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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.

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.

2. Tests that show how a student compares to her peers

Many states use these tests, called norm-referenced tests, as part of their testing programs. They are designed to measure students against a representative sample of their peers. The results fall on a bell-shaped curve and are frequently reported in percentiles, with 50% being average. If your student gets a 60%, for example, she scored better than 60% of the students in the sample.

What the results mean

A national norm-referenced test can be useful in making national comparisons of how students perform. But it doesn't tell you much about the success of your school. Because these tests are written so that results can be sorted on a bell curve, for example, these tests include very difficult questions designed so that only a few students will be able to answer. As testing expert W. James Popham explained in a National PTA newsletter, these tests "actually measure what students bring to school, not what students are taught in school. Such tests, of course, should not be used to evaluate a school's success. A school should be judged primarily by what students have learned there."

Questions parents should ask

Find your school on GreatSchools.org, click on the Test Scores tab where you'll see an explanation of your state's tests and what they measure. Ask your principal how the results are used to improve learning and teaching.

Specialized standardized tests

AP exams

The College Board administers the Advanced Placement program in which students do college-level work in high school and have the opportunity to get college credit for it. If your student takes an AP course, his teacher will be using a lesson plan developed by College Board and in May will take the same three-hour test in that subject as other students across the nation.

What the results mean

Getting a 3 or above on the AP exams' five-point scale is like getting a C or better in a college course. But that doesn't necessarily mean a student will get college credit for getting a 3 or even a 4. As AP classes have become more popular, some college officials have questioned their rigor. Many are making it harder for students to get college credit.

Some research shows that AP classes are worth the extra work whether or not a student gets college credit: Students who get good grades on AP exams do better in college. But other researchers say the students who take AP exams would succeed in college anyway because they are motivated and academically prepared before they ever walk into an AP classroom.

Questions parents should ask

Ask your child's counselor how you can help him prepare for challenging classes, such as AP courses.

International Baccalaureate (IB) tests

The IB program is a series of highly challenging courses and exams offered at fewer than 700 schools in the United States. It is a rigorous international program administered by the International Baccalaureate Organization in Geneva, Switzerland. Students are given the tests worldwide in May and November.

What the results mean

Students who successfully complete this rigorous program receive a diploma that is widely recognized. Many universities consider IB courses to be college level and will give students college credit for successfully completing them.

Questions parents should ask

Learn more about the IB program and if your school doesn't already offer it and you think it's right for your school, ask your school site council or high school principal how you can help work toward that goal.

College admissions tests

Many colleges require applicants to take either the SAT or the ACT. These tests measure reading, writing and math skills that students have learned throughout their education as a means of predicting how well they will do in college. A number of colleges also require applicants to take up to three SAT subject tests. While the SAT was created as an aptitude test, the subject tests were designed to measure achievement in a particular subject.

What the results show

Because high schools vary widely in their rigor, these tests give admissions officers a way to compare students nationally. But SAT and ACT scores have been shown to be less important predictors of college success than a student's high school grades and whether he completed challenging classes in core subjects. An SAT and ACT test score is only one factor colleges use in making admissions decisions, and a small but growing number of colleges have dropped the requirement to submit them.

Questions parents should ask

Ask the counselor what tests are required by the colleges on your child's list and when is the best time to take them. Ask about test fees and if they are beyond your budget, ask the counselor if financial aid is available to help. Your student should become familiar with the format of the admissions test she plans to take. Learn more about how your child can be prepared by reading Understanding College Admissions Tests and SAT or ACT: How to Help Your Child Get Ready.

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

03/14/2008:
"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"
01/23/2008:
"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. "
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