How will I know before it’s too late? Screening in early grades

By Allison Gruner Gandhi | January 03, 2019

A main goal of multi-tiered system of supports (MTSS) is to identify and intervene early with students who are struggling. But how do we know if a struggling student really needs intervention? If you have experience teaching very young children, you know that difficulties mastering foundational skills like decoding and number sense are typical. For some students, learning to read or perform basic mathematical operations just takes a bit longer than for others, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that they have a disability or will require supplemental intervention. So, how do we know which students need intervention and which do not? Should we wait until students are older before assessing risk? No! Universal screening in the early grades is critical.

What is universal screening?
Universal screening is one of the essential components of MTSS. It is a systematic process for identifying, or predicting, which students may be at risk for poor learning outcomes. To conduct universal screening, schools administer brief (10 minutes or less), validated assessments to all students in a grade level, at least annually and ideally two or three times a year. A team of staff will analyze the screening data, and use a consistent cut-point to identify students who are at risk and may need further intervention. It is often useful to have clear protocols to guide the team in making quick and consistent decisions with screening data. However, it is also important to remember that screening will never be 100% accurate; you should be prepared to confirm your initial screening results using other sources of data. Overall, a high-quality universal screening system should be accurate and efficient.

What kinds of assessments can be used for screening?
Universal screening assessments should be brief, reliable and valid. Most importantly, screening assessments must demonstrate classification accuracy for predicting learning or behavioral outcomes. In other words, the assessment should be able to accurately identify who could be at risk and not at risk. When choosing a universal screening tool, you will want to select one that has demonstrated classification accuracy for the specific outcome you are interested in. The screening tools chart, hosted by the National Center for Intensive Intervention, publishes ratings on the classification accuracy and other technical aspects of commonly used screening assessments. If you are looking to purchase a screening tool or simply want to know more about the technical adequacy for the screening tool they are currently using, this chart is a helpful source of information. Not only does it provide technical information, it also provides information on administration and resource requirements. It is important to choose a tool that is technically adequate but also aligns well with the needs and capacity of your staff to administer it. Many screening tools are embedded in data systems that also include progress monitoring tools. For efficiency purposes, you may want to select a data system that can be used for both purposes.

Will screening give me accurate results?
It is important to remember that screeners can only predict, not diagnose, academic difficulty. Your screening data is likely to include some “false positives”—students that the screener identifies as at risk but in fact don’t need intervention—and some “false negatives”—students that the screener does not identify as at-risk but in fact do need intervention. To improve your universal screening system, you may consider looking at other sources of data to minimize your chances of false positives and negatives. For example, experts have suggested a two-stage screening process that uses progress monitoring data for a short period of time after screening to increase overall accuracy. And, to ensure that all students are “caught”, administering the screener three times a year is important.

What do I do with my screening data?
Results from universal screening assessments will tell you which students fall below a pre-determined cut-point and are therefore considered “at-risk.” These students are good candidates to receive standardized interventions at Tier 2 within your MTSS. For some students with very low screening scores, they may be good candidates to begin receiving individualized intervention at Tier 3 within your MTSS. Finally, in addition to helping you identify students in need of more support, screening data can help you make decisions about resource allocation, and whether you need to make adjustments to your core curriculum.

Accurate universal screening sets the foundation for a successful MTSS. It will help you identify students who could benefit from Tier 2 intervention. Schools with strong universal screening systems in place have staff who are data-savvy, efficient and effective teaming procedures, and high-quality data systems and tools– all ingredients for a well-functioning MTSS!

Tips for Success!

  • Make sure you are using an assessment validated for screening! It can be tempting to use data like quizzes, homework assignments, diagnostic assessments or even Lexile levels for text passages that students are reading to identify those who need extra help, but these types of data are not screeners. It is important to use an assessment that has been designed for use as a screener. Check out the NCII Academic Screening Tools Chart to identify a valid screener.
  • Be prepared to address false positives. No screening instrument will predict academic difficulty with perfect accuracy. Some students identified by your screener as at risk may in fact not need intervention. Using additional data sources to better understand your students’ needs may be necessary, and helpful in creating a more efficient universal screening system.
  • Pay attention to really low screening scores. In some cases, children with the weakest initial skills are likely to have better outcomes if they bypass Tier 2 intervention and move directly into intensive intervention, or Tier 3. Universal screening can help identify these children.
  • Ensure fidelity to the screening data collection process. Valid and reliable data are necessary for making accurate decisions about students are at-risk for poor learning outcomes. Check out our brief on Ensuring Fidelity of Assessment and Data Entry Procedures for some tips.
Allison Gandhi

About the Author

Allison Gruner Gandhi is a Managing Researcher and the Director of the Special Education Practice Area at American Institutes for Research. Dr. Gandhi is an expert in the implementation of multi-tiered systems of support, including evidence-based assessments and interventions. Learn more

Contact Dr Gandhi at agandhi@air.org and learn more about the services that AIR has to support MTSS implementation, here