The push for diagnostic testing

Suzannah Herrmann, Ph.D.

Ohio is in the midst of a debate about how best to use its student assessments and ever- increasing amounts of student-achievement data to improve student performance. The data is used by the state for accountability purposes, but how can this data also be used to improve teaching and learning in all schools?

We know from high-performing schools and high-performing teachers that the effective use of data is one of the keys to consistently improving student achievement (see here). Over the past decade, Ohio has made solid steps to assess students in reading and math by requiring students to be tested in grades three through eight, as well as pass the Ohio Graduation Test. To supplement this achievement testing, the state also requires diagnostic testing for kindergarten through second grade in reading, math, and writing. For grade three, the state requires all schools designated in "improvement status" to offer writing diagnostic tests. Schools that do not meet federal AYP requirements must administer state-developed diagnostic tests. These diagnostic-testing efforts are supplemented by Project SOAR, a pilot project led by Battelle for Kids (see here). Developed in 2001-02, Project SOAR is currently working in 92 Ohio school districts.

Diagnostic testing refers to using testing tools and achievement data to inform teaching so as to gear it toward the actual learning needs of students. Diagnostic testing can be used to focus on areas involving students with special needs (called Response to Intervention, see here), or it can be used to inform and guide general classroom instruction. To maximize the benefits of diagnostic testing in Ohio, special attention has to be paid to training and test selection.

The Ohio Department of Education launched formal teacher training to accompany the use of diagnostic tests. Additional supports can be found on its website along with details about a train-the-trainer module (see here). Teachers may also follow-up with additional real-time online training opportunities. Project SOAR also provides professional development reaching out to district and school administrators (see here). Battelle also offers TCAP (Teachers Connecting Achievement and Progress) to districts participating in SOAR, which helps schools use value-added data for professional-development efforts.

Still, much work in teacher training remains before all teachers in Ohio are comfortable with diagnostic testing and data-driven instruction. This high-quality teacher training can have several features (see here). One feature is getting teachers involved in "reform type" activities such as networking, study groups, and mentoring. It also means having teachers participate as a school or in grade or department teams to learn about diagnostic testing and how to use the data to improve student learning. The training should also be aligned to schools plans, goals, and state standards. It also gets teachers to apply what they have learned to their classrooms. Such high-quality training applies to current teachers through continuous professional development but can also direct new teacher professional development.

In Ohio, diagnostic tests have been developed for grades K-2 and these tests are aligned to state academic content standards. However, if schools have met annual yearly progress requirements, then schools have the option to select the tests they use for diagnostics. Selecting a valid and reliable test can take time, technical expertise, and resources, but it is surely worth the effort for a school to do this in order to better target instruction to the needs of students. One example of a test that schools can use is the Group Reading Diagnostic Assessment (GRADE) (see here), a norm-referenced reading test that spans from pre-kindergarten through high school. Measuring Academic Progress (MAP) is another battery of diagnostic tests that help measure student progress in reading, mathematics, and language arts (see here).

Implementing diagnostic testing requires ongoing and high-quality professional development. But it is an investment well worth making, especially for children who are furthest behind. While there will be inevitable challenges to implementing diagnostic testing statewide, it holds promise in providing real benefits. Individual student progress monitored over time enables teachers to differentiate instruction to student need. The current state assessment system helps in this effort, but to maximize impact it needs to be supplemented.

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