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Universal screening is a popular RTI term. What does it mean? Screeners filter those students who are at desperate risk of failure unless they receive immediate, intensive supports. If it’s predictable, it’s preventable. We can predict who these students are—they scored in the lowest performance band on the state test; they scored in the 6th percentile on a norm-referenced test; they were suspended for 12 days last year. A strong RTI approach is predicated on the notion of prevention as opposed to the historical approach of waiting until a student fails and then launching a rescue mission. RTI does not rely on special education as the only intervention, but provides supports immediately upon the first hint of difficulty. All students are screened to identify any individuals who, despite a strong core instructional program (Tier 1), are still in danger of failure. To ensure that students do not fall farther and farther behind, students must have access to immediate help. When RTI is implemented well, all students undergo academic and behavior screening. Those determined to be at risk for experiencing significant difficulties receive targeted, evidence-based interventions as soon as is practical.

So here’s what we do:

We screen, first and foremost and perhaps only, to identify students most at-risk. How we hack screening? We would ask why we’re assessing all students 3 times a year. Because someone told us to? Because we read about it? We can make a somewhat compelling case for screening 3 times a year, but our recommendation would be lukewarm. If we screen to identify students most at-risk, we would only screen all students at the end of the year, to prepare proactive supports for next year. We would have a plan in place to screen students who are newly enrolling in our school and we would visit feeder schools to screen students who will be transitioning to a new school.

What would we use to screen? Do we need to buy a new and administer a new test? We recommend that schools use the loads of testing data that they already gather (much of it at the end of the year) to identify who is so far behind that they will simply not catch up in the absence of intensive Tier 3 support, provided as quickly as possible.

What could that look like in the area of reading? Most schools are using a three-times-year benchmark to establish students’ current levels of readiness. Most of these benchmarks are computer-based and adaptive and many are quite good. Screening is these instances is simple; establish an initial criteria (e.g., students scoring in the 30th Percentile or below or reading two or more grade levels behind) for the reading portion of the test. Students scoring below are highly likely to have a significant deficit in reading that requires immediate Tier 3 support (in addition to a highly differentiated and scaffolded set of Tier 1 supports).

But, what if those types of benchmark tests are not available. While a grade of F may not accurately identify why a student did not pass a subject area or class, an F should serve to immediately screen as a likely candidate for more intensive supports, probably in the areas of reading or behavioral skills such as self-regulation, executive functioning, organization, or time management. An F in reading in elementary grades, or an F in an English class in middle and high schools, or multiple Fs in any grade level should lead to us to ask questions about students’ reading skills. All grade levels and all subject areas require that a student read at or close to grade level to be successful, even when teacher teams provide scaffolded access to content.

Or, systematically gather teachers’ specific feedback on students’ significant reading needs. Teachers spend an entire year or course with a student. If a significant deficit in the foundational skill areas of reading, numeracy, writing, or behavior exists, then they student will need intensive Tier 3 interventions and supports at the very beginning of the next year. Period. They ought to already be receiving these supports, but whether they are or are not, students are “screened” to be a strong candidate of Tier 3 supports if their current year teacher identifies them as such at the conclusion of the year. No other documentation or testing should be required to get them on the “watch list.” We have used a table such as the one below, complete within Excel or Google Sheets and preloaded with student and teacher names.

End-of-Year or Grade-to-Grade Transition Guides
Student Name Former Teacher(s) Reading Concerns Reading Effective Strategies Numeracy Concerns Numeracy Effective Strategies Writing Concerns Writing Effective Strategies Behavior Concerns Behavior Effective Strategies

We do not foresee a situation in which schools need to purchase yet another test for the purposes of screening. Use the data that you have and systematically gather the expert feedback from this year’s teacher. Screening is a process, not a test. The reason we screen is to as-immediately-as-possible begin providing intensive supports to students most in-need. First, need to know why they are so significantly at-risk and determine their most immediate area of need.


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