Steve Feifer. If you haven’t heard of Steve, you have probably heard of some of the measures he has co-authored. If you haven’t heard of those, you might be living under a rock in our field.
So we’ll talk all about Steve and his career and his measures and his thoughts on a lot of things. We have a lot of good topics to cover today. So Steve, right now, he’s had a long career like you heard in the [00:02:00] introduction. He has had a long career but he is currently in private practice where he is assessing kids and he has a lot to talk with us today about.
So Steve, welcome to the podcast.
Dr. Steve: Good morning, Jeremy. Thanks for having me on.
Dr. Sharp: Yeah, of course. I have to have to disclose, this has been a long time coming in this. You’ve been one of those folks that when I started the podcast, I was like, I hope I can get this guy someday. So the fact that you have agreed and we’re here and we’re doing it is pretty amazing. So I’m thankful for your time and what you’re willing to share with us today. I’m excited to get into it.
Dr. Steve: Me as well and looking forward to it. Thanks for having me. It’s about time we’ve done one of these, so let’s get …
Dr. Sharp: Let’s do it. Well, listeners of the podcast know that with guests, I typically, I’d like [00:03:00] to start and just hear your story of how you got to where you are today and what today even looks like for you. What your day-to-day life looks like and how you’re practicing psychology, so can you tell us that story?
Dr. Steve: Well, where do we begin, huh? I started out, Jeremy, believe it or not, this is year 25 for me. My first year as a school psychologist was in 1993, school year, working in a small town in West Virginia that I’m sure nobody has ever heard of but that’s really where I cut my teeth. I spent the first six years of my career in West Virginia and in the next 13 in the state of Maryland, where I currently reside as well.
But starting in West Virginia, to be perfectly honest, after my first year working as a school psychologist and into my second year, I came to the following conclusion; I don’t think this job is for me. I was [00:04:00] pretty discouraged because I had trained, like most of us, to learn a lot of different things in graduate school, only to find out that I was just someone who tested and came up with a number, and we called that number a Full Scale IQ score.
That’s all anybody wanted from me here; what’s the Full Scale IQ? And that’s either going to justify or not justify taking a student from class and marching them 20 feet down the hall into a room called the special education classroom to work with them.
I was struggling to find the value and meaning of my work. And like most of you, I was spending a lot of time reporting. I’d like to say I could write a report in two hours, that never happened. Three hours, maybe on a good day, but I’m taking all day to write reports. I’m getting buried in referrals.
And frankly, I could go to most of my meetings, not with a report but with a 3×5 card. And on that 3×5 card, all I would need to [00:05:00] write is yes or no. Do they qualify or not? That’s all anybody cared about.
So I was getting pretty discouraged. I don’t want to tell, I’ll be quick, but to tell a quick story. I ran into a student named Jason and I was asked to do a re-evaluation on Jason. He was in a regular elementary school but in a classroom for severely and profoundly impaired students. Jason was non-ambulatory. He was in a wheelchair.
His last IQ test, Jason had scored a 36. He had an IEP that was just basically functional life skills at best. And I’m asked to do a re-evaluation on Jason. His teacher pulled me aside and said, hey, Steve, before you retest Jason, give him a reading test. He’s the strongest reader I have in my class. And I thought, are you kidding me? The kid, he’s your strongest reader? Okay, [00:06:00] I’ll play along.
I remembered, and I’m going to go way back on you, Jeremy, an old test from graduate school called the PIAT-R that I thought might help me out, Peabody Individual Achievement Test. It had a reading/spelling recognition section. I sat down with Jason and I flipped over the first page, four words on a page. Okay, Jason, can you find the word ball? And he scans it and picks it out, no problem. I flip over the next page, there’s four words on a page: boy, girl, apple, orange. Okay, Jason, can you find the word apple? He picks it out. No problem.
This is the only way I could think of Dominican reading on a student who didn’t even speak. And lo and behold, he’s getting all of these correct. I couldn’t believe it. So I flip over to the 9th-grade section of the PIAT-R, there’s not four words on a page, there’s eight words on [00:07:00] a page, eight phonologically irregular words: pterodactyl, psychoanalysis, reconnaissance, words of that ilk. And I said, Jason, can you find the word reconnaissance for me? He picks it out, no problem.
And that’s when I realized I have a problem here. I cannot go back in two weeks to this conference room at this school and deliver my test results the way I’ve always done them. In other words, I couldn’t go back and say, we re-administered the Stanford-Binet scales of intelligence and once again, Jason scored a 36. That’s severely and profoundly impaired. However, on an academic achievement test in reading called the PIAT-R, he scored 118. My goodness, we have an overachiever with us.
I couldn’t do it. And that’s when I had the epiphany of I need to stop looking at learning through the [00:08:00] lens of an IQ score. Once I stopped doing that, because there’s too many blind spots there, and looked at learning through the lens of brain-behavior relationships, an area that I was always interested in but never had much formal training in graduate school, Jason was very easy to explain.
Jason had a condition called hyperlexia. Hyperlexia is the opposite of dyslexia. It’s when you have a very compromised IQ but you can read, but you’re really not reading your word calling because while you can identify the words, you really have little comprehension skills.
I went into that meeting, believe it or not, a school meeting, and that’s the first time I talked about the brain and the brain and learning. And the reaction was unbelievable. We actually rewrote Jason’s IEP. He went into a regular 5th grade class for part of his language arts day.
His mother came up to me after the [00:09:00] meeting and said, “Thank you so much for explaining what hyperlexia is. Actually talking about the brain and explaining how this is even possible and for allowing my son to be with same age peers and non-disabled peers for part of his day. Thank you for providing that.”
I don’t hear that kind of feedback very often. And that’s when I realized if I could use neuropsychology to explain a puzzle like Jason, well, what about your typical kid who struggles with multiplication or spelling or writing or has a little ADHD or maybe an undercurrent of anxiety? It wasn’t long after that, I realized I need to go into a neuropsychology training program, which I did. I was fortunate enough to do.
Dr. Sharp: And how did you do that, Steve? Did you do a formal program or a postgraduate program or how did that work?
Dr. Steve: [00:10:00] It was a little more than two-year program that at that time was coming out of the Fielding Institute. It was a clinical neuro program that has since been taken over. It’s gone through many changes. We’re going back now over 20 years but has been taken over by Dr. Dan Miller. Dan runs that program out of Dallas as a postgraduate certification program for school neuropsychology so you can become a diplomate in neuropsychology.
If you’re interested in working in a hospital or rehab setting, probably you want to go more towards clinical PhD and do a postdoc in a hospital setting. But I, one who did everything backwards in my own education, I did all the neuropsychological stuff first I was so interested in and then [00:11:00] I used that and that was a springboard. I went back to get my doctorate in a traditional doctorate program, but they did have a neuropsychology strand, but I had already done the certification first. So I went in a way postdoc first and then the doctorate, I wouldn’t recommend that, but that’s how circumstances dictated.
And to be perfectly honest, I have spent my entire career of trying to bridge neuropsychology and what’s going on in neuroscience, which I find fascinating, into the world of education and to say that this is really important stuff and to really understand the craft that we do in terms of understanding learning and the obstacles for learning but more importantly, using neuroscience to help develop and to help with our intervention selection, which I find is really trial and error. Well, let’s try this. It worked for Bobby. Let’s try for [00:12:00] Billy. And then we wonder why that doesn’t work.
I’d say the biggest pitfall is that we fall in love with one intervention and want to apply it to everybody and wonder why it doesn’t work for everybody. The answer is all […] that’s the message I’ve really tried to spend my time.
Dr. Sharp: I think that’s so important and I think there’s a lot to unpack there. I just want to briefly touch on the fact that you are doing it all. You’re a practitioner. You’re not just a researcher but you are a researcher and you’ve done some test development. You’ve really seen it from all sides, which I think is a cool perspective to have to be able to talk about all of these.
Dr. Steve: It wasn’t by design, Jeremy. It just happened that way. [00:13:00] I take a lot of pride in being able to do a lot of things in psychology, but if you pin me down to what is it I am at my core, I’d say I’m exactly what you are. I’m a clinician. I like to work with families and I like to work with kids and test them and try to determine what are the barriers to their learning?
People ask me, in fact, you asked me before the podcast, are you a psychologist or a school psychologist, a neuropsychologist? I’ll tell you what I feel like I am. I’m a cognitive detective. A crime has been committed, and that crime is student underachievement. I think it’s our job to figure out why? This is what we do. And I am very intrigued by that. The test development came in a little bit later.
Dr. Sharp: Yeah, let’s talk about that.
Dr. Steve: Well, as I started working and being that bridge for neuropsychology [00:14:00] into the world of school systems and I stumbled and bumbled my way into presenting. So another quick story. I would probably rather volunteer to go on the front lines of Iraq than to stand before a group of people and do a presentation. A major anxiety when it came to presenting. However, when I was doing my neuropsychological training, part of that training is we had to all pick a topic and study that topic, become an expert in that topic and after two years, write a paper on that topic and present it.
At that time, frankly, I was the youngest person by a mile in my training program. Everybody else was picking like Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
Well, I don’t deal with that. I picked dyslexia and I pulled every article I could over those two years [00:15:00] and developed a subtype model for dyslexia, something that most teachers already know that there’s different kinds of reading problems that kids can have. Some struggle with the accuracy, some with fluency, some with comprehension. And I just helped organize the science around that to say, this is why you would have trouble with one aspect of reading but not another.
I did that and I presented to my class on this subtype model of dyslexia and people went crazy. They really liked it and they said, you’ve got to present it. For instance, over my dead body would I ever do something like that but my instructor at the time, I agreed to do it only if he would do it with me because of my age.
And we presented at a NASP conference. I want to say it was almost 20 years ago. It was a while ago. The one in Orlando. I want to say that was [00:16:00] 1998. I’m taking it way back now. It went great.
After that presentation, someone in the audience said, “Would you come out to my district in Ohio and we’ll pay you X amount of money to do this for my staff?” And I thought, you mean you’re going to pay me for this?
I got over that stage right really quickly. You’re going to pay me for something like this. I had no idea you could make money presenting. So I continued to present with a partner until I felt comfortable after the first two years. And then it took off from there and it […] and I think I presented pretty much at every NASP conference since 2000.
Dr. Sharp: Oh, that’s great.
Dr. Steve: Well, it’s cited up here in Atlanta in 2019 but the topics that I thought have always been about neuroscience into the world of learning and to show brain scans and just show pictures [00:17:00] of what your work does and to say your work changes brain chemistry and enhances pathways here. Sal, look at this picture. Very powerful. It validates our work. It validates teachers work. People are very interested in that.
So I had been doing these presentations for a number of years when I was approached, I want to say 2010, 2011 by a representative from PAR, a testing company in Florida. I’m sure many of us use PAR products.
Again, a quick story. I’ll try to be quick. I was in Phoenix, Arizona. I was doing a workshop and the way they did it in Phoenix, this is for the Arizona Association of School Psychologists, is you do a morning workshop, they give you about a 45-minute lunch break, and you repeat. Well, it’s [00:18:00] very hard to repeat workshops. I had 45 minutes space in between to collect my thoughts to make sure that I was fresh and I could give a good performance in the afternoon as well as the morning.
And that’s when I was approached by a representative from PAR who really wanted to talk to me and about possibly developing some tests. I told him you’re catching me at a bad time and I am not interested to see you later and I blow them off completely. But they persisted and we met up at a NASC conference, I want to say it was maybe San Francisco, around 2011 or so. We had meetings and they said, “We love your presentation on this subtype model of reading, there’s different kinds of reading disorders, we’d be interested in helping us develop a test for that?” I said, no, not really. I’m happy where I’m at but you want me to be like an advisor or something like that? Sure, why not?
And we kept the conversation going, [00:19:00] and even after the conference, there were phone calls and emails back and forth. And finally, they came to Baltimore, Maryland, and we met outside of BWI Airport. I was intrigued, and it captured my interest, and I said, let’s give it a shot. I can tell you, when I signed the dotted line, my life changed completely. I found myself in the world of test developments. I fell in love with test developments, and I realized, oh-oh, it’s hard to be a test developer and to be a full time school psychologist.
And something I had to give and that’s when I made my exit from the school system into the world of private practice, so I could maintain and do all the things that I love, which is continue to test kids but perhaps more at my own pace, develop tests and continue to do workshops and presentations on neuropsychology. And [00:20:00] that’s the story, Jeremy. That’s how we are.
Dr. Sharp: It sounds like an incredible journey and the part that you just talked about is pretty important to highlight that sometimes we take leaps in our career, maybe that’s moving to private practice, it’s quitting the full time job, it’s jumping into something that you maybe had no idea about what test development and finding that you love it and then like following that passion. Sometimes we got to do that.
And I know that a lot of folks listening maybe struggling with that too, working in the schools and thinking about private practice and not knowing where to go. You took the leap and it worked.
Dr. Steve: It was very scary but looking back at the time, I had just won a NASP award in 2009. I was very honored to have won the National School Psychologist of the Year award. [00:21:00] I felt okay. I’ve hit the top here. This is great. Wait, go? I’m not even halfway into this career yet. What’s next for me?
And I’ll be honest, I found myself back in the schools going through motions and I knew I was going through the motions. I knew I needed a change but I didn’t have the guts. I didn’t have to make that move and it was scary to me and I have three kids and a mortgage like everybody else. What if this doesn’t work and I fall out of my face, but those are some of those hard life decisions. I hemmed and hawed, but as circumstances surrounded myself, I made that decision and it was very scary at the time but looking back, I feel good. It was the correct one.
Dr. Sharp: Yeah. Can I just ask? How did you [00:22:00] talk yourself through that fear and get through some of the tougher moments in that process? Do you remember?
Dr. Steve: My family, number one. The school system that I was working for at the time, we did not have a great relationship and it was borderline adversarial. They weren’t very supportive of a lot of the outside things that I was doing. They certainly weren’t supportive of, where’s Steve? Oh, he’s off in Arizona giving a workshop. Well, they didn’t like that. So it made it easier in a way because I knew we were butting heads and that was a source of stress.
And because I was terribly supportive of the things I was doing, I knew I had to, it was time. I just knew it was time. I think it’s very hard though to [00:23:00] leave wherever you are, even if your circumstance is not great, it’s very hard to leave but once I saw what the next thing could be, then it made it easier.
And that next thing was the world of test development, an opportunity to go into private practice with one of my best friends who owns a practice here in Frederick called the Monocacy Neurodevelopmental Center. He was so gracious and says, Steve, come and work for me. And you sit down and say, my gosh, I think we can make this transition. I think it might work. You’re never sure if it will. And there’s a few sleepless nights in there. No question about it but I think he tried to weigh all of those things.
Dr. Sharp: Sure. So let’s talk about your measures. I’m so curious. At this point you’ve done the Feifer Assessment of Reading and the Feifer Assessment of Math. I think they have almost like a cult following in our field as [00:24:00] alternatives to those bigger, the WIAT’s and the KTEA’s and so forth. What makes them different from those traditional achievement tests?
Dr. Steve: You’ve got to be wondering, Jeremy, why does the world need another reading test? We’ve got a bunch of them like the Woodcock-Johnson, maybe you like the WIAT, the KTEA, the GORT, take your pick, a lot out there. And why does world need another traditional reading test? Because it’s not a traditional reading test.
What we found, reading tests and all of those measures I mentioned, their sole purpose is to validate, where are you in reading? We use those measures to come up with an overall reading score. Oftentimes we compare that score to an IQ test. I know our field is moving away from a discrepancy model, but that’s what the purpose of those tests were, come up with a singular [00:25:00] value to compare to an IQ test.
What the FAR is what I hope to be representing a new genre of testing. It’s not a traditional reading test. It’s a diagnostic reading test. The goal of the FAR is not to say where you are in reading. I think most teachers already know that anyway. The goal of the FAR is to say, why are you struggling in reading? It’s to answer the why question.
If you can answer that why question, then when it comes to interventions, I don’t think it’s a trial and error approach. I think then you put yourself in a better position to be a good consumer in selecting an appropriate intervention. To answer the why question, what we did is we built the processing into the test.
For example, a lot of us might give a separate test of executive function or a separate test of working memory [00:26:00] or a separate test of orthography, whatever that is, rather than do all these separate tests of the academic skill you’re interested in, as how it is, we built that all into the test so it gives it better ecological validity.
So I’m not going to say here and say I can measure the totality of executive functioning. I don’t know who can, but I’m not going to even try that. What I can tell you is that I can use two subtests on the FAR and in about five minutes tell you precisely how executive functioning impacts reading because that’s the question I’m interested in. I can’t answer any other questions regarding executive functioning but with respect to this skill, we built the processing into the test. So again, not only has better ecological validity, but as an evaluator, it’s going to save you a lot of time. You don’t have to give all these other standalone measures.
Dr. Sharp: Yeah. Can [00:27:00] you give me an example or illustrate that a little bit when you say we can tell how executive functioning impacts reading. What does that even look like and how are you measuring it in the test?
Dr. Steve: Good question. I’m pretty much convinced, you get called in all the time. I know this happens with you as well. Got to look at Billy’s memory. I’m telling you, Billy’s got the worst memory in the world. What I find is that most students do not have memory problems unless they’ve had some cerebral organic deficit, whatever. Most students don’t have memory problems.
They have strategy problems and strategies can be taught. They have things that impact memory, either they have poor attention that impacts the encoding or front side of memory or poor storage and retrieval, which is more of a strategy executive function problem but the memory is intact.
And here’s how we measure that in about two or three minutes off the [00:28:00] FAR. For those neuropsychological gurus listening, this is going to sound exactly like the California Verbal Learning Test in your right. Jeremy, I would say 12 words and I would ask you to repeat back these words in any order that you can. I’d say the words and maybe you get four or five. That’s not that great.
Let’s try it again. I’d say the exact same word list but this time I’m going to say, now repeat back all the parts of a bicycle you heard. Now repeat back all the fruits and vegetables you heard. Now repeat back all the animals. When I play the role of your frontal lobes and organize the information, you’re able to fill it in. Now these kids are getting 10 or 11 out of 12, guess what? The problem with reading comprehension isn’t bad memory, it’s bad storage and retrieval.
These kids need [00:29:00] graphic organizers, need discussions prior to reading. They need some architectural framework to help themselves organize in advance because the prefrontal lobes can’t do it in real time while they’re reading but you provide the structure in advance, all of a sudden the comprehension emerges.
Dr. Sharp: Yeah. I like that.
Dr. Steve: Another …
Dr. Sharp: Sorry, I’m going to interrupt you just for a second for an insight. So we do do the CVLT, we pair that with a lot of other things but I’ve never really made that connection between CVLT performance and reading comprehension, for example. So that’s illuminating for me. I just want to put that out there. I’m going to be thinking about things a little bit differently. But you have a built in. That’s the important thing with the test is that it’s already there with this reading test, which is great.
Dr. Steve: Yeah. Otherwise you have to [00:30:00] infer how did these processing measures impact reading or writing or math because that’s the issue. I’m in the same boat as you when you give processing measures independent of the academic skill, it takes quite a clinical leap to figure out, okay, what does low score here have to do with why Billy can’t conjugate a verb in 4th grade? I’m not sure I get that connection unless we build it right into that particular skill in question.
Dr. Sharp: Sure. Nice. So what else are you looking at with the FAR? You’ve mentioned the different types of reading disorders two times and how it can help separate those out. What are some of those different types and how’s that playing out in the test?
Dr. Steve: The goal of the test is not to so much say where you are in reading, but why? So what the test is going to do is tell you the four subtypes of reading disorders, if [00:31:00] any, that you might have and what to do about it. The four subtypes are if you have struggle with your decoding and phonemic awareness skills and we try to measure phonemic awareness and decoding in every possible context, whether it’s just straight manipulation of sounds, rhyming words, things like that, to how well you can actually decode let’s say a nonsense word versus an actual word versus a word in context.
So for example, you might have the word giraffe and the word giraffe would be on a … you would do a subtest called Isolated Word Reading Fluency. It’s very much like letter word identification from the Woodcock-Johnson. It’s just a list of words. Just read down this list. Let’s see how many you can get in a minute. Ready, set, go.
But later in the test, this is where we get a little diabolical, you’re going to have those exact same words we wrote a story about. There might be a [00:32:00] story with the word giraffe in there. So we can make a direct comparison about your ability to identify and decode giraffe in isolation versus context.
And let’s say you can do it in context, great. You can decode in the story, great but not in isolation. What’s happening is that these kids rely on context clues to figure out what the word is but you show it independent of that and they’re still struggling, we still have a little bit of decoding work to do.
Without running down every single subtest, we have a collection of subtests that are going to look at the phonics side of reading. We have a collection of subtests that are going to look at the fluency and speed side. And the argument that I make is that phonics allows for reading accuracy but orthography allows for reading speed.
So we try to measure orthography within some of these fluency subtests, and that’s just the ability to [00:33:00] see the entire word as a whole, as a gestalt. There is a reason that every 1st grade teacher has $100 class to their bulletin board. They really don’t want a kid to Ta ha ee. No, just say the word the, okay? You just bang out some of these words.
So we’re trying to get at orthography, and we have a section just on comprehension, and that’s the part that would involve vocabulary development, working memory, some of the executive functioning pieces we talked about earlier.
Dr. Sharp: Yeah, that’s fantastic. So you mentioned the orthography. I’m going to do a shout out to our Facebook group. Someone had asked about orthographic dyslexia. Is that a thing? If it is, what is it and what do we do with it?
Dr. Steve: Yeah. The confusing part about neuropsychology and frankly, our field as a whole is we have 27 different names for the exact same thing.
You’ll see this [00:34:00] in the literature called dyseidetic dyslexia, dysfluency, the term we use is surface dyslexia. We’re all talking about the same thing. These are kids who are really good at sounding out individual letters. They might see the word, debt, and read it as d-e-b-t.
So they’re sounding out the individual letters but they don’t get it as a whole. They’re letter by letter, sound by sound readers. They really don’t need so much of a phonics program because they can decode anything. They can’t put it all together. What’s suffering is speed and fluency.
So no matter what the term you use, dyseidetic or orthographic dyslexia, surface dyslexia, it’s all getting down disfluent in reading. The argument we’re making is because of poor orthographic skills and that’s where we’re going to [00:35:00] focus our interventions.
Dr. Sharp: Sure. That makes sense. I would love to circle around and talk about interventions. Maybe now is a good time to do that because it sounds like that’s a big motivation for your measure is being able to identify exactly what type of reading issue is happening and then that guides treatment or intervention. And it’s not a one size fits all.
Dr. Steve: Correct. And that’s the gist of all of these measures. I can say that to me, this is what being a 2018 psychologist is, and when I go back early in my career, back in the early and mid-90s, all I needed to do as a psychologist is come up with an IQ score. I was just an IQ tester. That’s all anybody wanted out of me.
And I realized that was unfulfilling nor was it very helpful for kids nor did it translate into an appropriate goal or objective, I tried to beef up my evaluation, say, well, maybe I’ll just help teams, [00:36:00] give them more information so they can make better qualification decisions but the fact of the matter is it’s taken me a while to get here.
And to me, at this point in my career, I think that a good report, a good evaluation is predicated on one thing and one thing only, and that is the interventions that you can recommend. And if you cannot take that report to the finish line and not provide families and teachers with appropriate interventions, I feel like I haven’t done my job.
So what we did with the FAR and also the FAM is we have the interpretive report writer where you can just take your scores and plug it right into the computer, yours truly will write the report for you but it’s a computerized report. It’s pretty wonky. It’s pretty stiff. You don’t need it for that. You can write it up yourself probably much better.
Just go to [00:37:00] the end and you’re going to have … Our research team probably looked at close to 100 different reading programs for this report writer. The goal is not to give you 100 reading programs. You’re going to get five or six reading programs that might be very helpful. Whether it’s Orton-Gillingham or Lindamood or Read 180 or Read Naturally or Fundations or Wilson or whatever, you’re going to get a few of those but more importantly, you’re going to get real in depth strategies for parents, for teachers, for tutors. That’s what you want to steal, paste, put it in your reports, be the rock star at the meeting. That’s what people want.
Dr. Sharp: Yeah. Oh my gosh. I can hear listeners cheering in my mind right now because I think that’s the thing. It’s like what recommendations do we actually make that are going to be useful, not cookie cutter and relevant for each person?
Dr. Steve: Yeah, if you could pull a report earlier in my career, [00:38:00] you would laugh because I had such cutting edge recommendations as Billy needs preferential seating in class or accompany verbal directions with visual cues. Our teachers are laughing at that stuff, and that’s all I had. That’s all I was given. It just was taking away from the value of what we do. And I think what we do is a very valuable. And this to me is what teachers really want.
Dr. Sharp: Sure. I think that a lot of us are maybe guilty of that in some regard where, like you said at the beginning, we get stuck on interventions and especially with reading, maybe this is different for others but I’ve had the experience that we’re taught that Orton-Gillingham and its variants are the gold standard and what is there beyond that? It’s important to know that there’s more beyond that and we can tailor recommendations a little better.
Dr. Steve: I [00:39:00] think so. Absolutely.
Dr. Sharp: I appreciate you talking so much about this test. The way you describe it feels very different than some of the others out there. Just like a very practical question for folks who might not know, how is it scored or what kind of scores does it produce? And can you compare those to other measures? I’m just going to throw in the big question that I ask everybody just to stir the pot. How are you identifying a learning disorder without a discrepancy model and how do you look at that?
Dr. Steve: Okay. Wow. We’ll take the first part. The scoring itself is pretty much … PAR does a wonderful job at norming these instruments. So you’re going to have a mean of 100, a standard deviation of 15. You’re going to get standard scores. You’re going to get percentiles.
I think it’s just so [00:40:00] important for psychologists, let’s not lean too much on the numbers. I’ve been at a lot of meetings where we say Billy has a standard score of 86 and people will say, okay, what does that mean? I say, well, they’re reading at the 18th percentile compared to peers. Okay, what does that mean? Well, they’re below grade level. Okay, got you.
That’s that terminology we get so sometimes into statistics. I really think people like the qualitative information to provide a richer description of how a kid is doing. In terms of scoring, the FAR with the interpretive report writer, if you don’t, I’ll put a little shout out, have a PARiConnect account. You can go to PAR and get one for free.
When you get a free PARiConnect account, you will get, I believe, five free scorings of any instrument you want to use, anything that’s on the PAR [00:41:00] platform. If the FAR is one of the instruments you choose, you simply will take your raw score and just enter it right in the computer. You’ll never have to look at the manual. The computer will score it up, write the report for you, give you all the recommendations. There you go.
Dr. Sharp: Awesome.
Dr. Steve: That’s the beauty of a report writer, people, if you’re a little reluctant, I write my own reports. I’m fine with that. I’d say go with that. Your reports are probably better written but what this will allow you to do is never look at the manual if you find it. I spent so much time writing the manual and nobody looks at it anyway. You can score it immediately on the computer but it’s going to give you the interventions as well.
The second part of the question is, how are you determining a learning disability? Jack Naglieri and I have been doing quite a bit of workshops recently and some papers as well showing [00:42:00] that I think the way to go, and most people are going into a PSW, Processing Strengths and Weaknesses model. However, within the PSW approach, wow, there’s all kinds of models and they’re very complicated and there’s all these computer formulas and we’re saying to us, that’s complete overkill.
I used the Discrepancy/Consistency model and it couldn’t be more simpler. You simply, with your cognitive scores, you want to see some variability in cognitive functioning. I think what we have to retrain ourselves to do, and this is really hard, is not look at the Full Scale IQ. We all our eyes go to that. That’s how we were trained. We always look at full scale but I think the real power in these tests are in the index scores, and you want to see some variability, some cognitive strengths, some cognitive weaknesses.
And then when you administer, let’s say, the FAR and it doesn’t have to be the FAR, whatever achievement test you’re using, you’re going to see some strengths [00:43:00] and weaknesses probably in academics, but not always. So what you’re looking for for the Discrepancy/Consistency model; do you have variability in cognitive functioning? That’s the discrepancy part, not the discrepancy between ability achievement, we’re not doing that. Is there now consistency between the weaker part of cognitive functioning and poor performance on an academic task?
So for example, if you say, yeah, I’m doing processing and I gave a VMI or a Bender, and the student bombed a VMI or a Bender, well, that’s very interesting, but a VMI or a Bender has nothing at all to do with reading. You have to have some element of processing phonological awareness, language, working memory, executive, some element of processing that you can make the argument that the weak academic skill is because of a roadblock that we’re going to call [00:44:00] processing.
So the model that I use is pretty much, it’s a PSW approach, but it’s the most simplest one out there; and that is the discrepancy/consistency model.
Dr. Sharp: Got you. I appreciate your perspective on that. I know that folks are all over the place and there’s a lot of research being done to figure out how do we do this. There’s a lot to sort out there. So it’s always nice to hear that perspective.
Dr. Steve: And it goes back to day one, I’m sounding like an old man in this field when I say I go back now 25 years but when I broke in 1993, Jeremy, here was the question. What’s a learning disability and how do we measure it? We’re still there in many ways. We’re still wrestling with that. I think you’re exactly right. There’s a lot of competing models out there [00:45:00] within PSW, not to mention folks who say not go back to the IQ testing or go back to RTI or whatever.
So there’s a lot of disagreement. I do travel quite a bit, I do a lot of presentations at school systems throughout the country, and I feel most people are going in the PSW direction. They’re just not sure which of those models to lean into. And I say, for me, I need to keep things as simple as possible because I need to explain this stuff to parents and teachers, and I can’t get too wonky with the statistics. No one’s going to know what I’m talking about.
Sometimes, I don’t even know what I’m talking about so I try to keep it in the most simple way possible because that’s what people want to know; why can’t Billy read and what are we going to do about it?
Dr. Sharp: Yeah, absolutely. I know that you also have the FAM. We’ve talked about that a little bit, which is the sister test, I suppose, [00:46:00] that’s really looking at math abilities. Is it safe to say the structure is the same and you’re looking at different types of math disorders as well?
Dr. Steve: Yeah, exactly. I think that’s a very appropriate description. It’s the sister of test of the FAR. Now, granted, math is not as sexy a subject as reading, reading gets all the attention. Math is sometimes is that ugly stepchild of education.
Basically three types of math issues with kids that we’re looking at. One is more that difficulty with the automatic fact retrieval even though you conceptually understand math. We also look at what we call the procedural subtype, and that is, you’re fine with your automatic fact retrieval but you start getting into problems that require three, four, five steps, long division, fractions, decimals, you struggle following a set of [00:47:00] procedures or what we call a math algorithm.
And oftentimes that’s because of limitations in working memory, and oftentimes that’s because of anxiety as well. We get very anxious when we are problem solving. That’s an area that we overlook so often. I know I get so hypercognitive in my approach, you forget about that emotional side too.
And there’s something about math that brings the anxiety out in many of us.
And then the last subtype is more that, we call it the semantic subtype, the conceptual understanding. So we try to break it down. Math is a little slippery because you could be really good on one element of math and maybe not so good on another.
Dr. Sharp: Yeah. So the first two are pretty straightforward in terms of how you would assess that. The last one, I’m wondering if you could clarify that a little bit. What types of math problems might illuminate semantic type weakness?[00:48:00] Dr. Steve: Well, I’ll talk about two subtests on there. One of my favorite is called equation building. So equation building is, you’re presented with a word problem and as the examiner, you read the word problem while the student is reading along on their side of the easel. So reading is not an issue here.
And the student does not have to solve the word problem. They just have to set it up and it’s all multiple choice. Billy has four apples, Mary gives him two more, how many apples does Billy have altogether? You’re going to see four equations underneath that, and you have to pick the one that best represents and sets up the problem you just read.
It starts out very easy but it will get up to … the test goes up for H21, so, yes, there are calculus items on there as well. But we’re looking at, from a conceptual standpoint, your understanding about what exactly is this problem asking me and what formula or [00:49:00] strategy do I deploy to come up with that answer.
We also have the various, what we call the knowledge subtests; addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, where you’re going to have a page of problems with the answers already there. What might be missing is a missing addend, so it might be a very simple one; 5+_=9. So the answers are already there, you’ve got to fill in the blank and it’s timed.
And what we find in math, and you can think about it especially with multiplication, kids memorize the script. They memorize answers, but it doesn’t really mean they conceptually understand math, so it does a good job of really exposing those students who are just memorizing answers because we provide you the answer. You have to fill in the missing addend, and that’s where we zap you as to you really understand the concept behind this.
Dr. Sharp: I hear you. [00:50:00] I love this. So then is it the same deal where there’s an interpretive report that also gives intervention recommendations based on these specific deficits?
Dr. Steve: Kind of yes. The report writer is finished. Lots of interventions and you’d be surprised and we were surprised as well until we dove into the research. There’s a lot out there for math. Maybe not as many programs as what you’ll find with reading, but there’s probably more than you think in addition to just math programs; apps, websites, specific strategies, all of that is built into the report writer.
The publishing company has not yet released it but it is finished and I can just tell you that I’m hearing shortly. So you can tell me how many weeks are in a shortly [00:51:00] but hopefully that will be out soon.
Dr. Sharp: Got you. I know that was a question that some folks from the Facebook community had so I’m glad that we stumbled into that. So that’s great. It sounds like it’s coming. It’s finished. You just got to polish it up and somehow get the publisher to act, which is great.
Dr. Steve: That’s the plan.
Dr. Sharp: Nice. Off the top of your head, could you talk just a little bit about how we might approach each of those different math subtypes and what interventions could be helpful? We don’t have to go into a ton of detail, but I’m curious if you have anything right off the bat.
Dr. Steve: The first thing that comes to mind and what we talk about just to mentioned too just in general rather than specific programs, what we do it and I do a lot of this in the math workshops that I do is we try to present math interventions by way of games and activities. [00:52:00] I know this is going to sound funny and maybe I’m an outlier on this, but I think math can be a lot of fun. Presented in the format of games and activities, it is a lot of fun. It brings anxiety down, which is paramount because as anxiety diminishes, then we can maximize working memory.
I truly believe one of the major hurdles with a lot of kids with math, we can think back to our own math careers. I know it was certainly true for me is some aspects of math we just freak out about and get very anxious and uptight about, one of the reasons, the first thing we do is we show a lot of different games and activities that can help us build and there’s a fun game we do to help kids see the difference between a fraction and a decimal in a picture.
It’s a fun game that we played because for a lot of kids, the fact that there could be a number between one and two, are you kidding me? There isn’t. Yes, [00:53:00] you can subdivide space to infinity, so to speak but we play a little game that helps kids with that.
The other thing that I find that is helpful for math, and I think this is why we get so anxious in the first place is we work with kids to help them visualize magnitudes and amounts. If you cannot visualize math, then it really gets reduced to being nothing more than a bunch of abstract signs and symbols that are very intimidating, very cold, very harsh, and the anxiety builds up because these symbols that we teach don’t correspond to any meaning or value or magnitude.
When we can visualize math, it becomes a lot easier. A great curriculum that allows for that is something like the Singapore Math Curriculum. Singapore Math is all based on bar models and learning to [00:54:00] represent magnitudes and amounts through pictures first, then we’ll get to the equation but we never lead with the equation that always has to be represented with a picture. And it’s amazing when you can do that. The clarity, oh, that’s what we’re doing here. Then we can bring in the symbols and it makes a lot more sense.
Dr. Sharp: Yeah. I’m totally with you. Our kids are both in Montessori school and I was struck by how much time they spent doing math without writing anything. They have a ton of manipulatives and pictures, like you said, and just those visual representations of magnitude and quantity and it’s been really cool. Both of our kids have really taken to math and they seem advanced compared to a public school curriculum, and I think a lot of it has to do with what you’re talking about, and it’s really cool.
Dr. Steve: Yeah, I think [00:55:00] Montessori does it right in bringing all those manipulatives, as you said, and allows kids to visualize math. Let me ask you a question, are your kids fearful of math or is it kind of fun?
Dr. Sharp: No, they love it. We always ask, what was your favorite part of the day? It’s always a math thing for my son and our daughter’s probably half and a half, but they love it.
Dr. Steve: Great.
Dr. Sharp: So that’s good. I’m glad we’re on the right track there. My gosh, we’ve covered a lot here today. I was just looking back and I know that there’s plenty more that we could dig into, but I do want to ask the … gosh, so many people in the Facebook group asked about are you ever going to come out with a writing test? Because I feel like we, as a field, are struggling with writing tests. And if you’re not coming out with writing test, do you have anything new on the horizon that we should know [00:56:00] about?
Dr. Steve: I think I can answer both of those questions. So we have the FAR and we have the FAM. If we did a writing test, what do you think that would be called? You are correct. It is the FAW. I admit it’s …
Dr. Sharp: Fair enough, consistency is nice.
Dr. Steve: Yeah. There’s a story that I’ll tell you off air about the names of those tests, but the FAW is due to be released in about a year, I’m going to say a year to a year and a half. The test is finished. It is currently in norming. I just spoke with the publishing company earlier this week, we’ve got about half of our cases back. It takes a little time to norm 1,200 kids on a writing test but we are right on schedule and I am slotted next summer to actually write the manual and usually when you [00:57:00] write the manual, that’s the final step in the finishing of a product.
I’m super excited about it. It does divide math into various subtypes. The main thing, as a clinician, we always have to determine with writing; is it a motor skill problem or is it a cognitive linguistic problem? There are subtests that are simply looking at apraxia and dexterity and whether you can prejudge how big or small to make the writing and things like that. I think an OT would really appreciate that element to the test.
Of course, the rest of it is more looking at the different kinds of writing disorders that students could have. And most of them come under this broad category that we’re going to call executive dysgraphia, which is, there’s something with executive functioning, whether it’s planning, organization, word [00:58:00] retrieval, how you syntactically arrange your thoughts, there’s something that you’re struggling with there that’s inhibiting you from producing it out on paper here.
So we’re super excited about the test and it is a coming. I can tell you that I’m with you. I’m very frustrated by our current writing measures. I used to give the WIAT and Jeremy, I gave up because I don’t know how to score it. It’s just killing me.
Dr. Sharp: No kidding. To be honest, I stopped giving the essay. We were giving the sentence composition tasks, but I’ve switched to the KTEA only because I do a psychometrist model and we have a lot of graduate students that start each year and it takes six months, it feels like, to train them how to score those tests and then they’re leaving. And then I have to find somebody new. So anyway, it’s challenging to know that you’re doing it right. [00:59:00] I can’t even think about how much variability in scoring is happening just because it’s so complex, but they own the WIAT particularly.
Dr. Steve: Yeah, I was finding, at least for me, that every student was average. I know it was me because I was not scoring it probably correctly or appropriately. I was really struggling and finding that my achievement test of choice these days is the KTEA-3. Do you use that one for writing, the KTEA?
Dr. Sharp: Yeah, we switched to that just a few months ago because the writing subtests are a lot easier to score and more straightforward and I think were real-life applicable. Actually, they seem to mirror actual academic tasks a little better.
Dr. Steve: Yeah, with the story booklet that the kids worked their way through is … all I know is that I feel like I understand how to score it. So I feel like I’m a little more confident from my end. [01:00:00] It is a difficult issue in our field is there’s not a lot out there with writing.
Dr. Sharp: Right. Well, we’re kind of touching on this a little bit, I’d like to expand that if we could, what other measures might you use in your own battery in addition to your own, of course? How would you go about assessing some of our common concerns as far as learning disorders or ADHD and whatnot?
Dr. Steve: Well, let’s take a hypothetical example. What’s our common referral? Maybe a 4th grade student reading on a first or second grade level. Maybe there’s a little undercurrent of anxiety as well. Let’s say those are the main issues.
So for me, I think it’s important when you craft together a test battery and [01:01:00] we talked a little bit about this off the air. We hear a lot about how to assess kids from a lot of folks who don’t assess kids but it’s important to, and I’m always asking others this exact same question because I assess kids. I want to learn what other people are doing and what works and doesn’t, time is everything. So if you see a kid twice, for me, that’s a luxury and each testing session is maybe two hours at the most because if a student isn’t tired in two hours, I am. So we’re stopping.
What can I work in to that three to four-hour slot? How do I prioritize things because that’s the reality of that’s the amount of time we’re going to have with the student? So my battery would be a cognitive measure. That might be a WISC–V or a cognitive assessment test, something like that. My achievement test is often the KTEA-3 these [01:02:00] days. I like it very much.
If they score low, let’s say on the reading or the math or something like that on the KTEA, then I’m going to really follow that up strong with either the FAR or the FAM to get into the whys, why they scored low. We said in this referral there might be an undercurrent of anxiety, so I might do something like a Reynolds Child Manifest Anxiety Scale that takes five minutes or the MASC 2, the Multidimensional Anxiety Scale for Children that takes five minutes.
I’m going to try, if I can, to do a classroom observation. I have a developmental history form. That’s it. We’re done. That’s the battery, but I know with the FAR and the FAM, if you’re saying, wait a sec, you didn’t cover working memory, you didn’t cover executive function, you didn’t cover all these things, I know that’s built into these tests. I can write this up in a lot of depth and looking at all these areas of [01:03:00] processing because the FAR and the FAM built those in.
I don’t have to give the standalone tests unless I have questions about executive functioning, for example, in other arenas besides reading or math. If I have questions about executive functioning and behavior, now I’m pulling out a BRIEF or a CEFI or some sort of rating scale such as that.
Dr. Sharp: Sure. Okay. That sounds good. I had a question about that but I forget. That’s a brief battery that gets at a lot of the core pieces. So you’re not going overboard but you’re getting the important information.
Dr. Steve: If you know what you’re looking for, I think it allows you to get the most essential information. People might say, well, you’re a neuropsychologist, why don’t you get the NEPSY too on every kid that you see? I’m sure [01:04:00] Pearson’s not going to like the following comments, but the NEPSY …
Dr. Sharp: You’re safe here.
Dr. Steve: I’m safe here. To me, it’s like going to a restaurant, let me make us my silly analogy. If you’ve gone to a Denny’s or a Bob’s Big Boy or those kinds of restaurants, it’s the only thing open at midnight and you’re hungry. You walk in, you get the menu. That menu is 20 pages thick. It has breakfast items, lunch items, it has Chinese food, it has Italian food, it has American food. It’s got everything on there. No matter what you select, the food’s going to be mediocre at best, but at least you have everything on there.
The NEPSY is the Denny’s of assessment. It’s got everything and it does it all very mediocre. It’s got memory on there, but frankly, the WRAML-2 is much better. The ChAMP is much better, but the NEPSY’s got some memory. The NEPSY’s got some phonological processing, but you know what, the [01:05:00] sea top blows it away.
The NEPSY has a little bit of everything on there. It’s a one stop shop but the fact is, I think there’s other standalone measures and this, I can think of 1,000 school neuropsychologists who now want to just shut me up through their computer and say, no, we love the NEPSY and that’s fine because I think testing is such a personal decision. I use subtests of the NEPSY, but I’m saying, I think you can get that information through other tests as well that sometimes do a better job.
Dr. Sharp: I hear you. I appreciate your willingness to put that out there. I’ve never heard anyone say the NEPSY is the Denny’s of assessment so I’m going to be considering that. That’s pretty good.
So the one thing, I do want to go back, I noticed in your ideal battery that we were talking about, you didn’t say anything about the CTOPP or the GORT or some of those other reading measures [01:06:00] that I know folks will use quite a bit. Is that because the measures you are using cover all those constructs already or what?
Dr. Steve: Yeah, primarily, I can say that I feel that the CTOPP is the gold standard out there and that thank goodness for people like Joseph Torgerson, who brought phonological processing to our awareness. Thank goodness for people like Nancy Mather, who’s the first one to introduce orthographic processing. Dean Delis with California Verbal Learning Test.
These are phenomenal instruments. If you would ask me this question prior to the FAR being released three years ago, you would have heard a completely different battery. You would have heard me talk about the California Verbal Learning Test, the GORT, the CTOPP.
I like Nancy’s test called the Test of Orthographic Competence but I had to shop around to get all of these various instruments which as a school [01:07:00] psychologist can be very difficult because your office is the trunk of your car and you’re hoarding all these different assessments in there. What we tried to do with the FAR is make it one-stop shop. And believe me, those instruments very much were inspirational for me in developing the FAR.
Dr. Sharp: Very cool. I was curious about that. I think that was a great way to put it. I’m just conscious of your time and I know we’ve been talking for a while and we’ve hit so much important information. How would you like to wrap up? Things that are important for you on your horizon, areas that people could go or places people could go to find out more. What else feels important to you?
Dr. Steve: Well, I suppose it wouldn’t be a proper wrap-up if I didn’t tell you one more quick story. It [01:08:00] will also tie into what I’m doing these days, and I should thank you for allowing the time to talk about some of these things. But earlier this year, following the school shootings in Parkland, Florida, my son’s in college, and my two daughters, I started every day dropping them off at school. They asked us to take them down to Washington, DC, and we live right outside of Washington, for the March for Our Lives rally.
We’re not real political people, but we said, sure. We took them down. There were 800,000 other fairly nonpolitical people like us. These are just families. These were kids and all they wanted was a safe place to learn. I was very touched. I was very inspired. It’s so struck a chord with me that the …[01:09:00] I don’t sing or dance, to me, my writing is my art and that’s the only expression I have that I’ve really started to research and write quite a bit about stress and trauma and how difficult it must be nowadays to go to school. With that in the back of your mind, how do you learn when you’re fearful of your safety?
So the project I’m working on now, very pleased about is a new book on the neuropsychology of stress, trauma, and learning. And that’s been the big focus. I will be presenting on the topic at NASP in 2019 in Atlanta. Two workshops surrounding that. It’s just an area that, I’m not sure I would have gone naturally in that direction if I wasn’t a part of that march. I know it was occurring all [01:10:00] over the country in many cities. It struck a chord, that’s all I can say.
Dr. Sharp: Sure, it sounds like an incredibly powerful experience. I think sometimes that’s how it works best when you have those experiences and then it drives the work that you do. I’ll look forward to that book.
Dr. Steve: The two main projects at this point, as we wrap up a bit the FAW, the writing test, it will certainly be … hopefully, we’re going to put the finishing touches on that next year about this whole notion of stress and trauma. I know we talked two weeks ago and it sounds like you start your day very similar to how I start my day. And that is, I drop the kids off at school and I wouldn’t be truthful if given you try not to think the worst, but [01:11:00] I think everybody in that car line sometimes is thinking the same thing.
Dr. Sharp: No, I think you’re right. I think we’re fortunate to live in fairly what we think are safe places but I think a lot of parents probably think they live in safe places too. It’s sad and pretty disturbing that we have to think about all of this now and it’s in the back of a lot of our minds.
Dr. Steve: Right. That’s what is keeping me occupied these days, and certainly still testing and still hitting the speaking circuit quite heavily, and you’ll probably see me out and about. I’m sure people are going to come up to me for those comments about the NEPSY and let me have it. And you win. I apologize right now for even saying that.
Dr. Sharp: Well, that’s probably a great segue to ask how people can get in touch with you if they have questions or comments [01:12:00] or would like to learn more about what you’re doing.
Dr. Steve: You’re more than welcome. My email is email@example.com. I get a lot of questions about the FAR, quite naturally if you’re that vain to put your name on a test, you better own it and answer the questions. I try my best to respond to emails. The FAR and the FAM are sold through PAR, but if you’re interested in some of our books or I do try to post my speaking schedule, that is our websites, www.schoolneuropsychpress.com.
Dr. Sharp: Fantastic. I’ll have all that information in the show notes and I’ll have links to your tests. We didn’t even touch on your books, but I know you’ve [01:13:00] co-authored books as well. I’ll have links to those in case folks want to go check them out and get in touch with you.
Dr. Steve: Super.
Dr. Sharp: Yeah. Well, Steve, thank you so much for this time. You’re doing excellent work and I feel very fortunate to have been able to pick your brain for an hour or so, and I hope that others will find it useful as well. So thank you so much.
Dr. Steve: It’s hard to believe an hour’s gone by, but Jeremy, thank you, any time. I really appreciate your interest in some of the things I’m doing. Thanks for having me today.
Dr. Sharp: Yeah, of course. Take care.
All right, thanks y’all so much for listening to the show today. I hope that you enjoyed this one. This was one of the best ones so far. I walked away with a lot of good information and really just feeling like Steve is such a personable guy and easy to connect with and clearly knows what he’s talking about. I’d be remiss not to say that I’m really [01:14:00] excited about this writing test that is coming out in a year or so. So thanks for listening.
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All right, stay tuned. Great interviews coming up over the next few weeks and I hope to have you back. Take care.