K-12 schools use universal screeners in RTI programs. As part of the RTI process, all students take a universal screening assessment to determine who is struggling and what type of support they need to progress toward grade-level goals. Universal screeners are typically short, easy to administer and test only high-level critical skills and concepts. Once teachers determine which students are struggling, they administer a diagnostic assessment to help them figure out why students are struggling. In other words, they determine student learning gaps regardless of a student’s current grade level. Struggling students are then placed in Tiers 2 or 3 as appropriate for individual needs.

Recently, educators are considering the need for universal diagnostics rather than universal screeners. Why? All students have been impacted by the learning loss caused by the  COVID-19 pandemic so the assumption that 80% of the students in a classroom are at grade level is tenuous at best. Teachers may have to contend with an incredible number of learning levels, and the results of a universal screener will not offer the data they need.  The power of a universal diagnostic is that it identifies learning strengths and gaps. Laura LoGerfo, Assistant Director of the National Assessment Governing Board,  addresses the learning loss issues in a blog article: “In order to address massive and unknown variations in learning, my magic wand would have schools and teachers implement universal diagnostic testing, with frequent assessment updates and teaching aimed at attaining fundamental skills and knowledge as swiftly as possible.”

Perhaps it’s time that school districts replace universal screening with universal math and reading diagnostics to ensure equity and student achievement as we address the issues caused by COVID-19.

  • Modern diagnostically designed assessments can provide data to inform instruction in about the same amount of time as a screener, particularly when these are online and scoring and reporting are accomplished in real-time.
  • Today’s classrooms are more academically challenging because the students are at radically different learning levels and have more diverse backgrounds. The stakes are also higher: students need more academic skills today in order to be successful in college and career.

Note that because of COVID-19, traditional RtI models are often less effective.  When a classroom of students has only 40-50% proficiency in math, 30-40% of the students are more than a year behind.  This means a traditional pull-out program cannot accommodate the number of students who need support. Take a look at “Choosing an Assessment: Data-Driven Personalized Learning” for more information.