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.
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."