7 Ways to Ensure Reliable Universal Screening Data

By: Dr. Scott P. Ardoin, University of Georgia

Schools across the country are already starting to open their doors. Not long after the first bell rings, testing begins. There is much debate surrounding the quantity and administration of testing in public schools, particularly when it comes to state-mandated testing. Though these tests are not always well-received, test scores can affect the reputation of a school, its administration and its teachers. As a result, much attention is given to these tests before, during and after test administration.

Schools often send letters home to parents reminding them of the importance of a good night of sleep and a healthy breakfast before state-mandated tests. Students are reminded of the importance of state-mandated tests and doing well. Schools also go to great lengths to ensure that the testing environment is conducive to test-taking — making sure that all lights in the rooms are working well, hallways are quiet and tests are administered during times when students are likely to be most alert.

Unfortunately, rarely do schools place the same level of importance on the administration of another type of assessment: universal screening. Although screening outcomes are unlikely to hurt a school’s reputation, screening results can be used to help schools improve student outcomes across many types of assessments. Because universal screening measures are administered multiple times throughout the year, as opposed to only annually, data can be used to:

  1. Evaluate the effects of curriculum within grade levels and across schools;
  2. Examine whether certain groups of students (e.g., English learners) are making sufficient progress;
  3. Determine which interventions result in the greatest student gains and;
  4. Identify which individual students are in need of supplemental intervention.

Encouraging students to do their best and ensuring the testing environment is ideal for test-taking may actually be more important for screening considering the data are not simply employed as a snapshot of how students compare to a standard or to a normative sample. Because screening data are used to examine growth (thus a student’s performance in January is compared to his/her performance at the beginning of the year) it is important that all variables remain consistent. Failure to follow standardized procedures might result in data suggesting that students have actually regressed in their skills, when in reality the decrease in performance was due to how and when the test was given. Examples of such factors include:

  1. Students lacking motivation to do well;
  2. Students having difficulty attending to the tests due to a less than conducive testing environment and/or;
  3. Students using different strategies when taking tests due to different directions given prior to testing.

What Steps Can You Take to Improve Universal Screening? 
I once met with a set of school administrators who were concerned with decreases in performance across students who were being progress monitored. Following a bit of detective work I discovered that the school had recently changed its test administration procedures. At the beginning of the year, teachers would inform students of their previous scores and offer incentives for improving them. After some debate regarding the merit of this procedure, they stopped this practice. Although the reason for the change in this case may seem obvious, less subtle changes, such as different test administrators who choose to give different directions than specified by the test or fail to score student performance accurately, can make large differences in student data.

Given the importance of screening data to the individual student and collective group of students, it is essential that schools take screening assessments seriously. Listed below are seven steps you can take to increase the probability that students’ screening scores will accurately reflect their achievement level and learning progress across the academic year.

  1. Encourage students to do their best and explain how their performance will help teachers provide instruction that best meets their instructional needs. Celebrate group success with something as simple as publicly announcing which classroom made the greatest gains from the prior screening period.
  2. Let parents know when universal screening will occur and encourage them to help their children get adequate sleep the night before and provide a nutritious breakfast the morning of. When you send test scores to parents, thank them for their assistance in preparing their children for the tests. Let parents know how the data are being used for making instructional decisions at the individual and group levels. It is also good practice to share data with parents after universal screening takes place.
  3. Administrators should emphasize to their staff the importance of following strict protocol during test administration and scoring. Having teachers audio record sessions and allowing a second person to listen to a sample of the recording to check for accuracy and consistency in testing protocol and scoring can be of great value. Not only does this allow for performance feedback, but simply knowing one’s audio will be listened to can encourage adherence to protocol and scoring rules.
  4. Consistency is key. Ideally, the same person who administers universal screening in fall should administer universal screening in the winter and spring. Likewise, it is best to administer tests in the same location and at approximately the same time of day.
  5. Be prepared. Test administrators should be immediately prepared to administer a test when the student arrives. If tests are being administered via computers, each computer should be ready for the student to whom it is assigned. 
  6. Make sure there is minimal noise and good lightening in the test setting. Conducting assessments in locations where students are likely to be distracted can negatively impact student performance, especially when administering timed tests (e.g., Curriculum-Based Measures (CBM)). Remember, students take cues from the choices that adults make. Thus, if students notice that tests are being administered in noisy locations and/or teachers and staff are not being quiet near test settings, they are unlikely to take the testing seriously.
  7. Monitor test administration. Teachers should remain in the testing room during testing and actively walk around to monitor testing. Again, this will demonstrate to students the importance of the test. Should teachers leave to take a break during test administration, students may take this as a sign that the test is not important.

Get eight more tips for preparing for universal screening, plus a helpful checklist to make sure your planning is on track!


screening, state mandated tests, testing success, universal screening, Ask the Experts, assessment, Blog

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Dr. Scott P. Ardoin

Dr. Scott P. Ardoin

Dr. Ardoin's research interests include the application of principles of applied behavior analysis within classroom settings. He applies these principles not only to developing classroom and individual student behavioral interventions, but also to developing academic skill interventions and assessment materials. Much of his current research employs eye-tracking procedures in order to observe the reading behaviors engaged in by students when reading and how those behaviors are altered as a function of intervention. In addition to sharing this knowledge base with graduate students in school psychology through classwork and collaborative research, Dr. Ardoin teaches courses that make up the course sequence offered by UGA and approved by the Behavior Analyst Certification Board toward BACB eligibility requirements.