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Diagnostics – Starting the Year with Key Intel

I hope you all had wonderful summers and a wonderful first week with your new classes! Over the next few blog posts I will share about the first Educating Now summer camp and my time studying Ethnomathematics at the University of Hawaii.  Overall the summer camp went really well, with great feedback from the parents and kids.  I especially enjoyed working with the younger students (entering grades 4-6) and saw some major shifts in their growth mindsets about math as well as skill development and rich mathematical discussions. I’m considering offering a similar camp for this age group over Spring Break. My immersion week in Hawaii was absolutely amazing. Other than the obvious treat of learning in such a beautiful part of the world, I came to understand culture-based and land-based learning in much greater depth because I was actively engaged as a learner. I am so excited to share with you what I’m learning as this way of teaching has resonated so strongly with me and I continue to take courses until May.

This is a picture of us after doing some service learning about fish ponds (I was thigh deep in mangrove mud so needed to jump into the ocean to try to clean up a little!). This is the very first cohort of the post graduate Certificate in Ethnomathetics and I’m so humbled to be a part of such an amazing group of dedicated and knowledgeable educators!

Now on to Diagnostics, I’ve written about these before but because I get so many questions and requests for them AND because I’ve tried out some new ones, I wanted to write another post about using diagnostics. I’ve recorded video of me giving some diagnostics that I’m sharing as well. Please see my previous diagnostics Blog if you are brand new to using diagnostics in math.

Why to Use Diagnostic Assessments:

I ran a week-long Numeracy Booster summer camp in August and although I had the week planned, I knew I’d likely need to take a detour or two due to the fact that I didn’t know my learners, nor their needs entering the camp. This is similar to what you all face at the beginning of each school year. I gave the IKAN diagnostic on the first day of camp and this provided me with an incredible amount of insight into my learners and thus changed my plan completely. Sigh. I really did spend hours planning out the week but had I adhered to my plan, I would have completely missed important concepts assuming students had this knowledge and therefore would have not met their needs, nor been able to properly build on their assumed previous knowledge.

I used the IKAN first because it could be done with a whole class at once and was fairly short. This a New Zealand created (free) assessment that you can find here. I did a trial run on myself first at home to ensure that I understood how it was going to go. Then I administered it to my learners on the first day. I would NOT recommend this for the first day of the school year as it can cause anxiety and fixed mindsets in learners but I only had my learners for 5 days so I needed to get this information ASAP. As a group, we talked about how this could make us feel afraid, anxious, dumb, not good at math etc. but that the purpose is to see what they know automatically so that I can plan for them for the rest of the week. Once they completed it and saw the very next day that we spent quite a bit of time on the concept that NONE of them could do, they realized its value and it was not a problem for them. While I don’t want to create these negative attitudes, I think we need to be communicating with our students about diagnostics – including what they are and are not. I find students quite willing to do their best on them when they are presented as a useful tool to aid in their own skill development.

My Obstacles using IKAN:

For my morning group who were learners entering grades 4-6 it was too fast. The assessment is timed, which I’m not a fan of, but it is only the first diagnostic I used and it is designed to see what they know automatically (there are other assessments for finding out strategies and depth of knowledge). After a couple of times starting it again, I quickly realized it was simply too fast for these learners and instead, I read out the questions and wrote them on the board for them (then erasing each one before moving on), in a similar way to the web/automated version, but giving more time as what I noticed is that they didn’t even have time to write their solutions. I’d be curious to see what you find if you decide to use it for grades 4&5 in your classrooms – please share! I think it would still be valuable to try it or do it the way I did, allowing for a bit more time. I do think it would work well with grades 6-8 (I only had 2 grade 6 students so it is hard to make a judgement on its effectiveness for them, but I would use it in a grade 6 classroom). The afternoon group were students entering grade 7 & 8 and they were able to do the assessment as it was, although they also found it quick.

How it Helped Me:

The most glaring hole in EVERY learner was the lack of place value understanding. Questions like ‘how many tens are there in all of 832?’ This didn’t surprise me at all as I’ve seen this trend at my middle school for years so I spent a lot more time on this concept than I had planned for but it was wonderful to see them discover the pattern once they explored many examples using base 10 blocks and place value mats (we just had some place value mats created for Educating Now if you are interested in purchasing them). The place value mats along with the blocks helped students to see the link between the concrete and abstract (and the mats damper the noise of the blocks, which is a huge bonus!) You could see the learners thinking deeply about place value and their faces lighting up when they discovered all the patterns within.

Next, I used two other interview diagnostics for some learners who I wanted to learn more about. Whenever I suggest using interviews to teachers they often dismiss them due to the time required to actually interview each student. Firstly, I fully understand this concern and I admit that my goal was to interview each student during that week but I only managed about half of each group. Interviewing does take time but it is so incredibly valuable and insightful. I encourage teachers to start with students who they know are struggling so that gaps can be identified early and support can be provided (at school and/or at home) and then assess those that you are not sure about to gain a better understanding of their needs while leaving those who have strong skills to the end (not to omit them but leave to the last). I guess it’s like triage to a certain degree. I’ve been reading a number of books and blogs about using interviews from teachers that are using them with success regularly. They all say that they have set up their classrooms around the expectation that when some students are being interviewed, the rest are engaged in independent learning activities, or group activities.

How to Use Interview Diagnostics in Your Classroom:

In order to be able to do these interviews, you will need to create a classroom routine for them, just like you do for so many other things! I recommend the following:

1) co-create criteria for independent and group work that will be done while the interviews are happening. You will need to explain the necessity of being able to be quietly working at the back/front of the room interviewing other students without distraction. You can arrange opportunities for students to practice during the first couple of weeks, and providing feedback to them (individually and as a class) as they work on developing these skills. You could have them reflect and write in their journals about their process and then provide feedback in this way.

2) Provide meaningful and important activities for them to be engaged in while you are interviewing. This might be a math puzzle or riddle, game, or modeling activity (using manipulatives or pictures). Students can be working individually, in partners or in groups. If they are given a worksheet or something that they may require support with, it will not work out well for you so I would suggest using this time, especially at the beginning of the year to have them practice their basic fact strategies using games (see our post from last year for examples). Giving students 25-35 minutes of time to really dig into adding by making 10 for example, is time well spent and they are engaged in the process allowing you to interview some students. If you teach other subject areas, you can always do this during independent reading or any other opportune time.

Another option, if you have it, is to collaborate with another teacher or an inclusive learning teacher (learning support teacher). However, I would strongly recommend that YOU be the one to administer the interview as you will be the primary teacher and so you need the information that will be gathered first hand. I’ve seen teachers combine classes and do an outdoor activity while one teacher interviews students. Be creative but these interviews are worthy of the time and effort I promise you!

I have found Dr. Nicki Newton’s running records to be incredibly helpful for students in grades 3-6 and then the Gloss for students in grades 7-10. The running records take about 7 minutes per student per concept but I wouldn’t do them all at once and would focus on addition first for the younger grades and likely multiplication first for the older grades. The Gloss is much longer and covers most concepts. You may only do part of the Gloss as it instructs you to stop when students get a certain amount incorrect and also you could just break it into parts to make it less onerous on you. There is the JAM assessment for younger students but I’ve not tried that one yet – if you do use it, I’d love to hear your feedback!

I’ve also created paper and pencil diagnostics that are certainly easier to administer and far less time consuming (you can access the whole number pre-assessments here). These were created by using a variety of assessments I had used and liked parts of. Feel free to administer only a few questions at a time. For example, just do the place value questions to see where your students are at in this understanding, or do the mental math strategies and hone in what strategies they know and don’t yet know. I have to reiterate the importance of actually talking with your students though – you could even use the paper and pencil pre-assessments and then meet with each individually for 5 minutes to ask more questions of them about their strategies.

How to Conduct Interviews:

The purpose of interviewing is solely for information gathering so this is NOT a time for one-on-one tutoring. I find this very difficult as I want to just start teaching them the strategy that I see lacking but the goal is really to just take notes, listen and ask questions. You don’t give hints to whether they’ve done the questions correctly or not. Every student should leave the interview feeling heard but otherwise not know how “well” they did. They are not scored or given to the students afterwards. They are for you and the student to use as a map towards building skills and knowledge.

You will find pre-assessments for Whole Numbers here.

Grade 3       Grade 3 Answer Key

Grade 4       Grade 4 Answer Key     Eval 4e Numeration

Grade 5       Grade 5 Answer Key

Grade 6       Grade 6 Answer Key

Grade 7       Grade 7 Answer Key

Grade 8      Grade 8 Answer Key


Check out my vlog to see me doing a few. I’m NOT an expert in giving these and am just hoping to inspire you to try them out.

Elementary School:

Middle School:

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