Action Step and Orientation

A3. Use assessment data to determine students' specific instructional needs.

Lesson 3 focuses on how educators can use assessment data to determine students' instructional needs.

Part 1 of this lesson describes ways in which assessment data can be used to make decisions about intensive intervention instruction for individual students.

In Part 2, you will learn about ways in which assessment data can be used to make decisions about how to most efficiently use your resources to address the needs of multiple students in a small-group setting.

Part 3 describes ways in which assessment can be used to make decisions about specific instructional needs in whole-class settings.

To get started, download the Implementation Guide for this component and refer to the Action Step for this lesson. Review the Implementation Indicators for each level of implementation and note the Sample Evidence listed at the bottom of the chart.

Part 1—Using Assessment Data to Determine Students' Specific Instructional Needs

The process of identifying students at risk for reading difficulties is analogous to using blood pressure results to screen patients for heart disease. This medical "assessment" indicates that a patient is at risk if the results are beyond a certain range identified as healthy. The doctor must then identify and understand the root of the problem and prescribe a course of treatment. The blood pressure reading, or the screening assessment, is just the starting point.

The doctor must consider what steps to take next, depending on the severity of the risk. Lesson 2 of this module presents examples of decisions trees, which provide a way of determining risk and level of intervention based on the difference between the predetermined cut score and a student's score. For a student who scores close to the cut score, you may decide to monitor the student's progress for a short time to verify the need for more intensive instructional support. Likewise, the doctor may conduct additional tests after a short interval to confirm the high blood pressure issue.

Now consider the patient with a blood pressure number that is in the high-risk category. The doctor will likely want to intervene immediately. In order to create a treatment plan, the doctor must understand what kinds of issues can cause high blood pressure and try to determine which of those factors are true for that particular patient. The doctor might interview the patient to collect qualitative data about the patient's lifestyle and request specific tests to understand more about the patient's cardiac function. After analyzing this initial round of data, she may suggest a treatment plan that includes a change in the patient's diet and a specific medication. The doctor will typically schedule the patient to come into the office after a brief interval on this regimen to check blood pressure and possibly repeat other tests. This way, the doctor can monitor the patient's progress and see how well the patient's intervention is working to determine if the indicators of heart health are improving.

Action Step A3 focuses on the next step that occurs after struggling students have been identified by asking educators to use data to identify the specific needs students have and what intervention(s) will most likely help them get back on track for reaching grade-level literacy goals. There are several sources of data, which are explored below, that can guide you in this determination.

Using screeners to inform intervention instruction for individuals

Universal screening provides educators with data about every student. Many screeners are designed exclusively for identifying struggling students. Screeners that serve only this purpose can be seen to function like a thermometer does in healthcare settings. A thermometer identifies that a patient has a fever and will likely need further care. The thermometer cannot, however, determine what is causing the patient's fever. In the same way, many screeners can identify only that a student is struggling, but they cannot determine the specific causes for the academic deficit in the domain that was screened for.

There are some screeners, however, that do provide further information about students' specific instructional needs beyond simply identifying them as at risk. These screeners enable teachers to adjust their instruction to meet the exact needs of their students. For example, some commercially available screeners provide tools to analyze struggling students' reading difficulties, facilitate grouping, and plan intervention instruction. Tools like these can be an invaluable resource for teachers. To determine how the screener used on your campus functions, consult the manual and/or online guide, as it should provide specific guidance on this topic.

It is important to remember that assessment data is most valid when it is used only for the purpose the assessment was designed for, and it is less valid when used for other purposes. If the screener you use was not designed for identifying specific instructional needs, you will need to use additional data to try to understand the root of students' difficulties. For example, a reading comprehension assessment will tell you a student's reading comprehension level, but it will not tell you specifically if the cause for the student's struggling is decoding, fluency, or other issues. In that case, the screener is just the first step, and you will need to look at other assessment data to determine what intervention instruction to provide.

Using diagnostic data to pinpoint individuals' difficulties

Students who perform significantly below their grade-level peers will most likely need very intense support to help them close the gaps in their literacy development. Just as a doctor should do in treating the patient with a very high blood pressure reading, it is likely that your staff will need to conduct brief follow-up or additional testing for students who show significant risk for reading difficulties. A doctor would be negligent if she failed to conduct relevant tests to inform her treatment plan or prescribed medication based solely on the pharmaceutical samples she had on hand. Similarly, educators need to avoid materials-based or uninformed intervention plans, especially for those students most at risk.

Instead, you and your staff may need to dig a little deeper and attempt to understand the roots of a student's difficulties. This can be done through informal testing by a classroom teacher or with additional assessments completed by trained staff such as an interventionist or reading specialist. The results of all assessments should be communicated with teachers, paraprofessionals, and administrators. Schools that have established systems for communicating data on a regular basis are in the best position to support good instructional decision making and effective collaboration between classroom teachers and interventionists in helping struggling students close gaps.

Many times, specialists create reading clinic reports (McKenna & Dougherty Stahl, 2009) that summarize the assessments given and provide recommendations to practitioners. Follow-up testing should use multiple sources of data (such as oral reading, silent reading, word recognition, decoding) to identify students' reading strengths and needs. Follow-up testing should enable teachers or specialists to identify targeted goals and specific suggestions for intervention support. Most importantly, the evidence provided by follow-up testing should guide future practice.

Using progress monitoring data to inform next steps

How do we know, though, when an intervention is helping improve a student's reading skills? Progress monitoring data should be used throughout an intervention to evaluate the efficacy of the targeted instruction. These data can enable teachers to understand if the intervention is improving outcomes and if it is doing so quickly enough. After a specified time, if progress monitoring data and student performance indicate the student is making insufficient progress toward the targeted goals, it might be necessary to modify the instruction and implement a different, more intensive intervention. Progress monitoring is discussed in detail in Lesson A4—Monitoring student progress; it is relevant to this discussion, too, because the data from progress monitoring assessments help determine the student's ongoing instructional needs.

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TO LEARN MORE: To learn more about using assessment data to inform individualized intervention instruction, you may want to review the following sources:

Assessment for Reading Instruction: Second Edition by McKenna and Dougherty Stahl (2009) provides an excellent overview on using assessment data to guide reading instruction. There is also important information on how to create individualized Clinical Reading Reports and what information in these reports might be most useful for teachers.

Instructional Decision-making Procedures: Ensuring Appropriate Instruction for Struggling Students in Grades K–12 provides more information on the clinical teaching approach and the practical ways in which principals and school leaders can plan for and support using data to guide reading instruction.

The Data-Based Individualization (DBI) Training Series, produced by the National Center on Intensive Intervention at American Institutes for Research, provides several extensive trainings on ways in which educators can use assessment data to make individualized instructional decisions about classroom and intervention instruction.

The Response to Intervention Implementer Series Self-paced Learning Modules, from the Center on Response to Intervention at American Institutes for Research, also provide several extensive trainings on ways in which educators can use assessment data to make individualized instructional decisions about classroom and intervention instruction.

Part 2—Using Assessment Data to Inform Small-group Instruction

A doctor cannot focus on only her most severe cases; she must also tend to the patients with moderately high blood pressure, for example, to help them improve their health and avoid developing a more serious heart health issue. Likewise, schools must not limit their focus to students at the highest level of need. Action Step A3 asks you and your staff to determine the specific instructional needs at all levels.

For students whose data show a more moderate need, teachers can often use grouping to help differentiate instruction. Teachers can use assessment data to create small groups of students (3–5 students) who have similar targeted needs beyond the needs of the larger class. Then teachers can target those specific instructional needs in a small-group environment with more focused, structured, and intensive instruction. Using small, homogeneous groups for differentiation can enable teachers to provide explicit instruction on targeted skills, maximize opportunities for students to express what they know, and provide multiple opportunities for students to receive immediate and corrective feedback.

In an ideal situation, the membership of these groups would be fluid, continually changing as the topics of classroom instruction change. For example, if a 1st grade teacher had four students who fell below the target score on a middle-of-year (MOY) screener for letter-naming fluency, she might discuss this with the literacy coach, grade-level chair, and other instructional leaders and decide to spend ten minutes a day with these four students in a small-group setting for a few weeks, working on their letter-naming skills. She would be able to provide many opportunities for them to practice and receive individualized feedback in those ten minutes. After a specified period of time, the teacher would need to determine to what degree this instruction was helping each student close the skill gap and decide what next steps were indicated by conducting progress monitoring assessment and analyzing the results.

Many schools use small-group, intensive instruction when they identify more students in need of support than their intervention resources can serve; as described above, they use data to identify those students with less severe levels of need to receive differentiated support within the Tier I language arts classroom. Many teachers will need ongoing professional development to learn how to effectively balance whole-class instruction with the differentiated individualization that these identified students need.

However your school provides intervention instruction to students who need it, the assessment data for those students needs to be shared with all teachers who serve them. This includes mainstream Tier I classroom teachers as well as reading specialists and interventionists.

Part 3—Assessment Data to Inform Whole-class, Tier I Language Arts Instruction

The use of flexible, skill-based grouping can be especially powerful when small groups of students in a class are struggling to meet specific literacy targets. However, there are also times when almost all students in a class are struggling to meet a specific target. In this case, it is useful to adjust whole-class instruction.

Consider once again the healthcare analogy. Imagine if a doctor were to consistently see that 80% of her patients were coming in with high blood pressure. Her first step would probably be to verify that the data are valid by observing her staff take blood pressure readings to check that they are reliably administering the procedure and having the instruments they are using examined for accuracy. She might even interview patients to see if there is something about the environment where the blood pressure is being taken that might influence the validity of the results.

Once the doctor has ruled out possible errors to be sure that the data are valid and truly reflect the patients' actual blood pressure levels, she might ask herself if there are some factors in her town or region that are causing high blood pressure for such an unexpected percentage of her patients. It would seem that if she could influence these factors, she might not have to prescribe medicine for all of her patients. Perhaps a community-wide program that encouraged healthy eating and exercise might help everyone in the community and also reduce the high blood pressure of her patients. If implementing such a program were possible, the doctor might be able to reduce the number of individual interventions needed. In the same way, a classroom teacher might analyze his students' screener data and identify areas in which a large percentage of his students are at risk for not meeting year-end grade-level goals. He can then respond by adjusting classroom instruction to fit his students' needs.

Screeners can be powerful assessments for guiding Tier I instruction because they are given to all students, not just struggling ones. When given at the start of the school year, screeners can be a starting point to reliably understand students' literacy skills. From there, teachers can adjust Tier I classroom instruction to meet students where they are, focus time and resources on areas of need, and allocate less time to skills that students are doing well.

When teachers identify a skill gap in a large percentage of students, they may decide to adjust what they normally teach at a certain point in the year. Data might reveal that concepts or skills taught in the past should be retaught. For example, in a 3rd-grade class, a teacher may identify through screening data that 70% of her students are still struggling with decoding. Although teachers may not typically spend a lot of time explicitly teaching decoding skills in 3rd grade, this teacher may need to spend more time than she usually does with the entire class to reteach and practice using the six syllable types.

It also might mean that concepts that usually only get a cursory review are instead reviewed more intensely with a greater degree of explicitness and feedback. For example, after a MOY assessment, a 5th-grade teacher might identify that many of her students struggle with a few basic skills. Although in the past she had briefly reviewed these skills with her students, this year she might want to dig into the topics more deeply and distribute skill practice throughout future units. It is important to do this for foundational skills because students are expected to use and build on these skills to perform grade-level tasks.

There are many times, unfortunately, when most students are struggling with most of the skills. It is not possible to reteach everything and meet the curricular demands of the students' current grade level. In this case, it is necessary to identify what foundational skills students need most and, like a doctor performing triage, adjust instruction to meet the most critical needs. The language arts standards are meant to be taught recursively, allowing many opportunities to circle around and reinforce concepts not mastered by all. When the learning gaps are more widespread and this reteach-and-recycle approach is not sufficient, there is a need for a strategic approach beyond just the classroom teacher. Lesson A5—Evaluating overall literacy performance provides information about using data to evaluate at the program and school levels to make decisions about strengthening the entire system.

Tier I instruction can be adjusted to meet the needs of the majority of students who require further instruction in similar skills. Remember, however, that some students may need more than this, as discussed in Part 1 and Part 2. For example, a MOY screener may reveal that almost all students in the kindergarten class are struggling with a particular skill and are not hitting the target score. The teacher might find 5–7 minutes each day to explicitly teach and practice that skill with the entire class. However, the screener may also reveal that a few students are struggling far more than others. For these students, 5–7 minutes in whole-group settings may not be enough; these students might also need some more intense instruction in small-group settings, as discussed in Part 2. A few students may need individual intervention, as discussed in Part 1. In an RTI (response to intervention) model, all students get the differentiated Tier I instruction plus the level of intervention instruction that is indicated by the data.

At this time, it may be useful to complete a section of the Assessment Audit form. (See Lesson A1—Literacy assessment plan for more information about the form.) On the second page, the far left column says, "A3. To determine specific instructional needs for identified students." As you complete this column of the Assessment Audit, consider the following questions:

  • What screeners do you use to diagnose students' specific instructional needs?
  • What kinds of data do your screeners provide teachers? Can teachers validly determine specific instructional needs based on screener data?
  • What kinds of assessments are used to further determine the nature of students' reading difficulties? Are the results of these assessments shared with all teachers who interact with the students?
  • Are teachers aware of informal ways to assess and pinpoint students' reading difficulties?

The work that you and your team do in reviewing and enhancing your assessment plan can play a vital role in the success of the students at your school and in your district. Students may face exponentially increasing gaps if they go unnoticed or unaddressed. These gaps may include content area knowledge as well as literacy skills, and closing the widening gaps becomes more challenging over the years. Having an effective system for identifying struggling students and targeting instruction is critical to providing the intervention(s) that these students need to succeed in school and in the community.

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TO LEARN MORE: To learn more about using data to guide Tier I instruction, you may want to review the following source:

The downloadable practice guide Assisting Students Struggling with Reading: Response to Intervention (RtI) and Multi-Tier Intervention in the Primary Grades is an excellent resource available from the What Works Clearinghouse (WWC). The document identifies many of the research-based practices that teachers can use to assist all students who are struggling with reading. The WWC is a federally funded resource that educators can use to identify the practices that work for students and are supported by rigorous research.

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NEXT STEPS: Depending on your progress in using assessment data to determine students' specific instructional needs at your campus, you may want to consider the following next steps:

  • Identify and review the assessments and processes used to determine student needs once students are identified as at risk for reading difficulties.
  • Consult the testing manual to clarify the diagnostic capabilities of your screening assessments.
  • Identify who on your campus is responsible for conducting or coordinating these assessments.
  • Establish, review, or update the communication process used to share assessment data with all teachers who interact with students with reading difficulties.
  • Ensure that all teachers understand how to read, analyze, and use assessment data.
  • Ensure that all teachers understand how to use assessment data to differentiate instruction.


A3. Use assessment data to determine students' specific instructional needs.

With your site/campus-based leadership team, review your team’s self-assessed rating for Action Step A3 in the TSLP Implementation Status Ratings document and then respond to the four questions in the assignment.

TSLP Implementation Status Ratings K–5

In completing your assignment with your team, the following resources and information from this lesson’s content may be useful to you:

  • Refer to Part 1 for information about using assessment data to determine individual students' needs.
  • Refer to Part 2 for information about using assessment data to inform small-group instruction.
  • Refer to Part 3 for information about using assessment data to inform whole-class instruction.

Next Steps also contains suggestions that your campus may want to consider when you focus your efforts on this Action Step.

To record your responses, go to the Assignment template for this lesson and follow the instructions.


Archer, A. L., & Hughes, C. A. (2010). Explicit instruction: Effective and efficient teaching. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

Center on Response to Intervention at American Institutes for Research (2012). Response to intervention implementer series self-paced learning modules. Washington, D.C.: Author. Retrieved from

Fuchs, D., & Fuchs, L. S. (2011). Introduction to response to intervention: What, why, and how valid is it? Reading Research Quarterly, 41(1), 93–99.

Fletcher, J. M., & Vaughn, S. (2009). Response to intervention: Preventing and remediating academic difficulties. Child Development Perspectives, 3(1), 30–37. doi: 10.1111/j.1750-8606.2008.00072.x

Gersten, R., Compton, D., Conner, C. M., Dimino, J., Santoro, L., Linan-Thompson, S., & Tilly, W.D. (2009). Assisting students struggling with reading: Response to Intervention (RtI) and multi-tier intervention for reading in the primary grades. A practice guide. (NCEE 2009-4045). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Services, U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from

McKenna, M. C., & Dougherty Stahl, K. A. (2009). Assessment for reading instruction (2nd ed.). New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

National Center on Intensive Intervention at American Institutes for Research (2014). Data-based individualization (DBI) training series. Retrieved from

Rosenshine, B. (2012). Principles of instruction: Research-based strategies that all teachers should know. American Educator, 36(1), 12.