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Making Sense of Terms Used in Early Reading Assessment

March 2020

Assessment Terms Used in Reading

As students learn to read, educators and parents want to know if they are on track to become successful readers. Assessments can help answer this question but a plethora of terms-formative, benchmark, screener, diagnostic, progress monitoring, and outcome-confuse educators and parents and often lead to over testing. The solution is a streamlined framework, where the purpose for each assessment is clearly defined.

A Streamlined Assessment System

In a recent infographic, the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Southeast laid out a streamlined assessment system for early reading assessment. The streamlined system contains four steps:

  • Screening: The purpose of screening is to identify the probability of risk or success in reading achievement.
  • Diagnosis: The purpose of diagnostic tasks is to identify the need for instructional support in specific skill areas.
  • Progress monitoring: The purpose of progress monitoring, also called interim or formative assessment, is to determine whether students are learning the skills taught and/or meeting benchmarks.
  • Summative: The purpose of summative or outcome assessment is to measure whether students are making significant gains or losses in reading performance.

Screening, diagnosis, and progress monitoring can be combined within one assessment system to streamline these steps. The screen can identify who is at risk of reading problems and needs diagnostic tasks to set instructional objectives. Progress monitoring can be administered several times across the school year to ascertain whether instructional goals are being met and growth towards outcome performance is occurring. The summative or outcome assessment can be a standardized reading achievement test based on national norms or a criterion-referenced test based on state standards.

What are Formative Assessments?

Where do formative assessments fit into this assessment system? As originally conceived, formatives reflected the learning progressions that students demonstrated as they acquired skill in a domain, such as literacy (Heritage, 2010). Teachers can informally assess whether children are learning what they have been taught and can diagnose, reteach, and assess progress across the year. In this sense, formatives consist of teacher observations, quizzes, or curriculum-based tests such as end-of-unit tests whose ratings, or scores can serve to inform classroom instruction.

However, the meaning of formatives has shifted with the emphasis on students being proficient on the state's standards-based test. For many educators, formatives have become synonymous with benchmark assessments that indicate whether children are proficient on state standards. For example, if a grade 1 reading standard is to decode words with inflectional endings, a benchmark assessment item might be to read the word jumped. Yet, just because the student correctly reads the word does not guarantee later proficiency on the benchmark test. First, typically more than 10 items are needed to ensure reliable scores. Second, item-level mastery does not ensure proficiency on the standard. Being able to read jumped does not mean that a child will be able to read stopped, created, or running. Knowledge of spelling rules, more complex sound-spelling patterns, and other inflectional endings is required to increase the probability of being proficient on the standard on the outcome assessment. Finally, scoring proficient or not on a benchmark test does not provide instructional guidance for students far below grade-level standards, as is often the case for English learner students or students with disabilities, or for students performing above grade level. Using formative assessments that can adapt to a wide ability range are best for those populations of students (Foorman, Espinosa, Jackson, & Wu, 2016). Thus, formative assessments best fit into the progress monitoring component of a streamlined system, if they tap the skills the teacher is teaching for the diverse ability range of students in the classroom.

The Importance of Valid Measures

A streamlined assessment system must be comprised of valid measures if it is to accurately predict reading proficiency. The constructs that predict reading success are well known (Castles, Rastle, & Nation, 2018): phonological awareness, letter-name and sound knowledge, efficient decoding and encoding, vocabulary and grammatical knowledge, and comprehension strategies. The instructional practices for teaching children these constructs are also well known (Foorman, Beyler, et al., 2016). The challenge in an assessment system is to cover these critical constructs well and with sufficient depth that they predict to the ever-increasing complexity of text used to measure reading comprehension.

The Leap from Understanding Terms to Effectively Implementing Early Reading Assessments

Effective implementation of an early reading assessment system requires “buy-in” from administrators and teachers. In addition, extensive professional development in how to administer the assessments and how to translate data to instruction is needed. Furthermore, district and school leaders must consider the resources available to intervene with students identified as at-risk of a reading problem. In some schools the majority of students may score below the 30th percentile on the screen and, therefore, be eligible for reading intervention beyond the small-group instructional support provided in the classroom. Such situations signal a clear mandate to provide more explicit and systematic reading instruction in the classroom to reduce the numbers of students needing pullout intervention. p>


  • Castles, A., Rastle, K., & Nation, K. (2018). Ending the reading wars: Reading acquisition from novice to expert. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 19(1), 5-51.
  • Foorman, B., Beyler, N., Borradaile, K., Coyne, M., Denton, C., Dimino, J., Furgeson, J., Hayes, L., Henke, J., Justice, L., Keating, B., Lewis, W., Sattar, S., Streke, A., Wagner, R., & Wissel, S. (2016). Foundational skills to support reading for understanding in kindergarten through 3rd grade (NCEE 2016-4008). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (NCEE), Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from
  • Foorman, B., Espinosa, A., Jackson, C., Wu, Y. (2016). Using computer-adaptive literacy assessments to monitor the progress of English language learner students. (REL 2016-149). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Southeast. Retrieved from
  • Heritage, M. (2010). Formative assessment: Making it happen in the classroom. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.