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.”

Kids who score high on achievement tests are, obviously, good test-takers, a convenient skill but not necessarily evidence of deep or creative thinking. Kids who score in the mid-range usually wish they scored higher and may be confused from feeling smart most of the time but only placing as average at test time. Kids who bomb may say they don’t care. This is hardly ever true.

Here are 3 Principles of Good Practice to ease the strain of testing.

  1. Keep test scores in proportion. From moguls to movie stars, the world is filled with successful people who did poorly on standardized tests.
  2. Urge (require?) the local school administration to make (and publish) a cluster analysis of test contents. They can get this information from previous years’ tests or from the testing company. For example, let’s say cluster analysis reveals that every year’s standardized test contains 12 questions on grammar and punctuation; 4 questions on metric measurement; 5 questions on reading comprehension; 6 questions on adding, subtracting, and multiplying fractions; and 5 math word problems. Armed with this information, a parent or teacher can say to a child, “How are you on grammar and punctuation? Good? OK, no worries there. Comprehension? Need a little work? OK. Fractions? No problem? Great. Word problems? Hard? Fine, we’ll practice word problems and comprehension.”

    Analysis reduces panic. With panic gone, and realistic pride in place, the way is clear for solid success.

  3. Parents, encourage your child’s teacher and administrators to vary the types of tests they give. Tests that combine handwriting, memorizing, time limits, and reasoning are overwhelming to many different learners. These kids do better with hands-on projects and untimed tests with scheduled review time. This doesn’t mean “dumbing down.” Often teachers can ask harder questions in this kind of format, and, paradoxically, more students will do well. Portfolio assessment, exhibitions, group or individual projects, open-book tests, or take-home exams are standard fare in graduate schools and increasingly in colleges. High school teachers are learning the benefits of this enlightenment as they discover how many different kinds of students can demonstrate their knowledge and power in this kind of opportunity.

Above all, parents, students, and educators must remember that a test only shows what one person did on one exercise on one day. A standardized test score is not a license to live or a measure of deserving oxygen and space on our planet.


  • Reading Comprehension: Students’ Needs and Teacher’s Tools
    by Priscilla L. Vail
    Rosemont, N.J.: Modern Learning Press, 1999