Elementary Changes: Universal Screening

In addition to the new schedule, the elementary schools are piloting a universal screening tool this spring with plans to implement universal screening next year.  These conversations can get quickly mired in jargon and acronyms.  I apologize ahead of time. 

The basic tenet of universal screening is simple.  We need a timely assessment of ALL students at every grade to determine who is reading at grade level, below grade level, and above grade level.  This same assessment needs to be given several times during the year so that we can determine if our instruction is resulting in progress.  At the end of the year, the universal screening tool allows us to measure which students made a year’s worth of progress – knowing that students who start below grade level actually have to make more than a year’s worth of growth in order to eventially be on grade level.  

If our instruction is not producing progress, then we should discuss making adjustments or interventions.  Interventions will be the topic of another post.

Now for the jargon and acronyms:

Universal screening is a critical component of a Response to Intervention (RtI) structure.  The screening can apply to reading and mathematics.  We are initially focusing on reading.  As stated, universal screening allows a district and school to place students in the most effective learning environment and to measure their growth during the year.

Screening all students is not new to Burlington.  Presently the district uses a diagnostic tool for reading called ” the developmental reading assessment” or DRA.  The DRA provides excellent information, but the DRA is time consuming to administer.  For instance, this year we did not have fall results completed until November.  A more effective universal screening tool needs to be efficiently administered so that the student data can be used to make instructional decisions in a more timely manner.

Our pilot involves an assessment developed by Curriculum Associates.  The tool is called the Diagnostic Online Reading Assessment (DORA).  According to the Curriculum Associates material, the DORA is a “research-based and highly valid criterion-referenced assessment that: 1) adapts to the level of difficulty based on student responses, 2) develops unique student profiles of performance level with instructional recommendations, 3) provides teachers with student and class reports in real time, and 4) aggregates site and district data.”

The DORA is web-based and will allow us to administer the assessment to full classes of students simultaneously.  In this way, we can have data available right at the start of the year.  Assessment data means little without the expertise of the teacher to create effective lessons.  Having universal screening data available and timely will allow our exceptional teachers to be more effective for students across the spectrum of reading proficiency.

There was a saying in Virginia from farmers who raise beef cattle that goes something like, weighing a cow more frequently does not help it gain weight.  In other words, testing students more often does not help them learn new skills.  All student assessments need to have a purpose.  The purpose of universal screening is to help teachers, grade level teams, schools, and the district adjust instruction so that it can be most effective for every child.

As Kame’enui and Simmons say, “Each and all – to teach ALL children to read, we must teach EACH child to read.”

2 thoughts on “Elementary Changes: Universal Screening

  1. Alan Wexelblat

    Is the implication of this that the teachers do not know which of their students are reading below/at/above grade level? So they need this assessment tool?

    I find that a startling statement. If it’s not true, then the question arises of who needs this assessment, and consequently to whom will the results of the assessment be revealed?

    Will parents have access to this information?

    How will this assessment be integrated with the report cards parents already receive, which includes information on the child’s reading abilities?

    What will be excised from the curriculum in order to make room for preparing, administering, and reviewing this assessment? Is there a perception that reading levels of Burlington students is sufficiently lagging that an additional assessment and subsequent intervention is required? What is the basis for that perception?

  2. burlingtonps Post author

    Thank you for your comment. There are lots of questions to answer. I think individual teachers know their students and their reading levels well. A universal screening tool will allow us to efficiently look at reading levels across various populations of students. Moreover, a universal screening tool will help us to measure growth. As stated in the post, our expectation for students who are behind in reading needs to be that their reading ability grows more than a year in a year’s time. Unless we start with this expectation we are conceding that these students will be behind their entire school career. Similarly, students who are above grade level readers also need to continue to make growth.

    The plans are to share the results of the assessment with grade level teams of teachers and parents. I am not sure how (or if) the information will be incorporated into the present report cards. I would welcome some suggestions.

    The students are being administered a reading assessment presently (DRA). We are replacing this assessment with a computer-based assessment that will provide us information more efficiently (DORA). If anything, I think we are freeing up time in the curriculum. We are piloting the assessment this spring to support or refute this statement.

    The basis for my thoughts are mentioned on the prior posting regarding elementary schedules. We have about 35% of our elementary students (district-wide) scoring in the needs improvement category on MCAS. While technically passing, I believe the number of students in the proficient and advanced categories in Burlington should be higher. Our referral rate for special education services is too high. We have lots of resources being used to assess whether students have an identifiable learning disability. Our “hit rate”, the students actually found to have an identifiable disability, is about 50% – too low. Universal screening will help us to create classrooms that are more targeted in how reading is taught.

    Research indicates that if student issues in reading can be addressed immediately (early intervention), there is a much better chance of improving reading performance. Reading level by third grade is highly correlated to future success in school and life. If I missed any particular question or answered unclearly, please contact me.


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