Do you ever find yourself trying to make sense of all the assessments your students are expected to take, only to end up with more questions (and maybe a headache)? When should they take the assessments? Are they for ALL students or only SOME students? Which teachers can administer them? Which students need testing accommodations, and which accommodations do they need?
I'd be willing to bet that this is a common experience for most of us in education. Assessments are essential, and they are used in so many ways. And while some things will be specific to your school and your students (you will need to check your student's IEPs to know their required accommodations, for example), we can help you tease apart the different uses for assessments and give you some information to tuck away for the next time you find yourself feeling overwhelmed.
Navigating Assessment Data Within MTSS
Within a Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS), you will need to gather a variety of data points about your students. This data is gathered through assessments — you've undoubtedly heard of universal screeners, diagnostic assessments, and progress monitors. However, it can get confusing when we have assessments that can provide multiple types of data. For this reason, we want to think about types of data, rather than types of assessments. Instead of a "universal screener," for example, we can think about it as universally screening students to acquire data about their strengths and needs.
Universally screening, diagnostics, and progress monitoring can be the most confusing uses for assessment. Let's talk about these three more in-depth:
Universal screening is a process to quickly and proactively identify what level of support students need in a given topic. Assessments for universal screening should be valid and reliable measures of performance in a particular skill or topic and predict future performance in that area. They should also provide information on how students are performing relative to their peers, which is reflected by a national-, state- or locally-normed percentile.
Universal screening typically occurs three times a year to enable school teams to be able to quickly identify students who need support while also not taking up too much instructional time with testing. Universal screening is critical within an MTSS system, as it allows school teams to use a data-driven and equitable approach to determining the appropriate tier level of support each student requires.
Universal screening data is also used to help a school or district determine whether a core curriculum is effective and meeting the needs of the school or district population.
While universal screening allows us to identify who needs support in what content area, diagnostics allow us to identify how students are performing in specific skills within that area and guide our decision on how to support them. When a student is identified as needing Tier 2 or Tier 3 level of support, a diagnostic assessment should be administered so that school teams can see specifically which skills the student is struggling with. That information can then be used to identify a support or intervention that is chosen specifically for that student to help them improve.
This data can also allow teachers to identify trends across their entire class, which is useful for guiding Tier 1 instruction. Based on this information, a teacher may choose focus areas to prioritize and create instructional groups.
Another essential use for assessments is progress monitoring. The purpose of these assessments is to quickly be able to identify if the support or intervention being provided to a student is successful and if they are on track to catch back up with their peers. While every assessment is generically used to "monitor progress" within an MTSS practice, specific assessment requirements allow us to determine the impact of an intervention.
These assessments should be skill-based and a reliable predictor of success in the related general topic area. For example, the skill of oral reading fluency is a good predictor of general reading ability. Importantly, these assessments also need to be sensitive enough to show growth in the skill over a short time.
Progress monitoring should occur weekly or every other week and provide data points to show if a student is improving between those intervals. This is done to determine if a given support is working and takes place often enough to alert the teacher if the support approach needs to be adjusted.
Assessment Data is Useful for Every Member of the Team!
Assessment data is beneficial for all members of a school community. Broadly speaking, it can help everyone understand how students are progressing individually, but also by sub-group, grade level, or classroom. Here are a few more ways that assessment data is helpful for each member of the team:
Teachers can use assessment data to understand how each student is doing academically, to create instructional groups, to plan and adjust their instruction as needed, and to speak with students, families, and colleagues about progress, goals, and any areas of need.
Administrators can use assessment data to make decisions about curriculum and instruction, analyze sub-groups to evaluate for equity, plan relevant professional development, determine instructor needs and course allocations, and communicate with stakeholders about the progress and needs of their school and district.
Special Education Teachers, Interventionists, and Related Service Providers can use assessment data to plan and adjust interventions, evaluate how students are progressing on their goals, and communicate to teachers about their students' progress.
Students can use assessment data to understand their own progress, set goals for themselves, identify any specific conditions that help them feel successful, and make plans for their futures based on their strengths.
Parents and families can use assessment data to understand their child’s strengths and areas for growth, encourage their child to reach their goals, and actively participate in their child's education by communicating with teachers about their progress.
The data collected from assessments will be most beneficial if all the above parties are involved in the data discussions and decisions. Administrators, teachers, service providers, parents and families, and the students themselves should all be aware of how the student is performing and how any areas of need will be addressed. If only one or two team members look at the data, it is not being used to its full potential.
One way that I have seen whole-team involvement in a middle school went like this:
After students took an assessment, teachers would write their scores down on a sticker on the inside cover of their notebook (so in a math class, for example, the sticker with test scores would go on the inside of their math notebook). All of the subsequent scores for the year go there as well. If this is a universal screening assessment, that will end with three scores. This involved the students by ensuring they were aware of their scores and could track their improvement throughout the year.
The teachers would input all of the student's scores into a Google sheet or Excel spreadsheet that could be shared with the administration and the rest of the relevant middle school teaching team. This allowed everyone, including special education teachers, to view the scores, compare them to previous scores, and identify any trends or areas for improvement.
Team meetings take place where everyone can discuss the results, talk through any anomalies (such as "Student A was feeling really sick this morning, is it possible for them to retake it when they are feeling better?"), and go over our plans for the next steps based on the data. These next steps could be the creation or adjustment of instructional groups, interventions that need to be put in place, service providers that should be consulted, etc.
After the assessment, the teachers would call parents to inform them of the changes in Tier support that their student would be receiving.
This is just one example of how all team members can be involved in data conversations and decision-making. Your school may have a different process, and that's ok!
While assessments can be overwhelming at times, they are incredibly important for a variety of reasons. While thinking about assessments administered at your school and the data they will generate, keeping the big picture in mind can be helpful. Consider how they all work together to provide a holistic picture of your student population.
This type of holistic view will help you understand how students are doing at an individual level, at a class or grade level, within subgroups, and overall compared to other schools and districts. This is invaluable information and will lead to your school teams being able to make data-driven decisions for the betterment of your student population.
👉 Take a deep dive into what to do with all your assessment data through the webinar “Declutter Your MTSS Data: Too Much of a Good Thing.” This webinar will help you to know how to collect the appropriate data, learn best practices around engaging in data-driven conversations, and guide you through reflecting on your current data processes.
Thinking about assessments as having different USES, rather than different TYPES, will help to clear up confusion relating to “types” of assessments and makes it easier to understand how assessments are used.
Universal screening quickly identifies what level of support a student needs in a given topic,
Diagnostics identify how students perform in specific skills within a skill area and can guide our decision on how to support each student.
Progress monitoring provides data on whether an intervention or support is successful for a student.
Assessment data is useful to every school team member and will help make data-driven decisions.
Rachel Butler is the Content Specialist for Branching Minds. Rachel is a former Chicago Public Schools middle school special education teacher and case manager. She has experience with school leadership, intervention implementation, and working with a team of stakeholders to ensure each student receives the support they need. Rachel is passionate about social-emotional learning, school-based behavioral health, and providing all schools and students with access to high-quality resources.