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Assessment and Evaluation

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 (opens in a new window).

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.
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