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What Your Child Should Be Learning: State Tests

Teaching the standards, testing strategies and time management will help your child be prepared for state tests.

By Miriam Myers , GreatSchools Staff

State Tests and the Standards

You've probably been hearing a lot about standardized tests - from the media, your child's school and even from your child. Preparing for these tests and paying attention to the results are increasingly becoming important parts of public education today.

As a result of the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law, there's a nationwide emphasis on testing and accountability.

Who Decides What Tests My Child Will Take?

Although NCLB is a federal law, each state Department of Education decides which tests will be given in that state. Schools in all 50 states must give tests annually in reading and math in grades 3 through 8 and at least once in grades 10 through 12. Students are now tested in science at least once during grades 3 through 5. Many states give additional tests in social studies, writing and other subjects in various grades.

The NCLB law also requires schools to show that students are "making adequate yearly progress" or face consequences, including allowing students to transfer to another school, offering free tutoring, losing federal funds or in the worst cases, being taken over by the state.

How Do I Find Out What's on the Tests?

Some states produce documents called directories of test specifications. These documents provide teachers and parents with in-depth information about the tests. For example, New Jersey's Language Arts Directory of Test Specifications explains how many words are in a typical passage on the test. This information helps teachers match their classroom activities and tests to state curriculum standards. Parents should be aware of these documents so they know what type of work they should expect to see in the classroom. Find your state standards.

To see what state tests your child is taking, check your school's profile on For sample test questions, check your state Department of Education online.

What's the Best Way to Prepare for the Test?

How is your child preparing in the classroom to take all these tests? Is she spending many hours filling out bubbles on practice tests and memorizing vocabulary words? Time spent on endless class drills means there's less time for your student to practice higher level thinking skills and learn subjects that aren't on state tests, such as art, music or a second language.

At the other extreme, are the tests not mentioned until the day they are given? Teachers who don't help prepare students for tests are missing the chance to teach valuable life skills such as time management and the ability to understand the meaning of words from context, pull out facts and draw connections from reading passages.

The best test preparation, experts agree, is for the teacher to provide rich, engaging lessons based on the state grade-level standards, which are in turn the basis for the state tests.

"The best way to prepare students for standardized tests is to be addressing the standards continuously in teaching," says Karen Heath, a literary specialist and Vermont's Teacher of the Year in 2005. "Our state tests are designed to measure progress on and attainment of state standards, and so if we are truly teaching to the standards, which we should be, students are in ongoing preparation for the tests."

Comments from readers

"If you are going to write an article about anything, especially education, I should think that it would be proof read before published. Pg.3 under Essay a school in Edmond, Oklahoma is mentioned. However, it is not spelled correctly. This is how it is written "Edmund Public Schools in Oaklahoma". Really ? Lets get it right so that our students can count on our abilities in all subjects, including geography. "
"This was a GREAT article and I liked it and it also satisfied my quests and added so much to my knowledge.Thank U."
"NCLB leaves every child behind. This is not teaching for inspiring lifelong learning. The president who supported this program was himself not educated to be a lifelong learner. Teaching to the test is an insult to the students and teachers. No small wonder so many young teachers are leaving the profession. When half of our country is illiterate how can they judge what teaching to low standards can mean to their children's futures. This is one disgusting hoax placed upon education. Some standards when each state can make up their own tests. Students are bored out of their heads and not inspired to become lifelong learners."
"Love your website. Extremely informative. It has a very positive impact on my 11-year old son's grades. THANKS!"
"Children should be taught and well versed in the basics, reading, writing and math. Verbal skills are important too. Teaching to the tests is futile, and the tests I have seen could be pased by gerbils with ink on their feet. The standards are very low."
"What about kids in special ed classrooms. Our district has kids with specific learning disabilities segregated into different schools by clustering them in self-contained classes such as: K-1 (Jefferson School), 2-3 (Washington School), 4-5 (Roosevelt School). The children have specials and science class in general ed while the rest is in self-contained by grade level. My concern is that these children are not being taught according to core curriculum standards for their grade level but are generally one or two years behind in either language arts or math. What can we do about his problem even if our child's strengths are in math but they are teaching a year behind the standards and therefore the NJASK tests are below for our group as well? Too many kids to individualize in each class but pace is too slow for many children in math. What are the NJASK standards for special ed children? Can we try to get them to try to stick to core curriculum standards within these clas! srooms?"
"How should these tests be administered to someone who suffers from ADD? My son struggles with understanding how the tests questions are stated. I am really concerned that he will get frustrated and not complete the test. I am opened to any suggestions on how I might help him get prepared for these tests?"
"Many parents don't realize that you have the option of 'opting out' of the test. Schools really dissuade you from doing so because 95% of the students (in CA anyway) must be tested. For an ADD child that might be the best option. If your child has an IEP you may be able to get it changed so that your child will have modifications during the test or take a different test."
"How should these tests be administered to someone who suffers from ADD? My daughter struggles with her class room work and finds it so hard to complete her normal required work. I know she will be totally lost on these testing days. Do you have any suggestions on how we might help her when testing begins?"
"This article is great, as long as this is what is being demonstrated and taught to our children. In Michigan, it is not. I think our education and testing is too easy. These kids are given study guides, which are exactly the test. The teachers are not really teaching or reinforcing or even challenging what these kids should be learning. To me it is just to be able to check off the square of what needs to be accomplished. Very sad state of affairs for our kids here in Michigan. "
"Can I ask for my child to opt out of the tests? I have a child with a learning disability and the testing is tough for her. I'd like to find out about not testing her. Thank you"
"This article is good, but still we'd like to see how the states compare to each terms of their standards. It's apples to oranges, mostly. There's no elementary testing (for publics) akin to the SAT. But, there is ERB testing for privates, which is national. How does public testing compare to ERB?"
"I'm baffled and do not understand scoring. If a 233 is 'excellent,' what is the best possible score? What ranges of scores are the equivalents of the old A, B, C, and D's? Is there a website comparing scores (not just percentages of students who qualified) among Oregon schools?"
"We are in the process of a move across state. What should we do to help to help our 4th and 6th graders prepare for the test while they are between schools? I am not certain of the structure, etc.."
"In regards to any type of testing, be it state or everyday course testing, my comments are this. This is the grade that mupltiple subjects and chapter testing intensifies. I believe there should be instruction on taking notes and keeping an agenda to meet timelines on tests or projects due. Our school collects $4.00 and provides an agenda for all students. There should be reinforcement to utilize it. My son is a good student but in 5th grade at this time, he is falling behind on preparedness for routine tests and quizes. The agenda has been with him since he came to this school in 3rd grade. I believe good study habits should be reinforced regularly. If at the end of the day a teacher said students take out your agenda; go to Feb 5th write in project due. Kids would learn and create great habits. Last night I went through his agenda-basically empty. So I showed him where imformation needed to be placed to assist his progress. This is just one small item in learning but large! !ly helpful. Parents are so involved these days because homework is so heavy. You forget about that fact that tests are happening now and study habits have to fit in as well. The early years are important in teaching the utilization of any tools to better learning and I believe they should be an ongoing reinforcement. "