Instructional Assessment: An Essential Tool for Instructional Support Teams

by Denyse Doerries, Ph.D.

Instructional level is "the window of learning between frustration and boredom" (Tucker, 1985, p. 201).

Cheri, a third-grade student, is on task only 40% of the time during reading. Ms. Dorite, her third-grade teacher, is concerned and requests assistance from the instructional support teacher (IST) in her school, Ms. Seebeay.

Ms. Seebeay is aware that off-task behavior is often an indication of a discrepancy between what the student is able to do and what the curriculum expects.   In order to clarify Cheri's difficulties, Ms. Seebeay and Ms. Dorite perform an instructional assessment (IA), sometimes referred to as a curriculum-based assessment (CBA). IA is designed to determine the instructional needs of individual students in order to create the conditions necessary to optimize and maintain learning (Rosenfield, 1987). As such, IA ensures a match between what the student knows and what the teacher teaches. Remediation strategies based on the concepts of IA utilize the student's rate of acquisition, need for repetition, and rate of retention to match the student's skills with the current curriculum (Gravois & Gickling, in press).

Instructional assessment (IA) is a process or set of procedures that sample skills from the student's current curriculum to determine the instructional needs. It is a process of data collection rather than an assessment instrument.  IA addresses the following questions:

  1. Does the student possess the prerequisite skills to master the content?

  2. What is the extent of the gap between what the student can do and what the student is expected to do?

  3. What kinds of errors does the student make? (Gravois & Gickling, in press; Rosenfield, 1987).

IA assesses the student's skills and performance at the student's instructional level. Instructional level is that level on which the student knows 80% of the material for skill and drill work and 93-97% for tasks requiring comprehension or reasoning (Rosenfield, 1987). For example, a student using flash cards to learn the multiplication tables should only be presented with 20% new material during each drill. Assessing students at their frustrational level does not allow them to display known skills and does not take into consideration students' prior knowledge (Gravois & Gickling, in press). 

The following steps, adapted from Gravois and Gickling (in press), illustrate the IA process with  our third-grader Cheri.

Step 1. Select appropriate material.

Because students' language and conceptual skills are often above their reading skills, the teacher begins with third-grade material for Cheri. The teacher also has less difficult material available should it be needed.

Step 2. Establish a relationship with the student.

Ms. Seebeay explains to Cheri that this activity they are engaged in is a way to find out what she knows and what she can do, as well as to help her become a better reader.

Step 3. Assess the student's skills while ensuring an instructional match.
  • The teacher explores Cheri's prior knowledge and understanding of the material by reading to her and discussing a passage from grade-level material. Cheri can retell the story with no assistance. Thus, she appears to possess the prior knowledge and listening skills necessary to deal with third grade material.

  • The teacher selects a passage from the third-grade reader that seems "workable" for Cheri and begins to assess her word recognition and sight vocabulary by performing a word search with her. The teacher begins by pointing to words that Cheri has a high probability of knowing. The teacher then intermittently points to words that seem more difficult. (The teacher points to 4-5 basic known words for every word that is unknown.) The teacher also engages Cheri in a discussion of  word meanings.

  • The teacher asks Cheri to reread the passage to increase her fluency rate before beginning to take a running record, described below. Cheri needs a fluency rate of between 79-107 words per minute to be performing at an instructional level for beginning third-grade work (Gravois & Gickling, in press).

  • Cheri is asked to read orally from the passage. The IS teacher does a running record, noting Cheri's errors, number of words read in one minute, and strategies used for unknown words.

Although Cheri could decode 95% of the words, she read only 60 words per minute, which is more typical of a beginning second-grade student. This low fluency rate most likely interferes with Cheri's comprehension.

  • The IS teacher asks Cheri open-ended questions to assess reading comprehension. However, Cheri requires guided questions that addresses the who, what, when, and where of the story. Cheri answered less than 60% of the comprehension questions correctly.

Step 4. Match instruction to the student needs.

Ms. Dorite and Ms. Seebeay discuss the implications of the instructional assessment and consider strategies to increase Cheri's fluency and comprehension.

Step 5. Conduct trial teaching.

Repeated readings, peer tutoring, and previewing strategies are employed to determine if they are effective in increasing Cheri's performance.

Step 6. Perform ongoing evaluation.

The IS teacher and the classroom teacher collect the data generated by Cheri in fluency and comprehension. Cheri learns to chart her progress in fluency. The classroom teacher tracks Cheri's responses to comprehension questions.


Gravois, T., & Gickling , E. (in press). Best practices in CBA. In A. Thomas & J. Grimes (Eds.), Best        practices in school psychology (in press). Washington, DC: National Association of School Psychologists.

Rosenfield, S. (1987). Instructional consultation. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Tucker, J. A. (1985). Curriculum-based assessment: An introduction. Exceptional Children, 52, 199-204.

Date: February/March 2002