Meeting the Needs of Your Gifted Student: Differentiated Instruction--Preassessment 2/6

If you're going to try to differentiate instruction for you students, you will most definitely need to determine some important information about your students before you start thinking of ideas for what you're teaching and how to approach your instruction! In the education world, we call this preassessment or pre-testing, and as the prefix implies, this is an assessment of a child that is to take place before the new learning is to occur. Today's post is the second in a series I'm writing about differentiated instruction. You can read the first post here.

What? Another TEST?!

When you hear the term preassessment or pre-test, your first thought is probably something to the effect of, "Ugh! I don't have time for that!" or, "How on earth am I supposed to add another thing to our already busy schedules?" Perhaps you're even thinking, "Another TEST?! Aren't these kids tested enough already?"

Let me tell you something. I HEAR you!  It is difficult to add something new to your routine when you are already in the groove. It can be a lot of work to create new assessments for everything you plan to teach. But learning about your students before you teach them is SO important. There are three types of pre-assessments you can administer to learn more about your kiddos. You can learn about students' readiness for something, their learning style or preferences, or their attitudes about learning and/or areas of interest. Although all three types of assessment are important, the majority of this post today will focus on assessing student readiness to learn new skills and concepts.

Learning about what preexisting knowledge your students are coming to you with is just so, so, so important. Did you know that your gifted students come to your classroom already knowing up to 80% of the material you plan on presenting? And preassessment has actually been found to be beneficial to student learning, not just because it tells you what they know, but also because it acts as a sort of primer for the brain, helping to pave the road for future learning. Remember, this is assessment FOR learning, not assessment OF learning. You are giving your students another test of sorts, but it should be presented to them in a way that helps them to understand that it is NOT a graded assignment. It is meant to help you, the teacher, get to how much of the content you need to teach them. And here's the kicker--it doesn't have to be a test or feel like a test if you get creative about it.

It is not sufficient to just give a pre-test, then proceed with the regularly scheduled programming without adjusting your instruction (and sadly, many teachers do just that <---insert frowny face). It's what you DO with the information that is most critical in the education of those young people in your care.

{By the way, let's not blame the teachers for not always knowing what to do with this information. It is fairly customary for new teachers to have only one or two (if they're lucky) courses in assessment in undergraduate-level programs.  Teachers really don't get enough training in the complexities of assessment and grading before they're expected to become the expert in their own classrooms. I've been a teacher for more than 10 years, and I am still learning about best practice in assessment. I'm not sure I'll ever be done! It is because of the reasons I listed above that I feel so strongly about sharing the things I have learned in this journey as an educator.}

My goal for this post today is to leave you with some ideas for how you can quickly and effectively assess your students before you teach. Then in the following posts, I'll provide some suggestions for what to do with all that great information! If you ever have any questions that pop up in your reading, please don't hesitate to leave a comment at the bottom of the post, or email me using the link in the sidebar of my blog!

Decide What You Want to Know

When you start your preassessment journey, you first need to think about what information you want your students to know at the END of the lesson, unit, year, etc. The pre-test should measure children's knowledge of the same objectives that you are responsible for teaching. I suggest starting by reading your standards closely or taking a peek at your school's curriculum map or assessment map. What is it that your students need to know or be able to do by the end of the instruction? It's important that you align the assessment to correspond in both content and difficulty--especially with the verbs you see in the standards. If they have to interpret products of whole numbers, (CCSS 3.OA.A.1) then the pre-test you give them should measure whether they can indeed, interpret the product, not just whether they can calculate the answer. For example, it's not enough that they can find the product of 5 x 7, they need to be able to describe the context in which they would need to express a problem like that. This can be tricky and takes practice if you're just starting out, but once you get the hang of it, aligning your problems to the standards gets easier. This practice will also help strengthen your understanding of the standards as well, so it's a win-win, right?

Decide How You're Going to Gather the Information You Need

Formal Preassessment

I think of these assessments as more traditional, a little less fun, but very helpful in the specificity of information that they can provide.
  • Chapter tests-- If you're lucky enough to be working in a district (or if you're homeschooling) and using curriculum that already has different versions of post-tests for each chapter, USE THEM! In my most recent teaching position, we used a math program that had three different levels of tests, and two versions of each test. I always used the form A test before we started the chapter, and then the form B test when we finished. 
  • Quarterly tests/Benchmark tests-- These tests, again, are already part of what you use in your school to measure student progress toward learning grade level standards (I hope). If not, you may need to create your own or find one someone else has already created. If you use these for pre-tests, be sure you either have different versions of the test available for use or that you take time to create a test that mirrors the tests because you want to be sure you don't skew results of  the end-of-quarter or benchmark tests)
  • Portfolios--If you use these, they are a great starting point for preassessment. These seem to me to be especially relevant for demonstrating a child's readiness in writing and visual arts, but I am sure they are helpful in other areas as well. The only reason I would caution the use of them as a standalone pre-test for other subjects (and even for writing) is the simple fact that you can't always guarantee that ALL of the child's previous learning is completely exemplified in the portfolio. It is hard to be sure that a work sample in a portfolio is a true example of all they can do. In other words, how do you know that the child reached the ceiling of his or her learning on that particular concept? Sure, they showed that they can multiply two-digit factors, but if they weren't prompted to do more, how can you be sure whether they can or cannot actually do more? Additionally, the use of portfolios requires having an accompanying rubric or checklist. 
  • Checklists of skills the child has demonstrated--Go here for an AWESOME ebook of checklists you can use for grades 3-6. Seriously, check it out. You can see a sample on Google Books here. This is not an affiliate link, I just like this book. There are a TON of checklists on Teachers Pay Teachers, depending on what you need, I'm positive you can find something there. 
  • Running Records--these are great for on-the-spot assessments of how your student is reading. To be sure it's VERY important that the child you are assessing is reading a book that is at or slightly above their instructional reading level so that you can get a true picture of their strengths and weaknesses. Here is a great article from ASCD summarizing how to conduct a running record, if you haven't done it before. You should also check to see whether your district has identified benchmarks or cut-scores in reading rate, accuracy, and comprehension when you use this as a pre-test so that you know where your student stands in comparison to his or her grade-level peers. 
  • Audition-Teachers of performance arts, this is a great way to learn your students' limits. Using a checklist or rubric is also a must for this type of preassessment. 

Informal Preassessment

These measures are a little more fun! Quick and easy to prepare and administer, they still provide valuable information, but I find them a little less accurate and/or thorough than the formal options.

  • Four Corners--This is a super quick way to gauge what your students know. There are a couple of different ways you can use this strategy. Using multiple choice questions you create or questions from your curriculum, label each corner of your classroom A, B, C, D. You pose the question, and students walk to the area of the room that matches with the answer they've selected. I would advise you to have students record their answers on a piece of paper, before allowing them to walk to the corners. This way, not only do you increase student accountability, you also have a physical copy of their pretest results. Further, having students record answers before moving creates an environment that decreases the likelihood of peer-pressure related answer selection. 
  • Graffiti Wall-This strategy is quick and simple. The only supplies you need are large pieces of chart paper, markers, and concepts that you plan on studying soon. Post the chart paper on the wall, and challenge students to come to each page and record as much information as they possibly can about the topic. They can write phrases or ideas--they don't have to write complete sentences. They need to sign their work (so you know who wrote what, of course) and they should get started writing as soon as they get to the paper. Enforcing the write right away rule is helpful because it decreases the likelihood that a child is copying from another student. This activity is something students really enjoy because it feels a little taboo when you call it graffiti! They also like the novelty of writing on the big teacher paper, and if you reserve special markers for them to use, it makes the experience all that much better. Limitations to this strategy could be that a student simply doesn't recall quickly everything they truly know about a topic, which is why I would recommend having maybe a quick conversation about the topics you've chosen, without revealing too much information. This just helps get children's brains warmed up a bit and primed for expressing their knowledge. You can also provide so keywords on or near each sheet of chart paper to help jog students' memories a bit. If you were concerned about copying, you could allow each student to have his or her own piece of paper instead. Modifications of this strategy include having students making voice notes or recordings of their knowledge on a device, typing out their answers on google docs, or verbally telling you their thoughts. 
  • Entrance Slips--Much like the commonly used exit slip, students can complete the task or problem you plan on giving at the end of the lesson before you teach them. Like I mentioned above, you need to make sure the question you provide is rigorous enough to capture your true learning objective for the day. After students complete the problem or task, you can quickly sort the slips (I frequently used sticky notes for this) into piles of students who either already know what you're planning to teach, or who don't know it. Of course, you need to have a plan already in place for what you'll do with students who already know the content. I actually found it helpful to give the entrance slips a day or two ahead of the lesson (but not much more that that) so that I had time to make a meaningful plan. More on that in a subsequent post!
  • Five Hardest, or Hardest First--Many times, traditional assignments for independent work in class or for homework are designed in a way that questions toward the beginning of the paper are easier, and the questions at the end are more challenging or complex. For gifted children, forcing them to complete the entire assignment can be grueling and create negative feelings toward your subject or class. Allowing students to voluntarily attempt the most difficult problems first is a great way of finding out whether they truly understand the concept. If they do demonstrate an understanding of the learning objective on the most difficult tasks, please, I'm urging you, don't make them do the rest of the page! It would be torture, I tell you! Torture! 
  • Quick Write or One-Minute Paper-- Similar to the graffiti wall, this strategy encourages students to write down all they know about a particular topic. This time, though, unlike the graffiti wall, their writing should be a little more coherent. If you teach a subject in which writing conventions, overall cohesiveness, and quality of writing are not important, you can most certainly adjust this activity as you see fit (though it does provide a great opportunity for cross-curricular writing connections...). This is meant to be quick--but be careful! Gifted students (and others!) often feel extra pressure when a time element is involved, so it's important that you let children know ahead of time what your goal is, and feel free to loosen the time constraints if you see that your students are underperforming because of the time pressure. It would be counterproductive to give a preassessment on which students can't show you what they truly know because their brains aren't working properly under the pressure. 
  • Interactive Games--Games like Kahoot allow students to show you what they know in a super fun, technological way. Limitations, of course, would include access to technology. If you haven't tried using a game like this in your classroom, I urge you to do so. You won't regret it! 

A Final Note About Preassessment

The list above is most certainly not an exhaustive list of all of the preassessment strategies but the strategies I've included are what I found to be most helpful in my 10 years of teaching. Whatever you use to determine what your students know,  DO NOT GRADE THESE ASSIGNMENTS! No matter how tempting it may be to jot their scores down in your grade book, remember these activities are intended to occur BEFORE you've taught the material. It's not fair (and really not ethical) to evaluate students on something they're not yet supposed to know. Each time I gave a pretest to my students, I always, always, always, let them know that they could completely fail the assignment F minus style and I would be happy to see their paper. After all, if they bomb it, I know exactly where to start teaching, right? It's the kids who already know the information that added a little more challenge to my planning (of course I didn't mention the last part to students--they don't need any extra pressure). What I DID do with the scores is have students record them on a graph. Particularly if I had given them a chapter post-test as a pre-test. Then I could confer with students and together, we'd set goals about how much growth to shoot for. We graphed post test results as well, and applauded successes along the way, or determined what work was left to do.

As always, thanks so much for reading this LONG post! I hope you found the information helpful.

Ready to read more on differentiation? Click here to read about what it means to differentiate content. 

As a thank you for making it all the way to the bottom of this post, you can click to get free access to this Pre- and Post-test Growth Chart  I made for my students. *Just to be clear, by clicking to get the freebie (and instant access to the growing collection of free resources in my library of subscriber exclusives), you're also agreeing to be added to my email list, where I'll send occasional messages with fresh ideas, tips, and other resources straight to your inbox. You can unsubscribe at any time.*

If you have any questions or suggestions for other great preassessment tools, please feel free to email me ( or leave a comment below!



  1. Yay! A new post from my favorite blogger!
    We're writing all new benchmarks, (formally known as benchmarks!)

    1. Yes! The little fur baby finally settled enough to let me finish this mega-post! Enjoy the (new) benchmark writing, friend! I'm sure that going to be suuuper fun!


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