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Diagnostic Assessment & the Importance of Alignment

May 20th, 2021

Diagnostic, or drill-down, assessment is the process of using multiple measures and reports to identify student strengths and needs in specific skill areas. With this information, teachers can provide instruction that addresses learning needs. 

It’s also a key element of a multi-tiered system of supports (MTSS). Within the context of an MTSS framework, diagnostic assessment is used to better understand students’ academic or SEB needs that were broadly detected by a universal screener

Skipping this process can unnecessarily lead to intervention alignment issues. Without diagnostic assessment, interventions might be selected based on familiarity, guesswork, or the idea that “it’s what we’ve always done.” By taking the time to get to the specific skill gap or root cause, it significantly increases the likelihood that a selected intervention will be effective.

Moreover, the more intense the students’ needs are, the more alignment is needed to ensure an impactful intervention is implemented. Thus, it’s crucial that teams allow themselves time to engage in the diagnostic assessment process in order to align targeted supports and services to students who have a greater need.

If your team is newer to diagnostic assessment, here are a few tips to get started.

Let Data Be the Guide

Ensure that your team is using whole child data to better understand the student’s need. In doing so, be sure your team is: 

  • Using high-quality data. This means using data that is valid, reliable, and accurate.  If teams are using assessments that aren’t measuring what they purport to measure, or haven’t shown across many settings to actually measure that skill, the data produced by the assessment isn’t quality enough to drive these important decisions.
  • Using multiple measures and multiple data points. Using a single assessment is helpful for classwide supports (e.g., determining that on average, a class struggles with concepts of geometry). For individual students, however, teams need to rely on patterns.
  • Invest in tools that make this process possible. Teams cannot lose time searching for or compiling data. The right tools give educators the instant ability to drill down quickly, explore a student’s needs, and efficiently determine the right step to take next. 

Ensure Progress Monitoring Alignment

A progress monitoring assessment helps measure whether the intervention is working, and if it’s working fast enough.

There are two types of progress monitoring tools that typically exist: general outcome measures and skill-based measures. General outcome measures determine whether the student is actually on track for grade-level expectations.The skill-based measure is used to measure improvement on the to actually measure the progress on a specific skill.

Typically, the best practices call for alternating between those two types of assessments every other week. (One week is a general outcome measure, while the other week is a skill-based measure.) 

Work as a team to double-check alignment between the student’s need, the selected intervention, and the progress monitoring tool. It can be easy to inadvertently mismatch one of these elements, which can lead to effectiveness issues. 

Progress Monitoring Alignment

Connect Diagnostic Assessment to a Specific Plan

With the diagnostic assessment process complete and the intervention and progress monitoring tools selected, be sure to document a concrete plan. Creating your plan involves  articulating the students’ goal as well as actions that the team will take. 

When writing the student’s goal, make sure it is specific, measurable, and time-bound. This enables teams to easily determine whether goals were achieved or not.

Be sure to also document the intervention strategy as well as in the duration, frequency, and setting location.

Create a Plan of Tracking Fidelity

Finally, ensure your team has a process and document or tool for tracking these fidelity metrics. Fidelity data are key to evaluating intervention effectiveness down the road. But without a process for documenting, it might not happen consistently or even at all. Be sure to track: 

  • “Did we do what we said we would?” Are we tracking whether the students are participating in the intervention?” Are we tracking if a student is engaged when they come to the intervention? Are we tracking how often, and for the length of time, we actually did the intervention? Where are we implementing the intervention within the school setting, and who is the actual interventionist? Identifying all of those questions and tracking them is really important when we get to that point of evaluating progress monitoring information. 
  • “Did we do it the way that it was designed?” Using the example of a cooking recipe, did we follow the instructions exactly or did we add extra cups of flour? If we improvised at a certain point, and the results turned out poorly, then we can’t necessarily blame the recipe. The same is true of our interventions. We need to do the intervention as it was intended, so this involves making sure that we’re tracking what we actually did with the students before evaluating effectiveness. 


To learn more, watch the MTSS Intervention Effectiveness, Alignment, and Fidelity 101 webinar on-demand presented by Jaime Harris, Ed.S., NCSP.


Illuminate Education equips educators to take a data-driven approach to serving the whole child. Our solution combines comprehensive assessment, MTSS management and collaboration, and real-time dashboard tools, and puts them in the hands of educators. As a result, educators can monitor learning and growth, identify academic and social-emotional behavioral needs, and align targeted supports in order to accelerate learning for each student. 

Ready to discover your one-stop shop for your district’s educational needs? Let’s talk.

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