In education, a universal screener is an assessment that is short, easy to administer, and only tests high-level critical skills and concepts. Typically, K-12 schools use universal screeners in Response to Instruction (RTI ) programs. As part of an 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. Once teachers determine which students are struggling or at risk, 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.

Universal screeners use a single-cut score.  For example, “above 75%” means the student good to go.  “Below” means the student needs help.  Ideally, the screener helps teachers realize that a particular student is struggling with grade-level content before five or six weeks have elapsed in a school year.  A universal screener flags students early so that they can receive extra help right away. Under an RTI model, at-risk students are then put into a group or individual short-term intervention.  They are initially diagnosed and a personalized learning path is prescribed.  Some students might be tested further to determine if they qualify for special education services.

Today, educators can also use a universal diagnostic rather than a universal screener. The real benefit of the universal diagnostic is that It can diagnose why certain students are struggling and pinpoint learning gaps.  For this reason, more and more district administrators are choosing to implement universal diagnostics over universal screeners.  Doing a universal diagnostic addresses students who may be marginally at-risk by providing a roadmap for remediation that can be implemented in the regular class with support.  It also addresses a deeper need in schools with a high percentage of students who are performing below grade level. For example,  the learning loss caused by COVID-19 will disrupt many RTI assumptions. A traditional RtI model of reform works well when only 10-15% of your students need pull-out services. But when 50-60% of students are at risk, you cannot pull all of these students out of class.  Some intervention needs to be provided within the core general-ed classroom.  Real-time diagnostic data reports can help students realize their own gaps and provide teachers with data for small group and individualized instruction.

The power of a universal diagnostic is that it identifies learning strengths and gaps for all students. 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.

Take a look at “Choosing an Assessment: Data-Driven Personalized Learning” for more information.

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