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Learning and teaching - Netherlands

Needs-based assessment has five basic principles:

  1. it is transparent, operating in accordance with systematic procedures
  2. it aims at decisions and recommendations
  3. it uses a transactional frame of reference
  4. it is in collaborative partnership with the school, parents and child
  5. it focuses on the positive aspects of the child, school and parents.

Transparency and systematic procedures

Assessment is a complex process of problem solving as it includes many important decisions. These decisions can have a large impact on the education, learning process and social – emotional well being of a child. Therefore it is important that this process takes place in a systematic, objective and consistent way and that this process is transparent for all people involved: the teacher and other professionals involved with the pupil, as well as the child and his or her parents. By applying a model it is clear what stages are desired, which decisions are to be made and by whom.
Diagnostic assessment is a decision-making process in which the assessor formulates and tests hypotheses. The assessor should work systematically, following a model made up of various stages. It is clear at each stage which questions and decisions are involved (e.g. who has what questions? what the problem is and what is going well? what instructional programme is required?).
Systematically following a model, such as needs-based assessment increases the likelihood of more consistent and objective decision-making. Although it does not prevent differences between assessors, their decisions are at least transparent to colleagues, the school and parents. Checklists accompany the decision-making process at each stage, functioning as a reminder and protecting the assessor against common mistakes in decision-making (pitfalls).
In the Netherlands the process of hypothesis testing is used as a guideline for assessment in university degree programmes, and needs-based assessment is also recommended by professional associations of school psychologists. European guidelines also view assessment as a process of hypothesis testing designed to answer a client’s questions and to solve their problems (Fernandez-Ballesteros et al, 2001).

Needs-based assessment consists of five stages – intake, strategy, diagnosis, needs assessment and recommendations – which are closely linked in a cyclical process. By progressing through each stage, the relationship between the request for referral from the school, parents and child on the one hand and the diagnostic process and the assessor’s recommendations on the other hand is made explicit and manageable. The following guidelines apply: current research findings should be used when formulating hypotheses and recommendations, and reliable and valid instruments should be used to test these hypotheses. All stages involve a goal directed – rather than routine – collection of information. The diagnostic process can thus vary widely in each case, depending on the client’s questions and the information already at hand.

Needs-based assessment aims at teaching and learning

Assessment reports can consist of 10 pages or more, containing all kinds of testing results. Often much more data are collected than strictly necessary for answering the clients questions or making a certain decision. Nowadays assessment still does not always produce recommendations that are workable for the school, parents and child. Although they have asked for help, the answer they receive may not be as clear cut as they hoped for. Sometimes, standard evaluations are carried out, with each child being subjected to a battery of many tests. The more refined the diagnosis, the better the assessor has done his or her job, it seems. This is reflected in lengthy reports which describe all the assessment findings in detail. These assessors are ‘better safe than sorry’, trying to avoid overlooking anything. The diagnosis seems to be the main objective and end product of what we call the ‘psycho-medical model’ (see Pijl, II, 3). The end result is a general recommendation, often not fully tailored to the unique setting in which the problems occur and must be solved, namely the classroom or school playground.
Sometimes a diagnosis or classification is required, sometimes it isn’t. Assessors should only formulate a diagnosis when this is strictly necessary. That means, without the diagnosis, they are unable to make effective recommendations. If the information one wants to collect does not influence a decision or recommendation, one is not ‘allowed’ to collect this information as it doesn’t seem relevant at the moment (Meehl, 1973). Each diagnostic question is therefore justified in terms of the ‘if-then’ - rationale: “if I know .., then I can recommend …”, and “if I don’t know…, then I am not yet able to recommend …”. Assessors make their rationale explicit, giving good reasons for their assessment. With each diagnostic question, they ask themselves: for which decision is this information needed? They will not gather information unless it is relevant to the case at hand – in other words, unless it influences a decision concerning a recommendation. The information gathered must therefore be confined to what is strictly necessary for addressing the problem at school (Ysseldyke et al, 2000). This leads to a goal directed diagnostic stage. An example of the ‘if-then’- rationale is:

Monique has poor work habits, she is not motivated for her schoolwork: it takes her a long time to get started, and once she has begun she is easily distracted.
Diagnostic questions: Is this behaviour reinforced by the teacher’s approach? Does the teacher have an adequate understanding of how Monique perceives the task? Is the feedback sufficiently positive for her? Are her poor work habits perhaps reinforced by the way in which the teacher organises the class? Are there clear routines, such as a system for requesting help from the teacher, and clear tools for visualising task time and planning? Does the teacher provide enough emotional support before and during the tasks?
Rationale: If the teacher has an inadequate understanding of how Monique perceives the task, then the assessor can discuss with the teacher how he or she could address this problem. If the teacher’s feedback is not sufficiently attuned to Monique’s needs, then the assessor can discuss with the teacher the kind of feedback Monique needs. If, however, the teacher does have a satisfactory understanding of Monique’s perception of the task and does provide sufficient feedback, then these are positive factors and the teacher will be advised to proceed. If the class organisation is less than optimal, then the teacher can be given help to improve it.

The goal of collecting information can be to develop an individualised educational plan (IEP), a plan that works in the context where the child is learning. First we try to formulate the elements of this plan. If we do not succeed because we miss specific information, then we collect that information. But in case we do succeed, then we need not collect any more information.
In needs-based assessment, the diagnosis is not an objective in itself but a means of making informed recommendations. After all, the school and parents require not only an understanding of the problem, but above all suggestions as how to deal with the problem and how to solve it. They need an answer to the question: what is the best intervention for this child? Needs-based assessment can provide this answer. The assessment process is not complete until the school and parents have a recommendation that they consider both acceptable and workable. The process is thus functional and goal-directed: its purpose is to yield recommendations that solve or alleviate the problems within the instructional environment.
Thus the aim of needs-based assessment is to arrive at recommendations that the teacher, parents and child find acceptable, to which they react as in: “I’m happy with that, I believe it will work. I’ll make a start tomorrow”. If this is not the case, the assessment process is not yet finished. The assessor will have to consult further with both parties in search of recommendations that they can endorse. If a teacher or parent does not accept the assessor’s recommendations, the assessor should not immediately attribute this to problems of acceptance or over anxiousness. He or she needs to ask: “why don’t my recommendations fit well with the capabilities and wishes of this teacher or parent?” This second principle has implications for evaluating needs-based assessment: we evaluate not only the diagnosis, but also the recommendations.

A transactional frame of reference

Only testing the pupil does not give us enough information for making well fitted recommendations. The focus of assessment therefore is not only the pupil – with his abilities and disabilities – but also his learning environment: a particular school, classroom, group and teacher. What are their strengths and problems? How well is the environment fitted to the needs of this specific pupil? These questions imply that we focus our assessment and recommendations on the interaction between the pupil (what are his educational and social emotional needs?) and the learning environment (is this environment offering the child what it needs? what needs to be changed?). This also implies that much of the assessment will take place within the context where the child is learning. It also implies that we are not only concerned about the pupil, but that our assessment is aimed at the unique system of ‘this pupil in this classroom with these other pupils, this teacher in this school and these parents’.
This principle is based on the transactional model (Bronfenbrenner & Ceci, 1994; Sameroff & Chandler, 1975) and on ideas concerning ecological assessment (Greene, 1996; Greene & Ollendick, 1998). Teacher and pupil: they both influence each other. Both need to experience a good relationship and both need to feel competent. Therefore the ‘goodness of fit’ is crucial: can the teacher offer the pupil what he or she needs and is teaching this pupil rewarding for this teacher? Hence the need for a transactional frame of reference, the third principle of our model for needs-based assessment.
In the instructional context a pupil elicits a response from the teacher and classmates, thereby indirectly influencing him- or herself. Thus the teacher-pupil relationship plays a key role in a pupil’s academic performance and well being. The quality of that relationship is important for children with social, emotional and/or learning difficulties, many of which can be prevented or remedied by a good teacher. Conversely, a pupil’s behaviour also affects the teacher’s well being. Both have the need for a good relationship and wish to feel competent and autonomous (Deci & Chandler, 1986). Goodness-of-fit – the compatibility between the teaching practices of the teacher and the instructional needs of the pupil – is central to adaptive education. Adaptive education can be described as pedagogical and behavioural measures with the objective to adapt the instruction environment to the needs of each individual pupil.
A transactional frame of reference has far reaching implications for the assessment and recommendations (Greene & Ollendick, 1998). At all stages of needs-based assessment, assessors will focus on the interaction between child and environment. Faced with a question like “Why does this child have problems and how can they be tackled?”, they will reformulate it into “Why does this child, from this family, in this school, with this teacher and these classmates have these problems and how can we best address them?” (Greene, 1996). In order to answer such a transactional question, assessors examine not only characteristics of the child, but also of the instructional setting. As these may be causing or perpetuating the problem, they need to be incorporated in the recommendations. It is therefore better to examine the child’s problem behaviour in the natural situation, the instructional context, than in an unnatural situation like an assessment room. Data gathered in the context have greater ‘ecological validity’ (Bronfenbrenner, 1977) and are easier to translate into recommendations.


  • Bronfenbrenner, U. (1977). Towards an experimental ecology of human development, American Psychologist, 32, 513-531.
  • Bronfenbrenner, U., & Ceci, S. J. (1994). Nature-nurture reconceptualized in developmental perspective: A bioecological model. Psychological Review, 10, 568-586.
  • Deci & Chandler (1986). The importance of motivation for the future of the LD field. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 19, 587-594.
  • Fernandez-Ballesteros, R., Bruyn, E.E.J. de, Godoy, A., Hornke, L.F., Laak, J. ter, Vizcarro, C., Westhoff, K., Westmeyer, H., & Zaccagnini, J.L. (2001). Guidelines for the Asssessment Process (GAP): A  proposal for discussion. European Journal of Psychological Assessment, 17, 187-200.
  • Greene, R. W. (1996). Students with ADHD and their teachers: implications of a goodness-of-fit perspective. In T.H. Ollendick, & R.J. Prinz (Eds.), Advances in Clinical Child Psychology (Vol. 18, pp. 205-231). New York: Plenum Press.
  • Greene, R.W., & Ollendick, T.H. (1998). Behavioral assessment of children. In G. Goldstein  & M. Hersen (Eds.), Handbook of psychological assessment. New York: Pergamon. 
  • Meehl, P.E. (1973). Why I do not attend case conferences. Psychodiagnostics: Selected papers, p. 225-302. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  • Ysseldyke, J.E., Algozzine, B., & Thurlow, M.L. (2000). Critical issues in special education. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.


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