What Are Pre-assessments, and What Can They Tell You?

By: | 10/13/2021
Category: Instruction
Pre-assessments are tests that evaluate students’ knowledge before instruction begins, and, as Kate Gasaway explains in this post, they’re valuable tools when it comes to helping teachers plan instruction, pacing, and content needs.

Pre-assessments are tests designed to evaluate students’ understanding of material before teaching begins. A pre-assessment could cover content from prior grades, re-evaluate grade-level content from earlier in the year, or preview grade-level material. Pre-assessments generally serve two purposes:

  1. To give educators a picture of their students’ needs so they can better plan lessons to meet those needs
  2. To establish a baseline for students’ growth for the year

Because there is so much prior learning that could need to be assessed, comprehensive pre-assessments can be long and labor intensive for students and teachers. To make the pre-assessment process more manageable, some schools give them before each unit. Another—and I’d argue better—way to get valuable student data is to use a digital, adaptive assessment (like the i-Ready Diagnostic) and administer it two or three times per year. Regardless of strategy, there’s almost always a pre-assessment given at the very beginning of the school year.

A 2019 survey showed that students’ first day of school could be as early as July 23 or as late as the day after Labor Day, which means your pre-assessment data could be more than two months old. Does this mean that, like a beach-themed bulletin board created in August (or July, I’m so sorry), your early data has outlived its usefulness?

Absolutely not! A high-quality pre-assessment still has a lot of valuable information for you. So dust off that pile of tests—or whatever the digital equivalent of dusting them off is if they were administered online—and take a look at these four things they can still tell you.

1. How your yearly pacing is going so far

Pacing was always a challenge for me in the classroom. Whether it was a fire drill, an unexpected field trip, or a wild bird set loose in the classroom, there was always something that threw off my lesson calendar. Over time, I got better at responding to these challenges with flexibility instead of saltiness. My department chair and I would go over my calendar and pacing in our mentoring meetings. We made and remade plans to fit my students’ needs while accommodating the almost funny number of classroom hiccups and interruptions that frustrate rookies but make veteran teachers laugh. I learned to stop worrying and love my calendar.

Pre-assessments can help you anticipate how long your students need to learn specific topics, so you can confidently adjust your schedule no matter what wild card you’re dealt. Because your students’ needs will vary by topic, a pre-assessment that covers a wide range of topics will give you pertinent information when you start a unit that incorporates new prerequisite skills. Comparing your analysis of your classes’ pre-assessments with your current lesson calendar can eliminate some of the uncertainty in your planning and help you make strategic decisions.

If You’re an i-Ready User

Use the Yearly Pacing for Prerequisites and Alternate Pacing Guide on the Prerequisites report to help you make informed decisions about how to adjust your timeline. The i-Ready Pacing Video Series has additional resources and recommendations.
(Note: You’ll be prompted to log in to your i-Ready Central® account.)

2. What small groups to work with to address relevant unfinished learning

One of the things that makes teaching math different from other subjects isn’t just how much students’ success depends on their earlier learning, but how many kinds of prior learning there are. The prerequisite skills students draw on can vary widely from unit to unit, and students’ proficiency and needs can vary just as much. For example, when I taught eighth grade, some students who excelled at solving equations algebraically struggled with geometric transformations, and vice versa. When we changed domains, I had to stay on my toes to make sure that I caught students who needed support, didn’t overlook students who had done well in earlier units, and recognized students’ new strengths.

At this point in the year, you may be well into your second unit. Because you’re teaching new material, you’re going to have new groups of students with new kinds of unfinished learning to address. If you haven’t already done so, review your pre-assessment data with an eye toward the upcoming prerequisite skills students need to be successful. Make new small groups of students based on their shared needs. If you’re an i-Ready user, the Prerequisites report has groups like this for every unit based on the students’ Diagnostic Results.

3. Which whole class supports or interventions to use in upcoming classes

It’s a blessing and a curse when an entire class shares the same misconception or incomplete learning. On the one hand, it means all your students are missing an important skill, and that probably has been frustrating for them. On the other hand, you’ve found a high-leverage opportunity to improve outcomes for all your students at the same time. Choosing the right time to tackle those concepts can make a dramatic difference for students—but when is that?

As you get more familiar with your school’s standards, it gets easier to identify when you should incorporate lessons on prerequisite skills. You’ll start to see the connections between grades and standards and—like a bestselling mystery novelist adding clues to early chapters—you can start layering foreshadowing into your lessons. If you’re new to teaching, discuss this topic with mentor teachers, coaches, and co-teachers. If you’re an i-Ready user, the Prerequisites report has whole class support options and suggestions for when to implement them for the best results.

4. How the topics in a unit connect to learning from earlier grades

Some of my most eye-opening professional development experiences happened when our entire math department taught a small part of a lesson in the same domain and strand, starting with third grade and going through eighth grade. The perspective I gained made me see my students’ (and coworkers’) work with new appreciation and understanding. I still find it fascinating how early elementary school learning directly impacts students’ work years later.

If you want to explore these kinds of connections, turn to your pre-assessments. Choose a relevant, high-leverage topic for your class, and explore its path through earlier grades and its extension through later grades. This approach takes what could be a daunting bit of personal professional development and breaks it into timely, bite-sized chunks. If you’re using Common Core State Standards, the Coherence Maps are a great place to start. If you’re an i-Ready user, check out the Learning Progression infographic on the Prerequisites report.


There you have it—four reasons why your beginning of year pre-assessment data is still useful. If you like what you read here, consider setting a calendar alert or adding a note to your planner so you remember to revisit your pre-assessments at strategic times, such as planning meetings, small group reorganization deadlines, and the week before you start a new unit.

And if you do still have a beach-themed bulletin board up, maybe this is a good opportunity to remind students that the beach is a coastal biome, and as such, it experiences all four seasons . . . or maybe you just add a pumpkin to your display. Your choice.

Learn about the i-Ready Prerequisites report through an interactive walkthrough.

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