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testing our schools: a guide for parents


Achievement Test: A standardized test (usually multiple choice) that measures content-area knowledge (e.g., science, math, English, and social studies) and academic skills.

Aptitude Test: A standardized, multiple-choice test that measures students' verbal and math reasoning abilities and is used by college admissions departments to predict how well a student will perform in college.

Bell Curve: A graph representing test scores that shows the majority of students grouped in the middle, with an equal number both below and above the average.

Criterion-Referencing: A scoring technique that shows a student's results in comparison to a benchmark or set standard of acceptable performance.

High-Stakes Test: A standardized test in which the results are used to determine important issues such as grade promotion, graduation, school accreditation, or teacher performance.

National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP): The only continuing, nationally representative assessment of what America's students know and can do in various subject areas.

Norm-Referencing: A scoring technique that shows a student's results in comparison to a "norm" group of students. The norm group typically answers one half of all questions correctly.

Psychometrician: A person who designs and develops tests.

Standard Error of Measurement: The margin by which a test is inaccurate in assessing student performance, which is determined ahead of time by the test makers. For example, if a student scores an 84 on a test that has a standard error of measurement of three, then his or her performance level could be as low as 81 or as high as 87.

Standards: Content and performance descriptions of what students should know at each grade level and in each subject.

As a parent, you have likely heard a great deal about testing in the last few years. With the unprecedented emphasis on tests, the stakes have become high for American students and school leaders. Indeed, in the last 10 years, standards and testing have dominated many discussions on the quality of American public education. You may have questions about testing and your child. What exactly are these tests measuring? How do the results affect student promotion, teacher evaluation, and school accreditation? Are the tests fair to all students?

This guide will answer some of your questions and give you information about testing. Use the guide to help you understand more about school testing, define your questions and concerns, and help your child prepare for taking tests. The guide includes background on some of the controversy surrounding testing; information about different types of tests and what standardized tests measure and do not measure; advice on communicating with school officials and talking with your child about tests; and a glossary and list of additional resources for parents.

A Controversial Subject

The increased use of tests in schools has produced a great deal of controversy. Advocates claim that tests are the only universal, unbiased measure of student and school performance. Critics say that the tests fail to assess students fairly, particularly disadvantaged students, and cannot take the true measure of a school's quality. Read what the advocates and critics have to say on some of the major topics and decide for yourself where you stand on these issues. Check out the suggested resources to learn more.

Issue What test supporters say ... What test critics say ...
Fairness, civil rights Advocates say that testing all students is the best way to measure how effective schools are, and that state or local content standards ensure that all students are learning the same curriculum. Supporters also believe that disadvantaged students can be better served by holding their schools accountable when they perform poorly on tests. Critics contend that tests can contain culturally biased content that may be unfamiliar to minorities and recent immigrants. Moreover, for students with learning disabilities or who process information differently, the nature of the test itself (be it multiple choice or short answer format) may be unfair. Critics also say that tests do not adequately measure student and school performance, and that judging (and in some cases punishing) schools with low test scores results in even fewer resources for the students who need them most.
What the tests test Advocates say that developing and administering tests that measure students' knowledge against learning standards will ensure that all students have certain proficiencies and are not left behind or falsely promoted from grade to grade. Critics say that many tests created for national use may not include content emphasized at the state level, resulting in students being tested on material they have not been taught. Moreover, critics warn of a "narrowing" of the curriculum, saying that the heightened attention paid to standardized tests forces teachers to ignore content or even entire subjects that do not appear on the tests.
The use of "high-stakes" tests Advocates say that tests are an important part of "raising the bar" on student performance. Attaching test results to grade promotion, graduation, and teacher evaluation, they say, will send a strong message to students, teachers, school leaders, and parents that students must meet proficiency levels. Critics point out that "test anxiety" may affect a student's performance, resulting in scores that do not adequately reflect his or her knowledge. Critics also contend that standardized tests are only one measure of student performance, and must be considered alongside other assessment tools, including classroom work, student portfolios, and teacher evaluations.
The validity of test scores Advocates say that standardized tests are the most objective and accurate assessments of students' knowledge and skills. By creating norm groups or specific criteria to which students are compared, they say, test makers can measure each student's abilities with precision. Critics say that test-making is far from a perfect science. Tests may contain errors, making results inconclusive. Furthermore, they say, a test's standard error of measurement may be large enough to throw into question the use of the results.
Using tests to determine school funding Advocates say that schools should be rewarded financially for performing well on standardized tests, and that providing such incentives will motivate school leaders and teachers to teach effectively and raise student performance. Critics say that financial rewards for schools in which students perform well is an inappropriate use of funds. They argue that it is unfair to expect students at schools in impoverished areas to perform as well as those in wealthy areas, and withholding additional funding for schools in need will stagnate performance levels.

About Standardized Tests

Standardized tests are created by different groups and organizations, including the Educational Testing Service, the College Board, testing companies, and textbook publishers. These companies hire testing experts, called psychometricians, to do extensive research and piloting to develop questions to include on tests.

Not all standardized tests measure the same knowledge and skills. Some are designed to predict student performance, while others are designed to measure a student's knowledge as compared to peers across the country. Some tests, such as the Stanford Achievement Test, are developed for general use by any school district in the country, while other tests are developed for a specific state, such as the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS), and the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS). These latter types of tests are designed to measure students' knowledge of content and skills in relation to state standards. This is known as criterion-referencing.

Types of Standardized Tests

Aptitude tests measure general knowledge rather than knowledge in a specific subject. The most popular test is the SAT-I, which measures students' verbal and math reasoning abilities and is used by colleges to predict how well a student will perform in college. The ACT is another aptitude test with the same purpose.

Achievement tests, in contrast, measure specific knowledge and skills in particular content areas such as science, math, English, and social studies. Most tests gaining attention today are achievement tests, including those commonly referred to as "high stakes," meaning that crucial decisions are made about a student, teacher, or school based on the results of the test. Some achievement tests in use now are the California Achievement Tests, Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, Metropolitan Achievement Tests, and Stanford Achievement Tests.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) charts nationwide performance in math, science, reading, and writing. The results of NAEP tests will not tell you how your own child is performing, but they do measure how American students in general are doing. In fact, it is the only continuing, nationally representative assessment of what America's students know and can do in various subject areas. For this reason, it is widely accepted among policymakers and scholars.

How Tests Are Scored

In addition to understanding the different types of tests, it is also useful to understand how student performance is actually measured. All standardized tests are scored in one of the following two ways:

Norm-Referencing: This scoring technique shows a student's results in comparison to a "norm" group of students at the same grade level. The number of correct answers to test questions is placed in comparison to the norm (or average) and reported as a percentile. For example, if your child scored in the 38th percentile on her reading test, she would be ranked 38th out of a national norm of 100 students.

Most national achievement tests use norm-referenced scoring, including the California Achievement Test (CAT); the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills (CTBS); the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS) and Tests of Academic Proficiency (TAP); Metropolitan Achievement Test (MAT); and Stanford Achievement Test. Aptitude tests such as the SAT and "IQ" tests also are norm-referenced.

Criterion-Referencing: This scoring technique shows a student's results in comparison to a benchmark or set standard of acceptable performance. The test maker sets a level of proficiency and scores the student in relation to that level. Many achievement tests created and administered at the state level -- such as the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS), the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS), or the Virginia Standards of Learning (SOL) Assessments -- use criterion-referenced scoring.

Parent Tip: Find out which tests are given at your child's school and who determines which types of tests are given. What do these tests measure? How reliable are they? What type of measurement is used?

What Standardized Tests Do Not Measure

Although many believe that tests are the best or only indicator of student performance, it is important to remember that there are other indicators of a child's knowledge and skill levels. Moreover, achievement tests are sometimes used to measure or evaluate aspects of education for which they are not designed, including how well a school is educating its students.

--Motivation, Creativity, and Other Skills
Despite what some see as problems and controversies, tests are very successful in measuring the things they are designed to measure. There are, however, many skills and attributes tests do not measure. For example, standardized tests do not measure a child's motivation to understand new material and perform well in school. They also will not measure a child's creativity or curiosity, nor the ability to cooperate in a group, challenge assumptions, or complete in-depth projects. None of these characteristics is tested, yet they are all essential skills for further education, workplace preparation, and life in general. It is important to remember that performance on standardized tests is not a complete indication of the full range of a child's academic abilities.

Parent Tip: Discuss with your child the importance of all of his or her academic skills and personal attributes. Give examples of his or her strengths in different areas, and let him know about situations in your own professional and personal life that require a variety of skills.

--School Quality
National standardized achievement tests (such as the Stanford Achievement Test, the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, etc.) are designed to measure a student's knowledge and skills in academic subject areas in relation to a national sample of students at the same grade level. The tests are very successful at differentiation -- that is, giving parents accurate information about how their child is performing compared to his or her peers. This is how the tests are most useful.

These kinds of achievement tests, however, are not designed to measure school quality (yet they are often used to do just that). The national tests are designed on a "one size fits all" model. Because curriculum varies from state to state and from community to community, a school with a curriculum that aligns with the test will fare better than a school with a curriculum that does not.

Furthermore, norm-referenced tests do not measure school quality because they include questions unrelated to school learning and curriculum, such as things students might have learned from a visit to a museum or from extracurricular reading. Test makers include questions not covered in school because their goal is to create the most statistical differentiation among students. (This statistical variation is commonly known as a "bell curve.") Remember, norm-referenced tests do not measure how much students know in an absolute sense, but how much they know in relation to their peers.

Finally, even criterion-referenced tests that are closely aligned with state standards and curriculum do not measure other aspects that define school quality, such as the level of expectation that is held for all students and the overall standard of teaching and learning.

Parent Tip: Find out how your child's school uses the data from the achievement tests it administers. Are the data used to determine school, or teacher, performance? Is funding for schools or teacher salaries affected by the data? What if tests include content that is not taught in schools?

--Overall Student Performance
Standardized tests are not designed to be the single determinant of a student's achievement and knowledge. Teachers can use a number of other means to determine how well students understand content and acquire skills. These include essay questions, projects, observations, journals, portfolios, and performance exams. Some of these assessments are based on work done over a long period of time, rather than a single test taken in a few hours. Moreover, these assessments are based solely on what is studied in the classroom.

Parent Tip: Ask your child's teacher what other forms of assessment are used in the classroom. Let your child know that there are multiple ways in which her performance is assessed. If your child senses too much emphasis on the test, she may place less value on her other work.

Communicating With School Officials

A good way to learn about the types of tests your child takes is to schedule a meeting with her teachers, guidance counselor, or principal. Tell them you want to know more about standardized tests and what educational purposes they have.

Some important questions to ask your child's teachers:

  • Which standardized tests are given in my child's grade?
  • What do you do to prepare children for tests?
  • How are the tests' uses described to the students?
  • How much of your time is spent preparing for tests?
  • How much time and attention is given to topics that are not tested on standardized tests?
  • What strategies are used in the classroom to relieve any anxieties children have over taking tests?
  • What can I do at home to help my child prepare to take the test?

Some important questions to ask your child's guidance counselor or principal:

  • Who decides which tests are given?
  • How are the results of the tests used?
  • How does the content in the standardized test relate to the curriculum being taught?
  • In the last implementation of the test, were there any questions about content that was not covered in the curriculum?
  • How many hours per year are spent administering and re-administering standardized tests?
  • Do students have the opportunity to answer sample questions to ensure they understand the format of the test?
  • What accommodations are made for children who might have a learning disability or who do not speak English?
  • What happens if my child performs poorly? Can he take the test again? What kind of support can I expect from the school system?

Parent Tip: Inform school officials in advance of the purpose of your visit and what kinds of things you would like to discuss so that they have time to prepare and collect necessary materials.

Parent Tip: You may want to consider organizing a "testing information" night for parents at your local school. Your PTA can sponsor an evening event featuring presentations and a question-and-answer session. Invite the principal or superintendent to explain the tests administered in your schools. You could also ask a testing expert from a local college or university to make a presentation. After you have learned more about testing, consider what steps you might want to take to bring about any changes you would like to see in your child's school or district.

Talking With Your Child About Tests

After learning about tests from your child's teachers and school officials, take the time to talk to your child about standardized tests. Here are some topics to discuss with your child:

  • Before taking the test, be sure your child properly understands the format of the test.
  • Children often feel anxious about tests because of the formalities and time pressures involved. Ask your child how he feels about taking the tests and discuss ways he can relax if he feels anxious or tense when taking tests.
  • Some children are aware of the emphasis placed on test results, which can increase pressure on them to score well. Discuss other forms of assessment with your child, and ask her which ones best represent her work and why.
  • Encourage your child to talk with classmates about test-taking strategies. Peer support can help students relax and concentrate on the tests.
  • Compare the test results with your child's grades and report card. After receiving the test results, review them with the teacher or school guidance counselor and then review them with your child. Discuss the results and how they reflect your child's academic strengths.

Parent Tip: Give some thought to your own experiences with testing as a student and consider what messages you are sending to your child about testing. If you had negative experiences, you may unintentionally transfer your own anxiety onto your child. Similarly, if you had positive experiences your child may feel anxiety over performing as well as you did.

Resources for Parents

  • Achieve Inc. is a bipartisan, nonprofit organization whose mission is to help states raise academic standards, measure performance against those standards, establish clear accountability for results, and strengthen public confidence in the American education system. See "Testing Policy Brief: Setting the Record Straight, 2000." (A PDF of this document may be downloaded from the site.) This policy paper praises recent developments toward a new generation of state tests that are designed to enhance learning and measure it more accurately than traditional standardized tests. These new criterion-referenced, mixed format tests ask students to write their own answers and do experiments.
  • American College Testing (ACT) provides tests and information to assist students with educational and career decisions. The site has material on exploring career options and preparing for college life, as well as information on ways parents, employers, and teachers can act together to raise student achievement.
  • Center for Economic Development (CED) is an independent organization of business and education leaders dedicated to policy research on major economic and social issues. The site features a report, "Measuring What Matters: Using Assessment and Accountability to Improve Student Learning," which presents many arguments for using standardized tests to improve student performance, teaching, and hold schools accountable. The report also calls for simultaneous improvements to existing tests.
  • The College Board is a nonprofit membership association dedicated to preparing students for college. The site includes a very useful search device, ExPAN College Information Search, to help students find colleges that meet their requirements for geographic location, majors offered, or size of student body.
  • The Educational Testing Service (ETS) is a private educational testing and research organization. ETS develops and annually administers more than 11 million tests worldwide, including the SAT. This site contains many specific resources on financial aid for college, including information on student loans, work-study programs, and scholarships.
  • Fairtest is an advocacy organization working to ensure that evaluation of students and workers is fair, open, and educationally sound. This site contains several fact sheets on such topics as child readiness for tests, referencing techniques, and freedom of information.
  • National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is an important test for parents and policymakers seeking to learn how American students in general are faring. It is the only nationally representative and continuing assessment of what America's students know and can do in various subject areas. For this reason, it is widely accepted among policymakers and scholars. Because this same assessment has been administered at different times during NAEP history, it is possible to chart educational progress over three decades.
  • The Stanford Achievement Test and Metropolitan Achievement Test are administered by Harcourt Educational Measurement. These widely used tests are a combination of multiple-choice and open-ended sub-tests. This site contains useful interpretive information designed to help teachers and parents understand the norm-referenced results of Stanford and Metropolitan test scores.
  • Sylvan Learning Center provides courses to help students of all levels prepare for standardized tests. This site contains student and parent information on tests, including supportive information for students who may be experiencing test anxiety.

Credits, Acknowledgements

This guide was written by Dan Beaupré of Education Quests. It was developed by Simone Bloom Nathan, Ed.M., and Anne Kaplan, M.A., of Media Education Consultants, with input from FRONTLINE and the "Testing Our Schools" advisory panel. The advisers were: Pamela Johnson, Ph.D., vice president for education and outreach at WNED in Buffalo, N.Y.; Gary Orfield, professor of education and social policy and co-director of the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University; Bob Schwartz, president of Achieve Inc. and lecturer at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education; and Kathy R. Swope, technology project director for Milwaukee Public Schools.

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