Selecting Assessments for Your School

There are over two dozen individually administered screening tools produced for the primary grades. Considering their subject matter and purpose, schools must decide which assessment best fits their needs. This article gives an overview of the screening tools and the kind of information they provide.

Today, schools actually have more than two dozen individually administered early screening assessments to choose from that are appropriate for kindergarten through third grade. These assessments cover a variety of reading skills' phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and reading comprehension'as well as a variety of assessment purposes: screening, diagnosis, and progress monitoring. (There are also outcomes assessments that educators should be aware of if they plan to conduct studies of the effectiveness of their reading programs.) As an introduction to the kind of information that teachers can glean from early reading assessments, examples from TPRI and Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS) are included here.

Fortunately, a team of researchers has reviewed the current crop of assessments, identified which have sufficient reliability and validity, and developed a Web site for educators that clearly indicates which assessments are appropriate for differing grades, skills, and purposes (available at

Most currently available assessments identify children using national norms. So, for example, schools can decide to intervene with all children who score in the bottom 10 to 20 percent nationally. Of course, just how many students this will be varies greatly by school. A few assessments have established benchmarks, or cut scores, that represent evidence- based thresholds indicating the likelihood of reading success (or failure), and recommend that schools intervene with all students who fall below the benchmark.

A key issue that has arisen during the instrument-development research is creating accurate instruments that are not too long. Assessment developers have been grappling with the fact that longer assessments provide more detailed data, but shorter assessments are more practical for the classroom. This led to differentiating between screening and diagnostic assessments. Typically, screening instruments tend to be short, taking as little as five to 10 minutes per child, and they identify which students are at risk or behind, as well as some information on which skills the students are lacking. Diagnostic instruments'used only for the smaller group of students deemed at risk in the screening'tend to be longer, taking roughly 20 to 45 minutes per child, and they offer a much more thorough look at students' strengths and weaknesses. (These time estimates are for teachers who are experienced in using these assessments. More time will be needed while teachers become accustomed to using those tools.) Sometimes assessments have both screening and diagnostic components. For example, the TPRI has "Screening" and "Inventory" sections. When children don't meet criteria in the Screening Section, the teacher can immediately switch to a more indepth assessment from the Inventory Section to pinpoint the knowledge and skills that the child still needs to develop. Teachers can also use Inventory data to match instruction with specific student needs. For more information on TPRI, see

A third type of assessment is for progress monitoring. These instruments typically come in short, multiple forms so that students' skills can be assessed every two weeks (or even more frequently) to quickly determine if an intervention is sufficiently effective. If not, the intervention can be altered (by changing the instructional content, methods, and/or intensity), the child may be given a diagnostic assessment, or the child may be referred for special education. For example, DIBELS is a widely used screening and progress-monitoring assessment. DIBELS measures take just a few minutes each and usually come in 20 alternate forms for frequent checkups.

While screening instruments are used with all students, diagnostic instruments are only necessary for students whose screenings reveal serious skill deficits and/or whose progress monitoring indicates that they are not responding to the intervention. Ideally, all K-3 students should be screened three times per year starting in mid-kindergarten; diagnostic and progress monitoring assessments can be done as needed, with progress monitoring of children in an intervention being quite frequent to make sure that interventions are as effective as possible.

Reprinted with permission from the Fall 2004 issue of American Educator, the quarterly journal of the American Federation of Teachers.


For any reprint requests, please contact the author or publisher listed.


I am a general education teacher, and frequently use progress monitoring with my students to guide instruction. I also find online assessments, as well as the DRA beneficial. I feel that assessments that are given at the beginning, middle, and end of the year provide a wealth of information to guide instruction, and are also beneficial in communicating a child's progress to parents. The computer assessment implemented at my school provides opportunities for students who are reading below grade level, or who are above and need enrichment to take lessons online every week during RTI. Implementing a variety of assessments gives me a better understanding of how to meet the educational needs of individual students in my class.

I agree with giving test three times a year: beginning, middle, and end. This helps the classroom teacher see the overall growth of a student's learning. At my school I use progress monitoring with my students every two weeks using AIMSWEB. I don't do it all on all my students, just the ones that need an intervention. I also like using AIMSWEB because it helps us compare the students to either the national norms or our school norms. It is nice to be able to look at the comparison of the two.

I agree that diagnostic tests should be given at the beginning, middle, and end of the year. As a classroom teaceher these assessments are instrumental in directing my instruction to my students. I teach third grade and every other friday I do progress monitoring on my 30s and below. At my school we used to use AIMSWEB but we have now switched to I-READY. I-READY has a reading component and a math component. After the students take the assessment on the computer, it breaks what skills the studnets need in vocabulary, nonfiction literature comprehension, fiction literature comprehension, phonics, and sight words. It even provides lessons for students to complete on the computer that are directed at the skills that specific student needs to work on. This is our first year with I-READY, it has been a learning progress, but it is a great aid to classroom instuction.

The best way that I know how to help my students is by "diagnosing" them. I do this by administering a series of assessments called "Digging Deeper Assessments." It is very time consuming but it allows me to see their strengths and weaknesses so I can guide my instruction. Then, weekly, I progress monitor my students with a great program called AimsWeb. It is mostly computer-based and doesn't take very long. While progress monitoring I set goals for my students and they work so hard to meet their goals. After 6 weeks of progress monitoring I administer the same diagnostic assessment to see their growth. If your school is looking for an efficient computer-based progress monitoring program I highly recommend Aimsweb. The data it provides is outstanding and easy to analyze.

As a reading teacher for middle school students, I have heard about the usefulness of DIBELS testing. Our primary teachers use it, and speak very highly of the benefits they gain in using it to help struggling readers. Additionally, we have recently started using the AIMS WEB assessment with our sixth grade students, and we have had great success. However, I would like to know about similar programs that offer the same type of help for upper middle grade and high school students who continue to struggle with reading skills, particularly 8th and 9th graders. I think that this would be an invaluable tool, especially in the area of diagnostic assessment and progress monitoring.

Our school uses an online screening tool that is administered to all students grade K-8. This is used to guide instruction and interventions in the classroom. This data is used to determine pull-out groups as well. Students who don't meet Benchmarks receive interventions either within or outside the classroom; progress monitoring is used to check progress in areas of weakness. As a Title I teacher, I am directly involved with these universal screenings and intervention groups they form. I see the value of a short assessment that screens for weaknesses without burdening the teacher and student with exhaustive testing. I agree that the longer diagnostics assessments provide more data, when giving this type of assessment I try to monitor student fatigue and take breaks often.

I am not familiar with TPRI and have only a small amount of experience with DIBELS. I progress monitor my students several times a year. Each Friday, I also give my students a "word spree" over sight words, nonsense words, sentence structure, etc. This quickly allows me to see which students are struggling with which concepts, even though they don't receive a "grade" for it. I also agree with the article (and other comments) that longer assessments provide more detailed data but they are not practical or conducive to the classroom (especially elementary grades).

Currently, I am not working as a classroom teacher. I have not formally given the three types of assessments to my former students. On the other hand, by reading this article, I believe the TPRI would be a great assessment for students in grades K-3, because the TPRI contains “Screening” and “Inventory” which will help the teachers instruct the students based upon their needs.

I like to use the diagnostic testing in the beginning of the school year so I can see my student’s strengths and weaknesses. This test is time consuming, but it provides a more detailed report than any other assessment. Once I know what the students are capable of doing then I use progress monitoring and screening quite often to check for understanding and see what skills/concepts I still need to build upon. I feel the diagnostic testing is beneficial to get the big picture of the student, but my students, on the other hand, become frustrated on those assessments. I feel the shorter and more frequent assessments are more beneficial with my students because with the diagnostic testing they seem to lose focus quickly and come to the point they don’t care and just put down answers.

As a special education teacher, I get great use out of all three types of assessments. However, after the screening and diagnostic assessments are administered and interpreted, I love using the progress monitoring assessments. They are quick and easy to administer while providing me with information on the student's progress. This article provides great definitions and explanations on the types of assessments.

I like the feedback from the longer assessments with more specific detailed information on strengths and weaknesses, but many students get frustrated and bored when taking these. I also like what the article mentioned the 3rd type, short with multiple forms. This is more of what I use in first grade. I try to screen mine 3-4 times a year. I am lucky to have a small class where I can really make adjustments where I think its necessary in my instruction based off assessments.

I agree with the recommendation that schools intervene with all students who fall below the benchmark. Even if some of the students do not need the intervention, the ones who do will be given the necessary intervention to be successful.

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"Today a reader, tomorrow a leader." — Margaret Fuller