It's basic math: seven is larger than five. Three dots represent less than eight dots. But what if some kindergarten students miss this step? Eventually, they land in Grade 3, facing multiplication, and math is a muddle.

Research has shown that a strong understanding of numerical quantity – both in symbols and actual numbers – is an important early predictor for future math success. That's because math is a subject that builds upon itself; students who miss a key step quickly fall behind.

Getting help early is critical, but unlike reading, there are very few math assessments for young students that may explain why they struggle to perform calculations such as addition and subtraction.

Now, Researchers at the University of Western Ontario have developed a two-minute screening test to determine whether students as early as senior kindergarten have a handle on numeracy skills – and to catch those who may be showing signs of early learning problems or who just need extra help.

It's easy to administer, and most of all – given how much both schools and parents pay for testing these days – it's free: The researchers have put it online for anyone to download.

The Toronto District School Board is midway through a three-year trial using the screening test for senior kindergarten students at seven schools, though early results suggest a link between how children score and their Grade One math performance. The board will expand the study to 30 schools in September. If the test proves to be an evidence-based assessment tool, says Roula Anastasakos, the the school board's executive superintendent of research and information services, "we would be using it to flag children who may potentially develop issues."

The remarkably simple test was created by Daniel Ansari, the Canada Research Chair in developmental cognitive neuroscience, and Nadia Nosworthy, now an assistant professor at Michigan's Andrews University, because there was a need for math assessments in developing countries that did not require a computer to administer. It can be downloaded at numeracyscreener.org, along with specific instructions to be followed in explaining the test to the student.

Given to children from senior kindergarten to Grade 3, the object is to identify which of two numbers or symbols are larger on a series of worksheets. Students answer as many questions as they can in two minutes, and Ansari recommends the screening test be given twice with at least a one-week break in-between. The results can then be entered into the website to see how the score compares with a standardized sample, created by Ansari and his research team after giving the test to hundreds of Southern Ontario students. (The scores that are entered into the site are not currently saved.)

"If you are not very good on this test, you are going to find learning arithmetic very hard because when you learn to calculate you need to know the meaning of the digits and relate those digits to one another," Ansari says. "To us, as adults, it seems such an easy thing to learn. But if you think about it as a child growing up, when they first encounter numeric symbols they are just meaningless shapes, and then they have to connect those symbols to the quantity they represent."

But poor performance on the test, Ansari cautions, is only an indication that a student may need extra help – it's doesn't diagnose a learning disability or replace more extensive testing. In an analysis, the test was only about 70-per-cent accurate in discriminating between students who had dyscalculia (a math disability defined as a difficult to understand or manipulate numbers) and those who didn't.

"In two minutes, you simply cannot diagnose a learning disability," Ansari says. The test is "just one building block in math." Still, parents might use it to determine whether additional testing is needed. (And because it's easily administered, the test may also be used to see how much students improved over the school year.) "It's not going to tell the whole picture, but it's going to tell you something. It can be a starting point to paying more attention to that child."

The Toronto District School Board is beginning to test-drive some possible interventions for students struggling in this area, which Ansari hopes may eventually also be made available on the website.

His team is also considering whether there are other quick assessments to create a more complete "suite" of math tests that teachers might use in the classroom to identify struggling students, even as early as junior kindergarten.