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Which test is which? A guide for parents of tweens and teens

In middle and high school, students take a wider range of tests, and parents need to learn the difference between the PSAT, AP and ACT to help guide them.

By GreatSchools Staff

By now, your middle or high school student has taken plenty of tests. They're a fact of life as students progress through middle and high school, college and the workplace.

All tests are not created equal. They are tools designed for different purposes. Some tests are designed much better than others and even the best is only one piece of information about a student or a school. Understanding what a test is designed to measure will allow you to ask critical questions of your student, your school, school board and lawmakers. It will help you interpret the results and help your student prepare. Here's a primer:

Classroom tests and quizzes

Your student has been taking classroom tests written by a teacher for years. Teachers also use or adapt the pre-written tests that come packaged with textbooks.

What the results mean

Because classroom tests are given more frequently than standardized tests, they provide more insights into a student's strengths and weaknesses. They tell how well your child knows a specific subject taught by a specific teacher and how she scores compared to her classmates. Classroom tests give the teacher feedback so he can adjust his lesson plans.

Questions parents should ask

Ask the teacher what test results show about your child's strengths and weaknesses, and what your child should be doing at home to prepare. Ask the principal and teachers how they use test results to improve instruction.

Diagnostic tests

Your school district or school may use these tests to assess your child's strengths and weaknesses in a particular subject. They're also used for placement purposes to see if he is ready for a more advanced math or language class. Many colleges require diagnostic tests in math and English for placement purposes.

What the results mean

Like classroom tests, these provide valuable information about whether your child needs extra help in a subject and also gives the school feedback about whether teachers are succeeding.

Questions parents should ask

Ask whether placement decisions are based on a single test score, advises Dr. Christopher Tienken, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction in New Jersey and a professor at the Rutgers University Graduate School of Education. "In high school, if a student is kept out of an honors English class because of a test score, but he's doing great in language arts, the school should have a waiver program in place so that he still has the right to take the class," Tienken says.

Ask your principal how the results of these tests are used to better prepare students to advance to the next level. Talk to the teachers and counselor about whether your child will be ready for college math and English. In California, for example, students applying to the state university system can take college placement tests in high school to give them time to get extra help if it's needed.

Comments from readers

"Hello my daughter is in 10th grade and struggles with testing in school, she does all her work, she says she studies, but the scores on her test don't show this at all. Please if you can give us some advise as to what we should do to help our daughter with testing skills we would appreciate any suggestions you may have. Thank you Brenda Stemwell"
"Thank you for a succinct an easy to understand explanation of the myriad tests facing my family. I feel more prepared to guide my two sons as we navigate public and private school requirements. My husband and I plan to put this information to good use. It is unfortunate that excellent educational options are difficult to access in DeKalb County GA. "