Learning disabilities were identified as a category for special education in 1977. Since that time, there have been different models of evaluation to identify children with learning disabilities. Initially, this would have been through teacher observation. Evaluations progressed to models of ability vs. discrepancy in academic achievement, response intervention, and, more recently, a pattern of strengths and weaknesses. The models are driven by federal laws regulating policies that filter down to the interpretation of state educational associations, and ultimately districts and schools. Even with the same statutes, interpretation can vary widely. As such, there is not one specific measure that has been made to adapt to educational statutes. Rather, academic achievement tests endeavor to evaluate core neuropsychological and theoretical perspectives that identify students at risk.
Crepeau-Hobson and Bianco (2010) recognize that it is important to blend standardized assessments to some other evaluative means to determine writing difficulties. In their literature, they discuss response to intervention practices as a means to compare student performance and standardized tests to better understand patterns that might be contributing to difficulties. While useful in blending function with assessment, there has been an extensive review of what concepts might contribute to a writing disorder. It might be assumed that fine motor abilities would be a significant contributing factor. However, Hooper, Costa et al. (2016) determined that in first and second graders, attention/executive functions and language were more associated with written expression in spelling than in fine motor, latent traits. Yet, this is not to suggest that the fluency of writing mechanics is still not influential in determining a student’s ability to be a successful writer. Struthers et al. (2013) worked toward developing a checklist for written disorders. Their model of understanding what cohesively needs to come together for successful writing noted the following: letter formation, mechanical skills like capitalization of letters and punctuation fluency, spelling, language skills like word choice, and construction of grammatically correct sentences. Each of these is needed to communicate ideas in writing effectively.
Furthermore, the idea of cohesiveness in a student’s writing has often been an overlooked aspect of writing assessments (Feifer & De Fina, 2002). Written assessments had historically focused more on the ability to write, putting ideas together in a sentence, and being able to do so efficiently. This is consistent with Datchuk and Kubina (2012), who recognized that intervention focused on handwriting and sentence construction did assist with transferring acquired skills to more complex tasks, like extended composition. However, even with this early intervention suggestion, their work was consistent with their review of Berninger and colleagues’ prior work, suggesting that written expression was the interaction of neurodevelopment, linguistics, and cognition. There needed to be the physical development of visual-motor skills for handwriting, the linguistic skills to produce letters, words, and then sentences appropriately in syntax, and the cognitive level to compose text. Fortunately, their study of intervention at sentence level skills was beneficial to improve composition quality.
Research has continued to focus on other skills that are needed to engage in effective writing skills. Swanson, Harris, and Graham (2013) recognize that students who have struggled with working memory and other executive functioning challenges, such as difficulty monitoring their performance, tended to have more trouble with writing and less motivation to write. With the mention of executive skill development, it is not surprising that Grams, Collins, and Rigby-Wills (2017) note that writing also requires the ability to strategically develop a plan, evaluate, monitor, draft, and revisit the text. The better someone can employ these strategies, the more likely they will have “motivational aspirations to put the skills, strategies, and knowledge into play” (Grams et al., 2017). Their review identified that writing mastery required quality, organization, and voice to come together with text production (sentence fluency, handwriting, spelling, and grammar), knowledge, and motivation.
These concepts are consistent with Feifer’s (2012) discussion that written language is an exclusively human form of communication. The process involves integrating linguistics, motor skills, visual perception, proprioception, kinesthetics, emotion, memory, and cognition. All of these skills need to interact for the process of writing to be successful. This has contributed to his work in creating the Feifer Assessment of Writing. It is evident in Feifer’s work that there seems to be a general agreement with the historical idea put forth by Vaughn et al. (2003): an assessment measure needs to consider both the student’s test scores and the identification of skill sets needed to assist intervention. Trying to wait for a discrepancy to develop could be too late to help the student learn more effectively. This is quite consistent with Fletcher et al. (2005). They argue that the emphasis of an initial assessment should be less about trying to diagnose a learning disability and instead focus on identifying achievement difficulties that can address the student’s needs through intervention.
The Feifer’s Assessment of Writing (FAW) was put together as a means to evaluate unique concepts that have not been previously addressed in other written assessments. Even though there is a Graphomotor Skills Index, which other measures do have, the FAW includes reviewing dyslexia and executive functioning concepts that have been well discussed in the literature but have not always been included in written assessments. There is also an optional composition writing task in the assessment with normative data from pre-kindergarten to college levels.