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

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By GreatSchools Staff

State standardized tests

These tests can include multiple-choice, short response or essay questions. States buy them "off the shelf" from test publishers or contract with test publishers to develop tests that reflect state standards.

Because of the requirement of the federal No Child Left Behind Act to measure student progress and to spur students to achieve proficiency in math and reading by 2014, standardized tests have taken on new importance. The federal requirement sets the timetable for testing, determines the subjects tested and requires that the results be broken down by category of student - English-language learners, ethnic/racial groups and students with disabilities, for example. But it's up to states to choose the test and define minimum levels of improvement.

Standardized tests are typically given once a year, in the spring, and the results reported months later.

There are two types of standardized tests:

1. Tests that measure a student's knowledge based on an established standard

States and some districts spell out what students at each grade level are supposed to know in content standards. Most states use standards-based tests to measure a student's progress toward meeting those standards. The results are reported in levels that are linked to the standards, such as " below basic, basic, proficient and advanced."

High school exit exams are examples of standards-based tests. They are currently given in 25 states. Students get a number of chances to pass, and in nearly half of the states, they won't get diplomas if they don't. In other states, exam scores are recorded on a student's diploma but passing the test isn't required for graduation. States offer special options for students with learning disabilities, and some offer the same for English-language learners.

Passing these tests doesn't mean a student knows everything she needs to learn in high school: In some states, the tests are based on eighth- or ninth-grade standards; in most, they are aligned with 10th- grade learning standards.

What the results mean

A standards-based test is designed to tell you how well your child is learning what your state says is important and how well your school is doing in matching what's taught in the classroom to these state standards. You can compare your school's results to others in your state, but you can't compare them to schools in other states because each state has its own content standards and tests. It's also important to know that some state tests are much more difficult than others and that state standards vary widely, as well. Many are long laundry lists of topics that classroom teachers would have a tough time covering during the school year.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress is a national test in math, reading, writing and science that allows you to compare one state's performance to another, but it is only given to a sample of students in each state. It's useful for comparing results from one state to another but it's not possible to compare results from different schools.

Questions parents should ask

Your child's school should be testing what's taught in the classroom and teaching what your state's standards say is important for your child to know. How do you know if that's happening? Tienken suggests this to get a snapshot: Next time your geometry student brings home a test, look up your state's standards for geometry here. Compare the test to the standards. "You can tell if, my gosh, this is a low-level test for high-level math," he says.

Kate Steinheimer, a parent, teacher and former GreatSchools project manager, suggests another spot check: Have your child show you where the class is in the math textbook. If it's midway through the school year and the class isn't midway through the book, that's an indication that it might be time to talk to the teacher. Your child might be tested on material she won't have learned at test time.

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. "