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3.1 Assessment Within a Comprehensive Literacy Program

Assessment is a process used to gather information about students’ learning. An assessment may be a screening, progress monitoring, a diagnostic evaluation, or an outcome measure.  While the primary purpose of assessment is to gather data, it is important to remember that the data will be used to plan, and adjust as needed, classroom instruction and any subsequent intervention. All assessment practices should be evidence-based and embedded in a multi-tiered system of supports.

Assessment is an integral part of any literacy program. Assessment practices should be comprehensive systemic and should range from universal screening for risk of reading difficulties to specific diagnostic assessments for reading difficulties, including dyslexia. The varied types of assessments used within a comprehensive approach to literacy programming each have a specific purpose:

  • Universal screening is used to determine a student’s risk for reading difficulties and the need for intervention. A universal screening applies to all students. (See Universal Screening later in this chapter.)
  • Progress monitoring is used to determine whether progress following instruction is adequate or whether more intensive or different intervention is required. (See Progress Monitoring later in this chapter.)
  • Diagnostic evaluation is used to identify a student’s learning strengths and weakness and the underlying root cause of any academic difficulties. The information from this type of assessment can be used to further refine intervention. In some instances, a comprehensive diagnostic evaluation is essential in determining whether the profile fits the definition of a learning disorder and can provide a diagnosis or the identification of a specific disability. (See Diagnostic Evaluation later in this chapter.)

Comprehensive literacy programs also include summative assessment. A summative assessment looks at instructional outcomes and often provides a “big picture” of instruction. Summative and outcome measures can help in identifying positive and concerning trends about how the comprehensive or systemic approach to literacy instruction is meeting the needs of all students, as well as specific subsets of students with identified risk.

Colorado’s Reading to Ensure Academic Development Act requires universal screening for all students in Kindergarten through the third grade. The READ Act also details the required progress monitoring and the specific monitoring intervals at various levels of risk for reading failure. The legislated use of diagnostic assessment to inform intervention, as detailed in the READ Act, is in keeping with the use of a multi-tiered system of supports, which is foundational to this important early literacy legislation.

A more in-depth look at each category of assessment within the context of comprehensive literacy programming and Colorado’s READ Act is offered below:

Universal Screening

The following summary is taken from the International Dyslexia Association’s fact sheet on universal screening. We thank the IDA for sharing their resources.

Since research has shown that the rapid growth of the brain and its response to instruction in the primary years make the time from birth to age 8 a critical period for literacy development (Nevills & Wolfe, 2009), it is essential to identify the instructional needs of struggling students as soon as possible. It is imperative to “catch them before they fall” (Torgesen, 1998). The vast majority of children who receive appropriately designed instruction and intervention will achieve grade-level reading if they receive help by first grade (Vellutino, Scanlon, Sipay, Small Pratt, Chen & Denckla, 1996). Psychological and clinical implications of poor reading development can be prevented or minimized if we identify and intervene as early as possible.

What is a screening?

Screening measures, by definition, are typically brief assessments of a particular skill or ability that is highly predictive of a later outcome. Screening measures are designed to quickly sort students into one of two groups: those who require intervention and those who do not. A screening measure needs to focus on specific skills that are highly correlated with broader measures of reading achievement, resulting in a highly accurate sorting of students.

Universal screening tools have the following characteristics:

  • Quick and targeted assessments of discrete skills that indicate whether students are at risk and/or are making adequate progress in reading achievement;
  • Alternate equivalent forms so they can be administered three or four times a year;
  • Standardized directions for administration and scoring; and
  • Established reliability and validity standards.

Screening Administration

A screening instrument needs to be quickly and easily administered. Screening can occur as early as preschool but no later than kindergarten and at least three times a year through third grade. It is imperative for screening to occur for all children, not just the ones at risk or who have already been determined to have reading failure. Students who are English Language Learners or speak in a different dialect should be included in this assessment. (See Chapter 7 - Special Populations for considerations for special populations, including English Language Learners.)

Teacher input on a child’s phonological, linguistic and academic performance is also essential. Teachers can complete screening tools that require their rating of a child’s abilities on a scale to measure risk of reading disability.

What are typical screening measures by grade level?

Though a quick assessment, a screening battery should include key domains, identified as predictors of future reading performance.


Research indicates that kindergarten screening measures are most successful when they include assessment of the following areas (Catts et al., 2015; Jenkins & Johnson, 2008):

  • phonological awareness, including phoneme segmentation, blending, onset and rime;
  • rapid automatic naming, including letter-naming fluency;
  • letter-sound association;
  • phonological memory, including nonword repetition; and
  • oral expressive and receptive language, including vocabulary, syntax and comprehension. These should also be considered since oral language development can be predictive of later reading outcomes.

First Grade

Research indicates first-grade screening measures are most successful when they include assessment of the following areas (Compton, et al., 2010; Jenkins & Johnson, 2008):

  • phoneme awareness, specifically phoneme segmentation, blending, and manipulation tasks;
  • letter naming fluency; letter-sound association;
  • phonological memory, including nonword repetition;
  • oral vocabulary; and
  • word recognition fluency (i.e., accuracy and rate).

The Center on Response to Intervention's screening briefs suggest that:

  • oral reading fluency should be added by the mid-first grade; and
  • oral expressive and receptive language (including vocabulary, syntax and comprehension) should also be considered since oral language development can be predictive of later reading outcomes.

Second and Third Grade

The Center on Response to Intervention’s screening briefs indicate that in second grade, screening assessment should include:

  • word identification, including real and nonsense words;
  • oral reading fluency;
  • reading comprehension; and
  • consideration of oral expressive and receptive language (including vocabulary, syntax and comprehension) since oral language development can be predictive of later reading outcomes.

The Colorado READ Act requires universal screening for all students in grades K-3. On CDE’s READ Interim Assessments webpage, Colorado has identified seven screening tools that can be utilized in this process. It is important to know which discrete skills are measured by the READ Act screener selected by the district and/or school. 

The role of universal screening to identify students in the primary grades who are in need of reading intervention has been widely studied. The old saying “Just wait, and they will catch up” does not hold up to all the empirical data and support for providing early intervention for struggling readers. Educators need to be well versed in the evidence-based methods that identify the risk for reading difficulty, and they need to make good decisions that provide appropriate educational interventions for their students who may be struggling. These decisions need to be informed by data gathered as a result of efficient assessments and progress monitoring that are accomplished in a regular, timely manner. It is critical that educators understand the importance of these factors in universal screening and early intervention to ensure that all students have the best opportunities to develop adequate literacy skills.

Progress Monitoring

Data from universal screenings should be used to make informed decisions about evidence-based interventions and the progress monitoring that should follow. Interventions should address the needs of the student, as identified by the screening process. Progress monitoring is then done to determine whether progress is adequate or whether more (or different) intervention is required.

Progress should be monitored frequently to determine the student’s response to the chosen intervention and rate of improvement. The IES Practice Guide for Assisting Students Struggling with Reading: Response to Intervention (RtI) and Multi-Tier Intervention in the Primary Grades (Gersten et al., 2008) states that progress can be monitored weekly, but should be monitored no fewer times than once a month. Colorado’s READ Act requires that the universal screening measures on the CDE list of vetted interim assessments (screeners) also include progress monitoring probes and procedures.

Diagnostic Testing and Evaluation

There is no one test or assessment tool that measures all reading skills. Different assessments measure different discrete skills. Ideally, students found to be at risk following general screening should be administered multiple diagnostic measures to ensure that all identified skills have been assessed at the appropriate grade level. This type of diagnostic testing serves to further inform the focus, time and intensity of small group intervention.

In many instances, the terms “diagnostic testing” and “diagnostic evaluation” are not synonymous. Diagnostic testing that is completed to inform the design of intervention is often less comprehensive than a diagnostic evaluation that is completed to diagnose the cause of a student’s learning difficulties. According to the IDA’s Dyslexia Assessment Fact Sheet (Lowell, Felton, & Hooks, 2014), a formal clinical evaluation, sometimes referred to as a diagnostic evaluation, is necessary to determine a diagnosis of dyslexia if the student continues to struggle with literacy skills despite high-quality instruction using a Response to Intervention (RtI) approach (See Sections 3.3, 3.4 and 8.3). Areas to be assessed, in depth, by a team of individuals include the following: phonological awareness; phonological or language-based memory; rapid automatic naming; receptive vocabulary; phonics skills; decoding/encoding real and pseudo-words; oral reading fluency; and writing at the sentence and paragraph level. Evaluations are completed by trained specialists, whose titles may vary depending on whether the evaluation is completed in a school or private setting (e.g., clinical and educational psychologists and neuropsychologists; speech and language pathologists; or education specialists/diagnosticians with training in assessment).

The specific diagnostic evaluation process for the identification/diagnosis of dyslexia is detailed in Section 3.3 Identifying Dyslexia.