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Version 1.0, prepared March 2003
Minor revisions, September 2008

SAAS-123: A System of Assessment and Prescription

for Children and Adults With Moderate to Profound Developmental Delays1 2 3

Bruce L. Bachelder, PhD4

SAAS-123 is pronounced "Sass one-two-three." It stands for Span Ability Assessment System and the span ability scores, 1, 2, and 3, which are typical among children and adults with serious developmental delays. Span testing is one of the oldest methods of measuring mental ability. A span test was a part of the very first intelligence test by Alfred Binet in 1895 and is still used in the same way on major modern intelligence tests. SAAS-123 is a system which measures span ability and prescribes instructional objectives based on those abilities. Span testing has been around for over 100 years; what is new with SAAS-123 is the ability to use those scores to understand learning in people with developmental delays.

Both intelligence testing and span testing attempt to measure mental ability, but there are important differences between the two approaches. Intelligence tests give a score called an IQ; span testing gives a score called a span ability or span. An IQ indicates how a person compares with others of the same age; span abilities indicate what is easy or difficult to learn. Intelligence tests are generally developed for people with no delays or just mild delays; span testing is especially useful for people with moderate to profound delays. Intelligence tests are good at telling us if a particular student is likely to do well in a regular classroom; span testing aims to match education to the abilities of the individual student. Intelligence tests must be used exactly as they were developed; span testing can be adapted to the individual. Intelligence tests are not very useful in setting instructional objectives for people with serious developmental delays; the main point of SAAS-123 is to match objectives with the ability to achieve them. Intelligence tests tend to lump all people with serious delays into one large group; span testing subdivides the same group into several groups with fairly distinct needs and abilities.

SAAS-123 is an alternative to IQ testing, but nothing in this article should be interpreted as "anti-intelligence testing" or "anti-IQ." Intelligence tests work well for their original purpose, which was to answer a simple and important question: Will this child succeed in a regular classroom and a regular program? When an IQ is high enough, we can be confident of success in regular programs. When an IQ is too low, failure is almost certain.

We don't need an IQ test to tell us that children with serious developmental delays are at high risk of failure in regular classrooms with regular programs. SAAS-123 answers very different questions. Why is my child failing to learn? What can I do about it? What can I reasonably expect my child to learn? Which programs will succeed? Which ones will fail? What does success mean? How do we focus our efforts on success? How do we avoid squandering precious resources on failure?

To understand SAAS-123 you need some understanding of span ability. Think of span ability as a personal learning tool. People with small spans can learn easy things, but they struggle and often fail learning harder things. People with larger spans learn both easy and harder things. The spans of normally developing people range from about 1 in average infants up through 8 or so in bright adults. The spans we find in people with severe delays are usually 1, 2, or 3, which happen to correspond to the average spans of normally-developing children who are 1, 2, and 3 years old. This identity of spans and age is a convenient coincidence which helps us understand the meaning of spans for people with delays, but it doesn't hold for ages over 3.

SAAS-123 is more than a measure of span ability. It is a system which includes a process to tell us how much span ability is required to learn specific things. That process is called TASL (pronounced "tassel"). We know a lot about the link between span ability and language ability, number ability, naming colors, naming letters, writing letters, learning concepts, learning to spell, and learning to read. We are learning more all the time. By matching the demands of learning with individual span abilities, TASL helps us state instructional objectives with a good chance of success. TASL helps us avoid squandering precious and limited resources on objectives doomed to failure. Chronic failure discourages students, parents, and teachers alike, and further degrades learning ability.

Outline of the SAAS-123 Evaluation

There are five components of the SAAS-123 evaluation: 1) Overview, 2) Assessment of Span Ability, 3) Assessment of Program Coherency, 4) Prescription, and 5) Review and Reevaluation. Each component is sketched below.

The Overview reviews records and interviews the examinee, parents, teachers, and other professionals. The purposes are to understand current functioning and to prepare a list of questions to be addressed by the evaluation. This information is critical to select or create specific span testing methods and to ensure the evaluation will be of immediate benefit to the examinee, parents, and teachers.

The second component, Assessment of span ability, aims to estimate or measure span ability. The usual values in people with severe delays are 1, 2, or 3. We are always on alert for abilities higher than this because they suggest the potential for higher function. In some rare cases we might find a span 4 or higher, but that is generally unlikely and should not be expected. Estimating spans of 2 or 3 in people with some simple language comprehension is fairly easy. We might ask them to say groups of words familiar to them. When words can't be spoken, pointing to items or pictures often works well. Information from the Overview informs us of the specific words, responses, and activities which we can use to individualize span testing so we can assess even more people. We have successfully measured the spans of a variety of non-verbal people using symbol board language skills. We hope in the near future to measure spans by means of electronic communication boards.

Once we have a reasonable initial estimate of span, we can start to evaluate the individual's Program Coherency. A program or individualized educational plan (IEP) is coherent when the goals make sense with respect to the individual's a) span ability, b) known skills and behavior, and c) individual needs. We use TASL to begin sorting out realistic from unrealistic goals. The Program Coherency component is closely related to the Prescription component which makes strong suggestions of goals which are likely to succeed. The aim of these two components is to increase educational resources by cutting down on wasted effort in attempts to teach things too far beyond our students' current abilities.

The final phase, Review and Reevaluation, aims to improve the accuracy of our initial estimate of span ability and to improve on initial recommendations of goals and instructional methods. IEPs always require evaluation and fine-tuning to work effectively. As individuals begin to learn and develop new skills and responses, we may find that initial estimates of learning potential were too low, so we can revise our expectations upward a bit. This is an important development, but changes are rarely dramatic. Initial estimates, except in certain cases are not likely to be far off. When they seem to be far off follow-up evaluation is necessary.

In summary, the whole point of SAAS-123 is to achieve genuine learning and skill development by carefully matching educational goals and instructional methods to the individual abilities of our children and students. This also cuts down on waste which comes about through inappropriate instructional objectives and ineffective teaching methods. I believe SAAS-123 has great value and potential, but nothing in this article should be interpreted to mean we are likely to find that individuals are a lot higher functioning than they seem to be. That has happened, but it is rare. Sometimes our evaluations set lower goals than parents might want, but we aim for the peace of mind which comes from successful learning and the knowledge one is doing the best one can at the current state of instructional technology.


1 Copyright 2003 by Bruce L. Bachelder, PhD. Reproduction and distribution is encouraged so long as the article is reproduced in its entirety and nothing is charged for it. Further information is available from the author.

2 I want to thank Judith B. Bachelder, MA, Educational Therapist, for her critical review and editorial suggestions. I also want to thank Ms. Carla Anderson for her helpful comments and suggestions.

3 This short article is only an introduction to the basic ideas behind SAAS-123. The evaluation method is based on my own research since the late 1960s which, in turn, is based on large amounts of research over 100 years in diverse traditions of scientific psychology. The definitions of terms such as span ability, span load, and TASL are highly technical. They are well-developed and validated. Contact me for recommended readings, workshops, and individual supervision.

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