September is the time for diagnostic assessment. It is good to know what your students already know and don’t. But I wish the word “assessment” wasn’t attached to this term. I prefer thinking of diagnostics as “entry points into learning”. Sometimes we use diagnostics to find out what students DON’T KNOW. But it may serve us better to find out what they do know and can do. No matter what you are teaching, students bring some knowledge to the table. What you need to know is what learning each student already has about your area of study.

Here is some of my thinking about diagnostic assessments…or how to figure out the entry points into learning….

Because of the word ‘assessment’, we think it should look like a test. It doesn’t have to. In fact, asking students to do a “test” in the first weeks of school may be overwhelming. Plus, doing a “test” of things that you are pretty sure the students can’t do only tells you what you already know—they can’t do it. The kids feel lousy and you don’t know anything new.

Sometimes we give back these tests/assessments with a level on them. I think that might be disheartening for students. After all, if I was excited to learn about the new science unit but then wrote a test and got back a level 1, no amount of teacher convincing that this was “just” a diagnostic is going to make me feel better. If you do feel you need to give this type of assessment, you do not need to provide students with grades/level/feedback. Diagnostics are for you, the teacher.

If you want to discover what learning the student brings to the table, then you need to design a task that is open-ended. For example, if I want to find out if my students can add fractions, it would be better to give them a word problem where they can use any strategy they wish to figure out the answer than to give them 1/3 + 1/5 = ? or 27 – 9= ? where they may be tempted to use an algorithm. If I want to find out if my students can write in full sentences, I just need to ask them to write something; I don’t need to give them a worksheet on full sentences. If I want to find out which level book my students can read, just ask them to pick a just-right-book from a pile. If you provide each student with the same reading task all you will know is those than can read at that level and those that can’t. Open-ended tasks let you see what students can do; closed tasks only tell you if the student can or cannot do what you asked.

If you want to determine a student’s entry point into learning, you have to know your curriculum. You need to know what students would have learned in previous grades. You need to know the continuum of skills.

While you need to know what learning individual students bring to the table, not all diagnostic assessment needs to be done individually. Consider giving a group task. You can gather information about how students approach the task by observation. How students approach a task may give you more information than just having a final completed task that is incorrect. A final incorrect task only tells you that the student can’t do it but it gives you no information about why.

Ask your students. Particularly older students can just tell you what they find easy and what they find tricky, especially if you give them a checklist. In the older grades you can probably get a pretty good idea of your students’ reading levels simply by asking them to list the last three books they read recently. A student that can’t remember or doesn’t have any, is one you need to listen to read sooner as opposed to the student who lists 10 novels he read over the summer. You don’t need to do the same diagnostics for all students.

Don’t underestimate the value of interest and attitude surveys. Knowing that a student feels he or she is not good at math is very valuable information. Knowing that a student does not have a favourite book tells you a lot. Knowing that a student thinks science or history is boring because all you do is memorize gives you useful information. We know from research that a student’s confidence level in a subject is directionally proportional to their competence in that subject.

You won’t be able to figure it all out in one easy step. Think about what you want to know about your students. Give yourself some time to figure this out. Experiment with ways of recording this information in class profiles that will be useful for you. Experiment with a variety of tools.

Don’t be afraid of what you learn through a diagnostic assessment tool. Sometimes we conclude that our students are just “not ready” to learn our curriculum. Instead, look at what they do bring to the table and then determine the very next thing they need to learn to move forward. This is particularly important when writing IEPs. It really doesn’t matter if you don’t think they are ready—they are still in your class and you still have to teach them. Use your diagnostic to plan the student’s very next step, not to despair that they are not ready for your course.

Lots of times we give “diagnostic assessments” because we think we have to. If you don’t do anything meaningful with the “assessment” then don’t give it. If you don’t learn something new about your students that is going to change how you teach them then the assessment tool isn’t working for you.