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 you the whole story. The test scores you see on GreatSchools, as reported by each state, 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. These are important factors to consider when evaluating the effectiveness of your school, or when you are searching for a new school for your child. Test scores are just a starting place for looking deeper. Here are three things to look for when comparing schools’ test scores.

Why is there so much emphasis on state tests?

Testing all students to gauge their proficiency was a cornerstone of the No Child Left Behind law of 2002. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) replaced No Child Left Behind in 2015, but kept, with some modifications, the tests that students take. ESSA mandates that students be tested in reading and math in third through eighth grades as well as once in high school. Schools must also test students for science at least once in grade school, middle school, and high school. Students with an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or 504 plan are entitled to test with accommodations outlined in their plan.

iTest scores are the basis for growth scores, the year-to-year difference in test scores. Districts and states use growth scores to track student progress, compare schools, and see how different groups of students perform relative to others. States also use test scores to determine if a school needs special support because of low performance.

How high should the standards be?

All states are asked to set high standards for students, but states have the flexibility to choose those standards on their own. As of 2023, most states have adopted the Common Core State Standards for reading and math in an effort to set common goals. Alaska, Nebraska, Texas, and Virginia, however, never adopted the Common Core, while Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Oklahoma, and South Carolina adopted and later rejected it. In addition, Alabama, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, West Virginia, and Maryland have been considering legislation to use their own reading and math standards. States are responsible for creating their science and social studies standards, subjects not included in the Common Core.

Although the Common Core and other state standards provide a framework for what students should learn, schools decide how those standards are taught. Standardized  testing ensures that no matter how schools cover concepts, students learn the same material. 

Accordingly, state and school leaders continue to grapple with the question of how high the standards should be. Educational leaders face the challenge of “raising the bar” and holding high expectations for students while keeping the standards realistic so that most  students can achieve them.

How can you compare test results from one state to another?

State-to-state comparisons can be tricky. Although the Common Core standards transcend state lines and some states even use the same tests, each state sets its own guidelines for what scores mean a student is proficient. State-to-state comparisons are even harder to make when some states have devised their own standards and proficiency benchmarks. For this reason, GreatSchools’ 1-10 rating can only be used to compare schools within a state.

You can, however, compare different states by looking at the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores. These tests cover the same material and have the same benchmarks for proficiency. As such, they are considered the “nation’s report card” and the gold standard for measuring academic achievement across the country. Every state is required by law to give the NAEP reading and math tests to a demographically representative sample of students in fourth and eighth grade every two years. (NAEP results are not released for individual students or schools.) 

NAEP includes state and national assessments of students in grades 4, 8, and 12 in different subjects. NAEP also administers its tests in 26 large urban school districts in grades 4 and 8 in reading, mathematics, science, and writing. 

By comparing the percentage of students achieving proficiency on state tests with the percentage achieving proficiency on the NAEP, you can get an idea of 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 state tests are concerned that the pressure to raise scores encourages cheating and “teaching to the test.” Subjects such as art and music, which aren’t tested in most states, get less emphasis, and students may miss being exposed to a rich academic environment. (NAEP, however, does have less-frequently given art and music assessments for eighth-graders.)

What about high-stakes tests?

The prevalence of “high stakes” tests is in flux. Many states have dropped the requirement that students pass mandatory exit exams to get a diploma. In 2002, more than half the states had such requirements. In 2023 only eight do; Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New York, Texas, Virginia, and Wyoming. More states now let students show what they’ve learned other than by testing. As the New America think tank notes, “…the research is not conclusive, but it is fairly consistent: exit exams have tended to add little value in terms of increasing achievement or better preparing most students for life after high school, but have imposed costs on already at-risk students in the form of higher dropout rates and GED attainment—and lower chances for college and career success.”

Younger kids are also held back in some states – often in third grade – if they aren’t deemed proficient on reading tests. However, the jury is still out on using tests to hold back kids at this age. Some researchers believe that there is little long-term damage from retention at this age. In contrast, others have found that kids held back because they fail these high-stakes reading tests ultimately see academic gains that are short-lived, diminish over time, and lead to higher drop-out rates. 

While some states still use testing to determine whether or not students progress to the next grade or graduate from high school, some federally regulated consequences for low test scores disappeared under the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

Under ESSA, schools are no longer required to demonstrate “adequate yearly progress” based on test scores – a mandate with consequences as drastic as school closure. Instead, schools must be evaluated on more diverse measures of student performance, including factors such as school safety and graduation rates.

High-stakes tests are still controversial. 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 determines whether a student is promoted or allowed to graduate, and that such tests lead educators to narrow what is taught in school.

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:

  • What are the content standards for each subject and grade tested?
  • How much time is spent practicing test-taking skills?
  • What is being sacrificed to make room for these test-prep activities?
  • How are the tests changing the nature of teaching and learning at the school?
  • Does the school use test results to identify areas that need improvement or to target support for certain students?
  • What is the school or district doing about students who consistently score below grade level?
  • What is the school doing to address any gaps in achievement among particular groups of students?
  • What can I do as a parent to help my student prepare for state tests?