What is diagnostic assessment?

In September 2012, the issue was explained to the Standing Committee on Social Policy by Claire Laughlin, who worked as a teacher for 30 years as well as the coordinator of special education in the York Catholic District School Board.

This is how she describes diagnostic assessment. 

Testimony of Ms. Claire Laughlin to the Standing Committee on Social Policy – 2012-Sept-05 – Bill 115, Putting Students First Act, 2012 (Hansard Transcript)

Claire Laughlin: Let’s consider this example: a grade 1 class of 20 students. At the start of the school year, the grade 1 teacher would expect that a few students may already have begun to read. Many others are starting to indicate some interest in words around them. They can for sure read McDonald’s, the ice cream store and probably Nintendo, while others, due to background experience, maturation, age, oral language level, may be indicating few, if any, beginning reading behaviours.

In the first few days and weeks of the school year, time will be spent teaching these students, engaging them in a variety of activities. Some they can do with ease, and others will be more challenging. The grade 1 teacher will also have reviewed information from previous kindergarten report cards. As the teacher engages in these activities and makes his or her own observation, they gather insight into each student’s learning, and plan the next steps for instruction.

However, the board requires that the teachers do a diagnostic reading assessment on every student prior to Thanksgiving. Given the children’s age and relatively short attention span, this will be done individually, or perhaps with a few students if they are at the point of beginning to read. This now puts teaching and the students’ learning on hold for days. What will other six-year-olds do while assessment is undertaken for all 20 students? They are able to do little independently. They need to be engaged, therefore, in activities familiar to them so they can be successful and engaged while the teacher has a suitable amount of time for testing.

Of course, the more a student struggles or is not yet ready to read, the longer the time spent trying to administer the test. By the time all 20 students have been assessed, the students will have completed lots of activities familiar to them in order for the teacher to be free to give proper attention to the student being assessed. However, any new teaching and learning will be limited, because time is so scarce.

The grade 1 teacher is likely to have to repeat this three or more times this year. It is this situation—duplication of effort and inability to use the information that the teacher has already gathered to inform instruction and planning—that is the heart of the issue. At the end of the assessment, most, if not all, of the results were as expected, given the activities already undertaken with the student or students. However, the board only wanted to deal with data as a single score.