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January 18th, 2018

By: Jessie Kember, Ph.D., NCSP

Educators can use problem identification to seek solutions to resolve problems in the school environment that occur at the district, school, class, and individual level. Problem identification is part of the scientific method, as it serves as the first step in a systematic process to identify, evaluate a problem and explore potential solutions. Problem identification can be used in schools as the first in the following steps:

  1. Identify the problem.
  2. Hypothesize what is causing or maintaining the conditions around the problem.
  3. Select methods for assessment.
  4. Collect data.
  5. Review and analyze the data.
  6. Use the data to form a hypothesized solution for an intervention,  or  revise your initial hypotheses.

The problem-solving terminology used by the  FastBridge Learning® system includes:

  1. Problem identification
  2. Problem definition
  3. Plan development
  4. Plan implementation
  5. Plan evaluation

This blog will dive in to the first step of problem-solving: problem identification. According to Christ & Arañas (2014), a problem can be defined as an unacceptable discrepancy between expected and observed performance. Therefore, problem analysis aims to confine this discrepancy. As mentioned previously by Dr. Rachel Brown in her blog: review of problem-solving , problem identification begins when the possibility of a problem is brought forward by a school staff member or a parent. At this stage, there are few details about the extent of the problem, or why it is present. Problem identification initiates investigation about a possible problem.

Problem identification calls upon educators to utilize a multi-source (e.g., instruction, curriculum, environment, and learner), multi-method (e.g., review, interview, observe, and test) approach in gathering information in order to ensure that the problem is matched with evidence-based, standardized interventions or solutions. As the first step in problem analysis, problem identification, if done well, provides the foundation for a solution. Bergan (1995) described problem identification as the most critical step in matching a student’s need to an effective intervention. Early and effective problem identification can enable improved identification of educational needs at the district, school, classroom, or individual level, improved resource allocation, and can allow for improved intervention selection.

Problem identification consists of two steps: identifying and acknowledging that a discrepancy exists (i.e., identifying that there is a problem), and developing a problem identification statement. The following is an example of a problem identification statement: Emily attends instruction (i.e., eyes on the instructor and/or task at hand) an average of 45% of the time, while 4 th grade peers in the same classroom attend to instruction an average of 85% of the time.

What does effective problem identification look like?

Effective problem identification is clear, objective, and specific . Howell, Hosp, & Kurns (2008) outline a test to determine when a problem identification statement is effective: the stranger test. According to the stranger test, problem identification statements need to be clear (i.e., unambiguous), objective (i.e., leaving no room or limited room for inferences) and specific enough for a stranger (i.e., an individual that is only provided with the problem identification statement) to be able to observe the student of interest and identify when the problem is present or absent.

Effective problem identification is well-informed . As mentioned previously, a problem is a discrepancy between expected and observed performance. This problem may arise in regards to expected behaviors, expected academic performance, or expected skill set. Therefore, to identify a problem, it is important to have an understanding of typical or expected levels of performance for a specific learner. This expected level of performance serves as a criterion by which a skill, knowledge base, or behavior can be compared. In some instances, this may come in the form of benchmark norms, expert opinion, or the Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts or Mathematics.

Effective problem identification can occur at the system, group, or individual level . Within a Multi-Tiered System of Support (MTSS), problem identification can occur at the individual, group, or system level. Part of effective problem identification is determining at which of these levels the problem exists. For example, if the problem is common for more than 20% of learners in a classroom, problem analysis should occur at the system level so that solutions are developed for all of these students. If the problem is common for 5% of learners or an identified group, problem analysis is best conducted at the group level. If the problem is rare or specific to a particular learner, problem analysis occurs at the individual level.

Effective problem identification uses an appropriate assessment tool. Problem identification requires the use of an appropriate measure or assessment tool to determine whether a problem (i.e., discrepancy) exists. For example, to determine whether a reading problem exists, an oral reading measure may be used to calculate a student’s reading rate and accuracy.

Effective problem identification is timely . Finally, although problems may arise at any time throughout the school year, one primary goal of screening is problem identification. Early and regularly-scheduled screening periods allow for early intervention. When problems are identified early there is more time to address and remediate the problem.

How Can FastBridge Learning® Help Me with Problem Identification?  

As mentioned previously by Dr. Rachel Brown in her review of problem-solving , problem solving is a cornerstone of the  FastBridge Learning®  system and the FAST assessments. All  FastBridge Learning®  tools are aligned with a problem-solving approach. Various FAST reports can be used for problem identification, including the Class List, Impact, Group Screening, Group Growth, Detailed Group, Screening to Intervention, Behavior, and Impact reports. In addition, FAST™ universal screening data, norm, and benchmark scores can assist educators in identifying problems in behavior, reading, and math. These data can also determine whether a particular problem is an individual, class, or school-wide problem.

Bergan, J. R. (1995). Evolution of a problem-solving model of consultation. Journal of Educational and Psychological Consultation, 6 , 111-123.

Christ, T.J., & Arañas, Y.A. (2014). Best practices in problem analysis. In A. Thomas & J. Grimes (Eds.),  Best Practices in School Psychology VI . Bethesda, MD: National Association of School Psychologists.

Howell, K. W., Hosp, J. L., & Kurns, S. (2008). Best practices in curriculum-based evaluation. In A. Thomas & J. Grimes (Eds.), Best practices in school psychology V . Bethesda, MD: National Association of School Psychologists.

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