These days almost all schools gather some type of screening data to identify which students might need additional interventions through RTI. Regardless of whether your campus uses AIMSweb, DIBELS, or one of the other available options, it can sometimes feel like these short assessments are completely useless in the grand scheme of things. I mean, how much can you really learn about a student from listening to them read for a minute?
The answer might actually surprise you! However, before we jump into that, I want to make sure to give you a clear background of what universal screening is…and is not.
Many campuses put screening data in the hands of their RTI team and administrators, and this data is disseminated to teachers as an afterthought. In fact, the vast majority of teachers I've talked to don't actually know what to do with this data beyond a surface level.
Before we dig deep into how you can use your data, let's start with the basics.
What is a universal screener?
A universal screener is a brief assessment that is typically administered three times per year – fall, winter, and spring.
All students on a campus participate in the screening process, including those identified as needing special education or gifted services.
The idea that all students complete the screener on grade level is important because it helps us identify how students perform compared to their peer group.
Universal screening is considered a first step in helping identify students in need of additional support.
The goal is to find students who are failing or at-risk of failing to make adequate progress and are most commonly administered for reading and math. However, they are available in many other areas as well.
What is the purpose of universal screening?
Universal screening is a formative assessment. It is a proactive step campuses can take to help meet their students' needs.
Just like the hearing and vision screeners done each year, universal screeners for academics and behavior are designed to catch concerns that may impact learning while they are still in the early stages.
At the campus-level, aggregated data can help identify gaps in core Tier 1 instruction that may need to be addressed through training or purchasing new resources. The same can be true of aggregated grade-level data to a certain extent.
At the classroom-level, universal screening starts the discussion about students who may be struggling or could begin to struggle if supports aren't provided. Low scores on the universal screener can be considered a red flag, indicating that it would be beneficial to look more closely at the student's skills and progress.
Universal screening vs. diagnostic assessment
When I spent time working as an instructional coach for RTI one of the biggest misconceptions I encountered was the belief that a universal screener could be used as a diagnostic assessment.
So what's the big difference?
A universal screener is designed to help you identify WHO might need extra support. It is not designed to tell you WHAT that support should be.
Yes, there are ways that screening data can be used to help you target intervention efforts, which I'll discuss in a future article. However, the goal of a screener isn't to give teachers the big picture for how best to help students. This is where the diagnostic assessments come in.
Students who pop up with red flags on the screener should be progress monitored for a few weeks and/or administered a diagnostic assessment. A diagnostic assessment digs deeper and helps you identify gaps in knowledge or skills.
Diagnostic assessments are typically administered one-on-one and take longer to complete because they are looking for specific areas of strength and weakness.
Many of the reading assessments given in school districts, like DRA or BAS, are diagnostic assessments. Some districts prefer to administer these to 100% of students, but realistically, this is unnecessary and requires a great deal of time away from instruction.
With that being said, a screener is actually a tool designed to save you time by reducing the number of unnecessary diagnostic assessments you complete. Clearly, you CAN always do a diagnostic for a learner who isn't identified, but it affords you the luxury of considering the cost-to-benefit ratio for the instructional time taken by assessment.
What types of universal screening assessments are given for reading?
While young learners will work through several measures of early literacy, the vast majority of students will be tested in two core reading skills – fluency and basic comprehension.
Typically, fluency is assessed with a one-minute timed oral reading measure. This assessment is commonly called R-CBM.
For the purpose of universal screening, reading fluency is looked at only as words read per minute. While many argue this is a limited view of fluency, it is important to remember that universal screeners are only designed to help us identify where we need to dig deeper.
Comprehension is commonly assessed via a cloze passage, where a set of choices is provided for every seventh word. Depending on where you live and what screening tool your district uses, you might know this assessment as MAZE or DAZE.
To complete this assessment, students are to select the word that makes sense in the passage. This assessment is also timed, and students work to complete as much as they can within the time limit. The entire assessment typically lasts three minutes.
One of the biggest complaints I hear from teachers about the cloze format the simplicity. In other words, it doesn't test whether students can do any of the reading skills they've been taught.
While this is true, it is important to remember that the goal of the universal screener is to catch students most at-risk of poor outcomes. The cloze format focuses on basic comprehension. In other words, can students follow along and comprehend a simple grade-level appropriate story?
Is there more to reading comprehension than this? ABSOLUTELY! However, those students who are flagged on this measure show a potential gap in the foundation of what reading comprehension is – the ability to read and understand.
Early Literacy Skills
Early learners will also commonly be assessed on letter name and letter sound fluency. They may also complete a timed decoding test using nonsense words, and some universal screeners also include segmenting and blending assessments.
Letter Sounds & Letter Naming
Much like reading fluency, letter sound and letter naming fluency are assessed using a one-minute assessment where students are presented with a page of letters and asked to name or tell the corresponding sound for each letter.
These assessments are important because these skills lay the groundwork for decoding. Students who are not fluent in their letter sounds, for example, are likely to struggle when asked to apply their letter sound knowledge to decode words.
Segmenting and blending
While some schools go bare-bones with their screening, the segmenting and blending assessments can actually be incredibly helpful in identifying students who are likely to struggle.
Reading research has shown a strong link between these two early literacy skills and future issues with decoding and fluency. In fact, difficulty blending and segmenting can be an indicator that a student may have dyslexia.
Decoding nonsense words
Nonsense words are often assessed to look at decoding skills. Although some teachers disagree about the usefulness of assessing using nonsense words, the purpose of this format is to eliminate the impact of exposure and memorization so that the assessment is truly focused on decoding.
Let's use the C-V-C word cat as an example. If I've been exposed to the word regularly, I may now know it by sight. Maybe I have a cat or my mom reads me The Cat in the Hat at bedtime.
Regardless, I don't have to apply any decoding skills to read that word. If there are several of these familiar words on a decoding assessment, the data ends up skewed and shows background knowledge and experience rather than true decoding skills. Hence, the benefit of nonsense words becomes more apparent.
Depending on what your district uses, you might also assess initial sound fluency or even rhyme. These fall under the category of early literacy skills and can also help predict who might struggle with the transition from pre-literate to literate based on a lack of foundational skills.
What types of universal screening assessments are given in math?
Math gets a little trickier when it comes to universal screening. It is also more time intensive.
This is because there are so many discreet math skills to be assessed. While reading skills overlap and build upon one another, many math skills are separate and unrelated.
The majority of universal screeners have broken math skills down into two broad categories – computational fluency and math applications.
The ability to fluently add, subtract, multiply, and divide are the core of the majority of elementary level math. Therefore, it is essential that students be able to proficiently perform these calculations.
For younger students, computational fluency assessments focus on basic skills. Adding and subtracting basic facts are commonly assessed using a timed format.
As students reach third grade and beyond, multiplication and division are commonly added to the assessments.
While some will argue that timed fact assessments are invalid, the research indicates that this is a good way to determine whether students have developed automaticity with these core skills.
This is important because when a student struggles with basic computation they have fewer mental resources left to devote to higher level math skills and problem solving.
Applied Math Skills
This is basically the catch all. It is the universal screener where students will bounce around between topics solving basic problems. The first question might be measurement and reading a ruler, while the second has them breaking down numbers using place value.
This is commonly the longest of the universal screeners, but it is timed. Students work each problem as quickly as they can accurately do so.
While the research is less solid on the usefulness of this data, it does provide a starting point. However, teachers need to be aware that the assessment isn't focused on solving word problems. It is founded in the ability to perform the basic skills of math through a variety of topics.
This is important because students who don't have these foundational skills are more likely to struggle when these skills are needed for word problems and multi-step math problem solving.
Other math screening measures
Just like early literacy had its own set of assessments, early numeracy does as well.
Young students are commonly assessed on several or all of these skills:
- count to 100
- identify or name numbers
- determine quantities
- compare numbers
- identify missing numbers in a sequence
Commonly used universal screening tools for reading and math
There are several commercially available universal screeners that districts can purchase. There are also free options available that you could use to gather snapshot data for your class if your district has not adopted a formal screening process for RTI.
The benefit of the paid systems is that they typically analyze the data and provide you with reports to guide next steps. However, this is something you could track in a class or grade-level spreadsheet if you are doing this process with a free tool.
Commonly used paid universal screening tools:
Free* universal screening tools:
*Note that some of the options on the list of free screening tools above offer a paid version that offers report features, but you can access the tools at no cost.
Here's a great chart from RTISuccess.org that can give you more information on the reliability, validity, and administration format for these tools.
Computerized universal screening vs. traditional paper-pencil screeners
More and more universal screening tools are transitioning from paper-pencil or teacher-administered toward computer-based screening. There are advantages and disadvantages to each of these formats.
The advantage of computer-based screening is that it allows the entire group to be completed together and immediately scored, providing the teacher with instant data.
Many of these assessments are also adapted so that students get more challenging questions if their performance warrants it, and they get easier questions if they are struggling. This can provide more diagnostic data than is typically available via a screening tool.
While some screeners were originally developed using computer technology, there are a growing number that have transitioned to computer technology in the recent years.
One concern with this is the narrow sample sizes that are being used to norm the data. In other words, they are taking the scores of a small population and applying that pattern to the scores your students achieve to indicate whether your students are below, at, or above level.
While the data will grow with time, at this point it is important to be vigilant of the size of the norm sample of any program you're using for universal screening.
Another issue is access to technology and the current research indicating that reading on a screen is very different than reading from paper. This means that universal screening via computer can produce different outcomes for students than if they had completed paper-based testing.
Finally, there are benefits to being able to look at the specific errors your students are making on screeners. I'll discuss this further in an upcoming post.
The reality of universal screening data – the elephant in the room
The reality of universal screening is you will get false positives and false negatives. In other words, you will likely have kids that end up flagged as below level, when in fact they are most definitely not.
Similarly, you may also have students who appear to do well on these measures but are truly struggling in reading.
This is why the screening data is only a starting point and should never be the end of the conversation.
As professionals, it is important that we can use the data we get from universal screeners to help us best allocate our time and resources to gather more information on students.
However, it is also our professional obligation to look beyond the screening data. If we see a student who was identified as on-level struggling in the classroom, we must offer support.
By finding ways to utilize screening data more efficiently, its inherent value will become more apparent.