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What Standardized Tests Do and Don't Tell You

Today's students must take many standardized tests, yet students with learning problems often perform poorly on them. An expert explains how parents accurately measure growth and progress in kids who struggle.

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By Priscilla L. Vail, M.A.T.

Today's students are being subjected to more standardized tests, yet students with learning problems often perform poorly on these pencil-and-paper types of tests. How can parents accurately measure their child's growth and progress? In this article, Priscilla Vail, M.A.T., answers that question.

Facing root canal surgery without anesthetic, having your tax return audited, or taking standardized tests may carry equal aversion/terror. Each guarantees a loss of control while also threatening pain, frustration, or embarrassment. In two previous columns, we explored the fallout of pessimism, fear, and shame. Here we will try to tame testing's terror by exploring what test designers are trying to discover and what aspects of student function are being measured. Informed parents can help their children take testing more in stride, or even discover the magic kingdom of Testing Dot Calm.

What's going on? Current public pleas for school improvement have morphed into a blood thirst for higher standardized test scores. Many different types of students are hurt by this pressure. Top students are hurt because they must often trade intellectual exploration for sure-shot answers in order to remain in those highest percentiles. This barter blunts keen mental edges. Kids in the middle are hurt because, no matter how hard they try, they can't hit the bull's eye. Kids at the bottom feel swamped, overwhelmed, embarrassed, and ashamed.

However, testing is a fact of life. So let's analyze the topic and see if we can't dilute both its descriptive and predictive power.

First, we need to remind our children and ourselves that kids need to measure themselves against:

  • their own individual progress
  • developmental levels and charts
  • academic requirements

Parents can help their children salute their own progress as they develop new skills and enjoy new achievement levels. The end of the week is a good time to have conversations about this. Each member of the family might tell something new they are trying or something they have just done for the first time. A scribe can keep notes, and each week's page can be part of a notebook or sit proudly on the refrigerator door. Here's a sample:

  • Emily is learning to knit and did four rows on a scarf.
  • Jimmy learned twenty new Spanish vocabulary words.
  • Dad tried to make a soufflé. It was a bust, so we used it as sauce on pizza dough and he's going to try again next week. (Can we please go out for dinner instead?)
  • Mom learned how to transmit a document by email.
  • Granny signed up for Tai Chi.

Some people mistakenly think developmental levels only apply to little kids. Not so. Skills as varied as learning to ride a two-wheeler, sing on key, analyze grammar, or understand Shakepearean soliloquoy are hard or impossible at some ages and manageable or pleasurable at others. People develop on individual timetables. While it is foolhardy to assume that time is a cure, often a little wait will do a lot of good.

One reason the topic of testing is so hot is that academic requirements are riding a ratchet in some schools but are nearly abandoned in others. Educators, as well as taxpayers, are looking for ways to assess what students are being offered and what they are retaining. We need to recognize three different types of test.

  • An intelligence test is usually individually administered, its purpose is to see how smart someone is, and the results are presented in an I.Q. (Intelligence Quotient) score.
  • A diagnostic test is also usually individually administered, its purpose is to see how a person learns, and the results are presented in bar graphs which show patterns and a profile.
  • An achievement test is group-administered, its purpose is to see what a person has learned, and the results are presented in percentiles or stanines which show one person's achievement in comparison to other members of a grade or school. In professional lingo, these are called "time-and-power, multiple-choice, color-in the-bubble-with-your-#2-eagle-pencil tests."

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

04/12/2010:
"I am wondering if anyone can recommend a type of evaluation to obtain for one's child when the private school the child attends does not engage in any standardized testing and the child is not at the point yet to apply for admission to another private school. The purpose of the test would be to assess how the child is doing academically on some standard basis. I understand that ERB testing is availabe for only (1) admissions purposes and (2) use by educational institutions. Thanks."
04/2/2010:
"Yeah... but memorization does not equal learning. Anyone who has been through the educational process in the United States could tell you that after cramming for a math test.. and getting an a and then being quized on the same stuff three months later is nearly impossible. You may memorize F=MA, but do you really know why force equals mass multiplied by acceleration?"
01/15/2010:
"Before I put my son into EIP he has this expression speech disability problem. during the first quarter he was proficient in literature achievement and science and now he is non proficient he was down so much because he won't cooperate with the teacher questions.and put him failed. He is almost 6 yrs old and his school speech said that he is not ready for 1st grade. I am disappointed because he did very well his other teacher lessons which I spend my own money for other lessons as well to put him advance. I would say he is very much improvement.But don't understand why this school saying he is not ready. If I test him at home and asked what to do he is so much great that I thought he is so much smart. Is it because of his speech problem made him down?I think they should make a better judgement before making final grade. I put him into full time kindergarten so that can get help him more but maybe I got disappointed. or maybe get over protect him. But all I know in my heart h! e is a smart kid that just need to help him how to organize himself. "
07/7/2009:
"I had a LD and scored poorly on tests. I do not believe test scores are a accurate measure on a persons intelligence or their potential. Test scores are over rated. I think it is not right to judge someone with LD only on test scores."
05/15/2009:
"So, do you know anything for college admissionary? Please email me. Thank you."
02/18/2009:
"This is crap, in my personal opinion, students are able to achieve anythig they put their mind to, These tests are not 'Swamping Students' or at least, not most of them, most in fact i would believe are thankful that all they really have to do is to be able to elimate answers and to be able to memorize stuff out of a book, causing their grade levels to rise. I believe that if students are put into a supportive family who limits the bad types of movies they watch and the amount of time they study they can easily pass any class in the top ten percent."
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