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Five Ways to Get Smart About Test Scores

It's important to look beyond the raw test results when evaluating a school's academic achievement.

By GreatSchools Staff

1. Interpret scores responsibly.  

When you review a school's test scores, whether they are posted on GreatSchools.org, in the newspaper or at a school board meeting, always look beyond the basic numbers. The scores for a single school in a single year have limited value for judging school performance. Equally important is trend data-test scores from several years that show you how a school's performance has changed over time. In addition, comparing a school to other schools with similar demographics may give you perspective on where the school stands relative to other schools like it. You can also learn a lot from data that is broken down by ethnic group and socioeconomic level, which is now being provided under the No Child Left Behind federal law. A school is only truly successful when it helps students in all ethnic and social groups achieve at high levels.

2. Learn what's behind the scores. 

The next time you hear somebody say, "That school is the best in the district because it has the highest test scores," make a point to ask what's happening at the school that accounts for those scores. Find out about the school's teaching methods, the leadership provided by the principal and whether students feel safe and valued. It's important to investigate numerous measures of school quality before making judgments about a school.

3. Communicate with your child. 

When your child's class is preparing for its annual standardized testing marathon, let your child know that, while you hope he does his best on the test, it's not a competition. Explain that the results may help him--and his teacher--understand the areas where he might be especially strong or where he may need to focus more.

4. Expect more from the media. 

If your local newspaper writes an article about the test scores of schools in your area, but doesn't make a point of digging deep, write a letter to the editor. Make it clear that you don't approve of having school performance boiled down to a single measure, and that you'd love to see more insightful coverage about the different strengths and challenges of each school, plus richer explorations of the issues around testing.

5. Find schools that are good role models. 

Use the free tools on GreatSchools.org to find schools that are succeeding with students in all ethnic and socioeconomic groups. For example, you can use GreatSchools.org's Compare Schools tool to search for a school that has a high percentage of non-English-speaking students but also has high standardized test scores. Once you zero in on a school whose numbers intrigue you, take a look at its school profile for clues about what the school is doing to succeed, or contact the school and ask for more information.

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

04/2/2009:
"The Tests are quite good the Students take time to study and that's enriching, plus it keeps their minds sharp."
08/5/2008:
"Good points, it's sometimes a challenge even for us parents to keep perspective. I agree it is important for us to look at all of the different areas a school might be strong in, not just a score. Thanks for keeping this website. My husband and I find it very useful."
07/28/2008:
"Meline, I appreciate GreatSchools.org for its many links to resources and information. Your rosy 'testing marathon' comments, though, prompt me to inquire as to where you live. It's not New York City, is it? To say that standardized testing in New York City is not a competition, but a guide to help the student and his teacher understand the areas of strength and weakness is a naive fairy tale; one in which I regret being able to disabuse you of in short order. My son, who missed the ELA test in the 7th grade last year (we moved to New York one week after its administration), was denied any choice in the HIGHLY COMPETITIVE high school application process. His many absences (due to a chronic medical condition) and his grades (which suffered from those absences) did not allow the city's behemoth high school sorting process to really see him at all, let alone see him for who he really is -- a child who should have been given his choice of ANY high school in New York City, according to its own top 2% rule in reading comprehension. Administrators at Joseph B. Cavallaro in District 21 kept saying that his not having that one test score on his application wouldn't really make a difference (a pleasant lie --not unlike the one you put forth above-- that's popular with administrators who use it both to placate and to push off discussion and/or conflict until it is too late in the selection process for remediation). Ironically, my son's score on his 5th grade SAT placed him on a post high school equivalency level in reading comprehension. His SAT status couldn't possibly be considered in determining where he'd go to high school here, though, because it was 'not the same test as that administered by New York State.' Big deal, I thought, having taught classes at three universities, private and public elementary schools, and truly amazing homeschool groups. How silly of me. The SAT, I found out later, isn't equated with meeting any state standards here in New York; oh no, it's just one of those mediocre standardized yardsticks used across the rest of the country. Finally, the district, in testing my son recently for possible accommodations (as requested by his physicians), found his level of academic functioning in all areas of reading and comprehension (according to the Woodcock Johnson Test) to be that of a college student. Wow.....what a surprise. The topper, though, is that his reading fluency placed his age equivalency to be that of someone beyond 30 years of age, with a grade equivalency of NOT post high school, mind you, nor post college, but post graduate school. It's a close call, I know, but I'd still bet money that, somehow, someway, given the opportuntiy, he would have scored in the top 2% of those 7th graders upon which New York State graciously bestowed the privilege of taking that inconsequential, doesn't-make-a-difference, little ELA test. So, tell me, Meline, do you still think these tests (at least in New York City) aren't a competition? Perhaps you believe, like one of the vice principals at IS 281, that 'one test isn't going to make that much of a difference in the big picture' of my son's education. Perhaps you sincerely believe in communicating to children that tests are just tools that provide direction in planning upcoming curriculum, even when that isn't true. Maybe you believe in communicating that even more so when one test is the all-important, only tool that's heavily weighted enough to determine the context within which a child will spend the next four years of their life (due to that test's status as a predictor of student success). Please try sharing your justifiable perspective with my son this summer, while he contemplates starting high school next month in a school (of over 3000 students) that not only didn't make his 'top twenty list', but was the one he vehemently opposed putting on his list of choices at all. 'It's way too big, Mom. Why are we even talking about that school? You know I work better in a smaller group, where the students are there because they actually want to learn and want to talk about the concepts. Most of the kids that show disrespect to the teachers at Cavallaro and ruin our chances EVERY SINGLE DAY of doing anything beyond reading out of a textbook and looking at something preprogrammed in the computers will end up at THAT school, because of where they live. No way am I putting it on my list!' Contrary to the expressed beliefs of long-term administrators and 'guidance counselors' who are shoveling students as fast as they can through the nearest and largest openings available, my 14 year old son's perspective is that having to spend eight hours a day for the next four years of his life in a school he didn't choose (because of a test he WASN'T ALLOWED to take) matters quite a lot in 'the bigger picture of HIS education.' Please, Meline, say it just one more time --and this time, with FEELING-- 'It's not a competition.' No, Meline, you're right; it's really not...........at least not for my son.....nor really for any other child residing within a New York City school district. It's a calamity."
07/10/2008:
"How do I compare with scores from other states, it looks like the standards in Florida are significantly lower than those of the Northeast, or Mid-west."
06/12/2008:
"The FCAT results only give a snapshot picture of how a student has performed on a given test on a given day, and don't necessarily reflect what he or she has learned over the course of a year, even more, this is very stressfull for our children and give more relevance to the FCAT than the whole year scores is in my opinion a huge mistake, because it discourages our children's efforts. I don't think it's a good idea to rely solely on FCAT test scores to judge a student or school, this can cause a lot of damage to the academic records to our children."
04/29/2008:
"Standardized test results only give a snapshot picture of how a student has performed on a given test on a given day, and don't necessarily reflect what he or she has learned over the course of a year. I don't think it's a good idea to rely solely on test scores to judge a school. For students with dyslexia, for example, test scores can vary widely. There are many other criteria parents can use to base a decision about the best fit for their child. It's probably a good idea to meet with the principal and other school staff if possible to get an idea of the school's philosophy and how they view their role in contributing to students' social and emotional well-being, not just academics."
02/5/2008:
"I have looked over a good amount of information your site provides. I recently moved to Central Florida and am looking at the school I placed my children in. It seems there are other schools in the area that have a better rating, but I'm not sure moving my children is the right thing to do. greatschools.org has some valuable information. thank you"
01/30/2008:
"Why don't they have a chart or graph showing how the school is going as it relates to individual progress. That may say more, psrticularlly where a school is dealing with kids that are facing bigger challenges."
01/28/2008:
"I am new to the Standardized Testing system and from reading your information I am now informed since I have a child that just entered Middle School. I have looked over your 'De-Stress' checklist and one of them that caught my attention was getting sample questions of the test. My son has a book to work from and he is just not motivated. I am really frustrated because I know he can do better but he is not making the effort. If I am not there with him, he does not work independently, I am at my wits end. I am also a student and it is quite frustrating. My son is 13 and his sister is 6 and his attitude is affecting her. Please give me some advice."
01/22/2008:
"im a new parent...what is Gate program...? how young does your child have to be when they are able to enter?"
10/31/2007:
"I enjoyed reading this , love the web site and to the teachers keep up the good work."
10/2/2007:
"I would like to comment on the 'Gate' student...Now what is esl students? Please tell me that the 'poor preformer' programs that you are refering to are not special education programs. My daughter is in special education and deserves an education just as my son who is in high school and an A student. Now my child is in a class room for special education students at a regular ed school. The program is wonderful and we are lucky. Some parents want their special need children in regular class room settings, I myself don't feel it is fair, first to my the special ed child, the teacher or the other students. I think funds should be given all areas of school as needed and not just special ed or reg. ed. Every child has a right to learn to the best of their ability. I want my daughter to be a part of the community doing what ever she does best when she is older...working etc...maybe if you could get together with other parents and make it known to the school system and who ever necessary to get the action you need. Thank you.."
04/27/2007:
"My son is a GATE student. This year his school has been nothing but irritating. First, the school has given the funding this year to the poor performer programs at his school. Then my son had the choice to learn another language while they learned English (in a time period) or go over what he already knew, twiddling his thumbs, waiting for the ESL students. The ESL kids never score above 800 as a group, while my son and others like him score in the 900's. We get less funding for the school, and what they do get goes to them. This is only hurting our chidren. I am considering having him skip the testing this year.If they fail this year, we have the right to go to a better school or get special additional services. Why help the school if they don't value him?"
04/26/2007:
"Test scores track with socio-demographics. So Florida spends $50 million each year on FCAT testing that could be spent on health care for children."
04/26/2007:
"I agree with the article written on 8/28/06. When is this Fcat gonna stop hurting our students of the fact they can read and write or they would not have made it to high school. Please do something within the year and not wait to vote the year of 2010."
04/16/2007:
"What do past test scores from your child's teacher compared to other teachers at their grade level tell you? It tells you how those particular students, that particular year performed on these tests. Teachers have no say on who is in their class each year. Can you compare two teachers when one might have 3 English Language Learners and 5 resource students and the other has less or more? The real problem is that what teachers are asked to teach is not always developmentally appropriate and neither are these tests. The people making decisions on what to teach our students should have child develpment backgrounds."
03/28/2007:
"It could also ge mentioned that parents can and should request the past test scores of their childs teachers. The comprehensive score will show how well he/she does compared to others in her grade level. If parents are going to 'Get involved' they need to place their child in a class where learning takes place. Joe"
03/27/2007:
"It could also ge mentioned that parents can and should request the past test scores of their childs teachers. The comprehensive score will show how well he/she does compared to others in her grade level. If parents are going to 'Get involved' they need to place their child in a class where learning takes place. Joe"
12/4/2006:
"I am also concerned about all the testing and have seen my fourth grader stop sleeping and feel anxious all the time about her test scores at school. She has been an 'A' student up unti 4th grade and now is a 'C' student. She is not able pass the 1,5,7, minute tests. They are tested ever 5-7 days on each subject. It seems that since the goverment is paying the districts based on the tests scores that they care less about the actual child and are driven to prepare them for the tests. We have gotten letters home stating the there is not enough time for physical education and that we should plan for more out of school activities. Art has been taken away and science classes are held after school for cost. I am all for a good education but I can see why there is an issue with so many people moving families moving to private schools and homeschooling options. People are frustrated and so are the children. I hear a lot from parents but the teachers are politically unable to speak ! up. I know they are unhappy with the current pressure but they are doing what is demanded and must be a miserable as the children. "
12/1/2006:
"I was recently reading an article on testing for students. Would we give Roger Clemens , Tiger Woods, or Serena Williams a paper / pencil test to rate how well they play their sport? Why do we insist on judging students by one moment in time. "
08/28/2006:
">From Georgia 8/25/06. Thank you for this article and allowing so many people to voice their opinion. I agree with many of these concerned parents, students, and teachers. It's a shame how our kids are being pushed into a nervous wreck, possible medical or health conditions due to the pressures of school, (testing). I remember growing up attending school. It was an enjoyable place to go everyday and we were allowed to be kids. Moreso, we enjoyed learning without pressure. Sure we were tested but not retained based on test scores. Presently, everything has gotten too political. Teachers can't be teachers, kids can't be kids, and parents can't be parents because we have too many rules governing our lives. Who are these test benefitting? How many of our leaders who make these rules and laws can pass these same test that are administered to our kids? How can we as concerned parents, teachers, and students put a stop to what is going on? I believe our kids' rights are being violated. This needs to be! stopped!"
08/17/2006:
"I live in Texas and just this past year graduated. I know these new tests and how the School Districs look upon them. The State is not at fault here, I firmly believe it is the weight the schools put upon the test for THEIR funding. Yet, even when our schools do good, we are underequipped. My last year, the language department changed books to a new company, even though books were ordered and ready for the start of school, the Distric did not have the money, which they blamed on the State. In that instance, it is the State's fault, but I still feel that because of this TAKS test, the districs put so much pressure on teachers that they attempt to teach nothing but the test. They teach the curriculam for the test and then spend over a MONTH for preparation for the TAKS test. This means during the school year, these teachers are cramming information into students who cannot learn that fast. I personally had a few teachers who hated this policy enacted by the Distric that teachers had to teach the test, so therefore, they taught the class curriculam and not TAKS taking skills. Low and behold, the students in the classes that got taught the curriculam and not test got a much higher Commended rating on their TAKS tests. Because of this fear of funding loss, the Distric has placed to much stress and weight upon the teachers to teach a test that is useless if this kind of approachment is proceded. I, as a member of the Class of 2006, know how students feel, for I was just one. Believe me when I say, it isn't the test, it isn't the state, it isn't even the teacher's fault, but it is the School Distric's fault! I have much more to complain about local policies, but this post is meant to express my view on the TAKS test and its effects on the student and teacher population."
08/14/2006:
"This is an interesting article. It was brief, but informative. Thank you!!"
02/10/2006:
"I strongly have to diagree with you Texas writer. In Utah the school test scores are high and low. This is a state where parents are allowed to put their children in schools that are out of district if there is room for them. The test scores where my children should go do not even meet the national average. They are way below the average. So this tells me that the teachers are NOT doing their job. I can understand the stress it puts on the children, but, if we are to take test our entire lives; even if it's not written we have 'test' in our occupations, relationships...shouldn't our children get conditioned to what's ahead?"
02/10/2006:
"The article is fine, the test is the problem. Since this test has started it has been more of a stress on the children and teachers than anything. It isn't allowing the teachers to teach the students what they need to learn it allows only the teachers to teach the students the test. I know this as I've done extensive research in regards to this matter. I also know that the average number of teachers seeing therapist has increased dramatically since this tests was introduced. Kids need to be taught not threatened to be left behind if they don't make the right grade on a specific test. Some children/kids panic during tests.. I was one of those kids and trust me, I would still be in elementary if I had to take these tests! I think it's wrong and doesn't bring out the best in our kids, we need to support them NOT lower their self esteem because they don't pass a test. Oh, but make sure that school looks good and everyone passes...Heaven forbid a school looks bad on their results! The state needs to re-examine their thought process here. It's not about our kids at all...it's about scores for the state!"
02/9/2006:
"Each school should be encouraged to begin the year by giving sample test several months before the actual test are given. Why not base the yearly curriculum on the contents of the test which would allow all students to understand what is expected of them. Most information on the test has not been covered in the classroom and therefore the students are not prepared. Lets try to help our students succeed."
02/3/2006:
"An interesting article. But what I have been unable to find out is how different state tests compare. For instance, I am moving from Dayton, Ohio to Pulaski, Missouri, and the school test ratings are significantly different, dropping from about 85% pass rate around Dayton to only about a 30% pass rate around Pulaski. Is it possible that the Missouri testing program is more difficult than the Ohio testing program, and thus students are not scoring as high in Missouri as in Ohio? Is there some federal scale that compares difficulty of tests between different states?"
09/27/2005:
"As a parent of 4th & 6th grade students,I think the testing is fine to a certain extent. I think the test counts as too much of our childrens future. Children that do well all year gets held back because they do not so well on the testing. I think thats for the birds. By the time children that are now in elementry school get to high school they will be a nervous reck. Is that what the state really want for our children? "
03/11/2005:
"I'm finding that the DSTP has caused Delaware teachers to conform to teaching children the test. Therefore, children are missing the basics. It's a shame because too many children are being labeled by these test...even the children who do well throughout the school year and zonk the test."
03/10/2005:
"How many of us have GOOD JOBS with out all that testing? How many of our childern will be on the edge of a nervious breakdown because of these test? HOW MANY OF THE TEACHERS IN THE 30- 65 AGE GROUP CAN PASS THIS TEST? NOT MANY AS THEY HAVE THE BOOK WITH THE ANSWERS lETS GET THESE TEST OUT OF THE SCHOOLS AND SAVE OUR CHILDREN FROM MENTAL HARM. Warch your little ones as they go off to school on test days.It is enough to make a parent or grandparent cry. HOME SCHOOLING IS THE WAY TO GO."
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