State Standardized Test Scores: Issues to Consider

State tests hold schools accountable for results, but they don't tell the whole story about a school.

By GreatSchools Staff

How Important Are Test Scores?

Test scores give you an indication of how students are performing at a particular school. But they don't tell the whole story. The test scores you see on GreatSchools.org, as reported by the state Department of Education, compare groups of students from one year to the next but they don't tell you about individual student progress. They don't tell you about the richness of the curriculum - whether there is art or music, or opportunities for individual or group exploration into a particular subject. They don't tell you whether students are learning critical thinking skills or how engaged students are in the learning process. These are all important factors to consider when evaluating the effectiveness of your school, or when you are searching for a new school for your child.

Why Is There So Much Emphasis on State Tests?

Since the passage of the federal No Child Left Behind Act in 2002, every state has put in place testing and standards in core subjects to comply with the law. Schools are required to test students annually in reading and math in grades 3 through 8 and at least once in grades 10 through 12. Students must also be tested in science in at least one grade in elementary, middle and high school.

Each state chooses its own test and standards of proficiency. Schools that don't show that students are making "adequate yearly progress" toward achieving proficiency are subject to federal sanctions, including loss of federal funds, providing free tutoring, allowing students to transfer to another school, and if all else fails, a complete restructuring of the school.

How High Should the Standards Be?

As of 2007, all 50 states had adopted content standards in the core subjects. But state and education leaders continue to grapple with the question of how high the standards should be. Each state provides its own answer to this question. The leaders face the challenge of "raising the bar" and holding high expectations for students while keeping the standards realistic so that the majority of students can achieve them.

How Can You Compare Test Results From One State to Another?

When considering state standardized tests results, it's important to know where your state stands, relative to other states, in terms of its expectations for students. But you can't compare one state's scores directly with another state because each state uses its own test.

You can compare states on a national basis by looking at the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores. Every state is required to give the NAEP test to a sample of students in fourth and eighth grade in reading and in mathematics. By comparing the percentage of students achieving proficiency on state tests with the percentage achieving proficiency on the NAEP, you can get an idea how demanding each state's standards are.

How Do the Tests Influence What Happens in the Classroom?

Proponents of state standardized tests believe these tests drive schools to focus on getting all students to meet basic proficiency levels and achieve basic skills. The tests provide a measure of accountability for what goes on in the classroom.

Critics of the tests are concerned that the pressure to raise scores encourages cheating and "teaching to the test." Subjects such as art and music, which are not currently tested in most states, get less emphasis, and students may miss being exposed to a rich academic environment.

What About High-Stakes Tests?

The use of "high-stakes" tests is on the rise. Twenty-six states currently have a high school exit exam or have plans to implement one in the near future. Students must pass these exams in order to receive a high school diploma. Some states use tests in certain grade levels (generally third and/or fifth grade) to determine promotion from one grade level to the next.

"High-stakes" tests have generated much controversy. Proponents believe they propel schools to focus on getting all students to achieve and create a "no excuses" environment. Opponents counter that it's not fair that a single test determine whether a student is promoted, and that such tests lead to narrowing what is taught in school.

In fact, much of the controversy around tests is not so much about the tests themselves, but how the results are used: Should English language learners and students with learning disabilities be required to pass the same tests as the other students? Should test results be used to determine promotion or graduation? Should schools be penalized for poor test results?

What Should I Do If I'm Concerned About My School's Test Scores?

If you are concerned about your school's results or the amount of time students spend preparing for state tests, here are some questions you can ask your school principal and school site council: