By GreatSchools Staff
Test scores give you an indication of how students are performing at a particular school. But they don't tell the whole story. The test scores you see on GreatSchools.org, as reported by the state Department of Education, 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. They don't tell you whether students are learning critical thinking skills or how engaged students are in the learning process. These are all important factors to consider when evaluating the effectiveness of your school, or when you are searching for a new school for your child.
Since the passage of the federal No Child Left Behind Act in 2002, every state has put in place testing and standards in core subjects to comply with the law. Schools are required to test students annually in reading and math in grades 3 through 8 and at least once in grades 10 through 12. Students must also be tested in science in at least one grade in elementary, middle and high school.
Each state chooses its own test and standards of proficiency. Schools that don't show that students are making "adequate yearly progress" toward achieving proficiency are subject to federal sanctions, including loss of federal funds, providing free tutoring, allowing students to transfer to another school, and if all else fails, a complete restructuring of the school.
As of 2007, all 50 states had adopted content standards in the core subjects. But state and education leaders continue to grapple with the question of how high the standards should be. Each state provides its own answer to this question. The leaders face the challenge of "raising the bar" and holding high expectations for students while keeping the standards realistic so that the majority of students can achieve them.
When considering state standardized tests results, it's important to know where your state stands, relative to other states, in terms of its expectations for students. But you can't compare one state's scores directly with another state because each state uses its own test.
You can compare states on a national basis by looking at the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores. Every state is required to give the NAEP test to a sample of students in fourth and eighth grade in reading and in mathematics. By comparing the percentage of students achieving proficiency on state tests with the percentage achieving proficiency on the NAEP, you can get an idea how demanding each state's standards are.
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 the tests are concerned that the pressure to raise scores encourages cheating and "teaching to the test." Subjects such as art and music, which are not currently tested in most states, get less emphasis, and students may miss being exposed to a rich academic environment.
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