May 26, 2022

By Dr. Sarah Brown, Senior Director of MTSS Solutions

As educators, we know that many of our students are struggling. But waiting for a referral from teachers or parents before providing the needed support can be detrimental to both learning and social outcomes—and referrals aren’t able to predict learning gaps.

Data is critical to helping our students succeed.

Universal screening provides the data educators need to predict gaps in learning in individual students, classrooms, and grade levels. It also allows for early access to intervention services that can help students find success both inside and outside of the classroom.

In this blog, I’ll discuss universal screening, how it benefits both students and educators, and where to find the tools you need to streamline the universal screening process.

What is universal screening in education?

Universal screening, by definition, is the process of collecting valid and reliable data multiple times a year with all students. Schools utilize universal screening for two primary reasons:

First, universal screening helps us to identify students who may be at risk for poor learning outcomes. This is different from the more traditional approach of using a teacher or parental referral process for identifying these students. Universal screening data allow us to recognize students earlier and prevent large gaps in learning. We can provide extra practice and additional, intentional instruction right away, when the learning gaps are still small, to prevent larger learning gaps later.

Second, universal screening helps us to identify needs within universal tier (or Tier 1) instruction. With data for all students in a grade level, we can easily determine whether the number of students in need of intervention outweighs our available resources for providing it. We can then provide whole group intervention and save those more intensive intervention resources for students who most need them.

We are also able to meet the needs of all students in the grade who need some additional practice with a skill we had assumed they had previously learned. Whole group intervention is an effective way to provide immediate help for struggling students.

While we may be tackling larger Tier 1 needs through curriculum adoption, alignment, or other approaches, we don’t have to wait until those things are implemented to impact students and facilitate immediate growth and improvement.

teacher helping students

3 areas of universal screening in education

The data collected during universal screening helps to identify students who are struggling, allowing educators to intervene and create support in their instruction where necessary. Universal screening can be especially useful in three key areas:

  1. Reading
  2. Math
  3. Social-emotional behavior

Let’s explore each area in detail.

#1: Universal screening for reading

Utilizing universal screening for reading helps students to become strong readers. This form of screening allows educators to assess the progress of their students in three main areas:

  1. Reading fluency: This is often measured through a one-minute timed oral reading, commonly called R-CBM, that measures the number of words read per minute. By measuring reading fluency, educators are able to identify where they need to dig deeper in student instruction.
  2. Reading comprehension: Comprehension is often assessed via a cloze passage (also referred to as DAZE or MAZE), where a set of choices is provided for every seventh word. During this timed assessment, students are asked to select the word that makes the most sense in the passage. They work to complete as much as they can within the time limit, with the entire assessment generally lasting three minutes.
  3. Early literacy skills assessments: These focus on letter identification, letter sounds, blending, and decoding nonsense words.

#2: Universal screening for math

When it comes to universal screening, math tends to be a little trickier and more time intensive than reading. This is because there are so many discrete math skills to be assessed. While many of the skills a student needs to acquire for success in reading overlap and build upon each other, some of the necessary math skills are separate and unrelated.

Most universal screeners break math skills down into two broad categories:

  1. Computational fluency: A student’s ability to fluently add, subtract, multiply, and divide is the core of elementary-level math, so it is essential that students are able to proficiently perform these calculations.

    For lower-grade students, computational fluency assessments focus on the knowledge of basic skills and often use timed formats to assess adding and subtracting basic facts. Upper-grades add in the assessment of multiplication and division to determine whether students have developed automaticity with these core skills.

    Using a timed assessment of basic computational skills can be beneficial in discovering students who haven’t memorized core facts, leaving them with fewer mental resources to devote to higher-level math skills and problem-solving.
  1. Applied math skills: This is where the other areas of math come into play, with students bouncing around between topics to solve basic problems. For example, the first question might involve measurement and how to read a ruler, while the second has students using place value skills to break down numbers.

    Applied math skills assessments are timed but allow a greater amount of working time for students to complete each problem. It’s important to note that the assessment of applied math skills isn’t focused on solving word problems. Rather, it’s based on the ability to perform basic math skills through a variety of topics.

#3: Universal screening of social-emotional behavior

Many researchers have pointed out that students’ success involves more than academics. To achieve the highest levels of success in their education, students should also be competent in social-emotional behavior.

Social-emotional fluency means students are adept in the following skills:

  • Self-awareness
  • Social awareness
  • Self-management
  • Relationship skills
  • Responsible decision making
  • Motivation
  • Academic achievement

In contrast, students should not be:

  • Aggressive
  • Noncompliant
  • Disruptive
  • Worrisome or fearful
  • Withdrawn or avoidant

Universal screening for social-emotional behavior is done by the teacher and usually takes between one and three minutes per student. When it is completed three times a year, this form of screening allows educators to more easily identify the students in need of social-emotional intervention early on.

Supporting more effective screening

Discover Renaissance’s universal screening tools for reading, math, and social-emotional behavior.

What is the importance of universal screening for students?

Universal screening is used to identify the needs of all students and ensure they have the resources necessary to best help them learn, grow, and succeed in their education. With universal screening, educators can identify both academic and social-emotional behavior gaps in their students and get the data they need to begin early intervention.

For example, a student struggling academically might:

  • Be falling behind in classwork
  • Have low grades
  • Perform below expectations in reading, math, or writing

A student who struggles with social-emotional learning might:

  • Be impulsive
  • Have difficulty problem-solving
  • Struggle with managing their emotions
  • Have a hard time making friends

Using universal screening can help educators intervene as soon as possible, creating better success for both the student’s academic career and social-emotional skills.

Why is universal screening necessary for all students?

Often, parents and guardians are curious about why a school is collecting screening data for their child.

Teachers can make universal screening easily understandable by comparing it to a well-child checkup. Parents may take their child to a pediatrician to make sure their rate of physical growth is on track and that they’re hitting all the developmentally appropriate milestones.

Similarly, teachers universally screen students in reading, math, and social-emotional behavior to ensure that the child is making enough growth throughout the school year to achieve their learning goals and be ready to advance to the next grade or skill level.

Universal screening also provides critical data to allow teachers to make changes to instruction before smaller gaps in learning become larger and more difficult to correct. Additionally, screening helps educators to determine when high-achieving students may need additional acceleration to support their continued growth.

Finally, screening allows parents to see how their child compares to other students at the same grade level and provides information about whether their child is on track to meet grade-level goals.

What is the importance of universal screening for schools?

For educators, universal screening provides an equitable education to all students. It helps schools to:

  • Determine the grade levels in which less-than-needed growth has occurred
  • Identify students who are at risk of not meeting grade-level standards
  • Identify students who exceed standards and may need additional acceleration
  • Prioritize instructional coaching and intervention resources

When students and educators are living through difficult times for learning, such as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the use of universal screening is even more critical. Screening allows districts to identify when instruction should be intensified for all students and when to allocate instructional coaches, interventionists, and other resources who can intensify instruction for all or specific students.

If universal screening identifies a gap in Tier 1 instruction, schools can implement group remediation and save small-group intervention for students with higher needs.

teacher helping students on tablet

3 critical times to utilize universal screening

Universal screening can be conducted between one and three times per school year, but many schools choose to conduct universal screening in the fall, winter, and spring.

#1: Fall

Fall is the beginning of the school year and is a great time to identify which students are performing at grade level and which students are struggling and may need intervention.

At the kindergarten level, fall screening supports educators by identifying those students who may need more intentional opportunities to learn and practice critical early learning skills to ensure they are on track to meet essential learning goals.

#2: Winter

Halfway through the school year, universal screening should be conducted again.

This time, the data will show you if the instruction and intervention provided thus far have had the expected impact. At this point in the year, schools examine fall-to-winter growth for students, grade levels, and schools to allow time to make changes to improve learning trajectories for the rest of the year.

#3: Spring

At the end of the school year, universal screening should be conducted one final time.

The spring screening identifies the level of student performance at the end of the year. But more importantly, this screening can identify the students who could benefit from summer instruction or early intervention at the start of the following school year.

It also allows schools to plan for Tier 1 improvement needs for the following fall by identifying the grade levels with the highest needs.

What can happen if universal screening is not in place?

What if a school chooses not to implement universal screening? Educators will likely have to work harder to ensure students have everything they need to be successful.

How so?

Without universal screening, the system becomes reactive instead of proactive. Rather than identifying struggling students early on, schools become dependent on teachers or family members to identify struggling students and refer them for additional support. This is a poor use of both time and resources.

Even more, the gaps in skills or achievement will continue to become larger, making them more difficult to remediate in the future.

Universal screening is beneficial to both the school and the students. Schools save time and resources while ensuring that no students are left behind, and instruction can be modified as needed.

How Renaissance provides the tools educators need to streamline the universal screening process

To sum up, universal screening has many benefits and is a critical component in helping students to become academically successful and socially and emotionally competent.

With universal screening in place, educators can more easily ensure that:

  • Tier 1 needs are identified
  • Struggling students get the help they need early on
  • Necessary instructional modifications are implemented

Renaissance’s valid and reliable assessments help educators identify their students’ academic and social-emotional behavior needs faster, align the right interventions at the right time, and measure whether those interventions are helping students to catch up—all in one easy-to-use platform.

We invite you to explore FastBridge and Star Assessments for reading and math, as well as SAEBRS for social-emotional behavior screening. You can also reach out to connect with an expert to discuss your district’s specific challenges and opportunities related to universal screening.

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