Periodically throughout a school year, students are required to take some sort of standardized test or tests. A few common tests middle schoolers take in private and public schools are the CoGat tests, MAP tests, and Terra Nova testing. It can be tempting for parents to gravitate towards one of two extremes when it comes to their students' testing and results: apathy or obsession. These tests are certainly important--they provide a glimpse of a student's growth and capabilities, help to guide curriculum planning for schools and districts, and inform classroom teachers of students' areas of strength and opportunities for growth. But they are, by no means, the "end all, be all" of a student's progress, achievement, or growth. Parents who have some understanding of the types of tests their students take and how to interpret their results are better equipped to develop a healthy approach to testing and make informed decisions about their student's education.
What is a standardized test?
There are essentially two types of standardized tests: proficiency and achievement. Proficiency begins with a set of pre-determined content criteria, and the test at the end determines whether or not the student has mastered that content (such as state tests).
Achievement tests (TerraNova, SAT, Iowa) do not have a pre-determined set of content objectives. Rather they measure students’ knowledge and ability and compare it to sample groups to determine how individuals and groups compare to the sample (usually called a “norming” group). Achievement tests are essentially impossible to prepare for; students simply take them. They provide a snapshot of a child’s academic progress compared to that norming group. The norming process is usually done before the test is published and distributed, and tests are often re-normed regularly.
Why do students take standardized tests?
These tests help students, parents, teachers, and schools verify whether or not students are learning and growing as they ought. This helps monitor progress, but it also assists decision-makers when children struggle to learn. Standardized tests dive into the work of a student and allow parents and educators to monitor where a student excels and where learning is a struggle. When the data is grouped together for a teacher, a grade, or a school, the results indicate whether or not the overall group met its mission of educating the students in total.
Why all the different numbers?
It may feel like you need a graduate degree to get to the bottom of all the data on a student report, but almost every standardized test begins with a “scale score.” This score is as close to a grade as a standardized test produces. Essentially the scale score is the number that the standardized test uses as its basis for comparing results. Standardized tests usually use one scale score, and as the test levels become more complex and the students learn and grow, their scale scores rise year over year even if their other numbers stay relatively the same.
Every other number on a score report tells you what the scale score means for that student. Some examples:
National Percentile (NP)
This is probably the most common score referred to when examining standardized tests. The national percentile tells how a student (or group) compares to the norming group by reporting what that student's rank would be out of 100. For instance, if a student scored 72nd percentile on reading, they would have scored better than 71 out of 100 students at their grade level taking that same test.
Grade Equivalent Scores (GE)
GE scores identify the grade equivalent where the average student would have received the same score. So, a student receiving a GE score of 6.4 means that the median sixth grade in their fourth month of school would have received the same score. A common misconception about GE is that it identifies the level of work that a student is “ready for.” This is almost always not the case.
Normal Curve Equivalent (NCE)
This score is similar to national percentile, except it “flattens” the bell curve, so the difference between each number is the same amount. On a normal percentile scale, a typical bell curve means that many students are bunched around the 50th percentile (the median). So the difference between students at the 90th-92nd percentile is much greater than the difference between students at the 50th-55th percentile. The NCE creates a score where the difference between 50 and 55 is the same as the difference between 90 and 95.
But what should I be looking for?
Every standardized test has results that tell whether or not a child is within the “norm” for their grade level--parents should start there when reading test results. If a child’s scores regularly fall into those normal bands, there’s likely nothing to worry about. This indicates that the child is learning and their school is helping with this endeavor. If they have some numbers below the normal bands, it may be beneficial for parents to engage the school on why they might be underperforming. If their scores are above the norm, parents may look for ways to enrich their children in those areas of strength.
Many tests have a measure of ability built into the test scores alongside the achievement (such as the InView portion of the TerraNova). Those ability scores make it possible to compare a child’s predicted score based on their ability to their actual score. If a child’s actual scores outpace their predicted score, that’s a win. They are most likely really benefitting from their home and school environment, and they are learning beyond what would typically be expected. If their actual numbers are consistently below their predicted scores, that’s something to investigate. It can mean any number of things, but it sometimes indicates an undiagnosed problem that may need intervention.
Because the goal is growth, it’s a good idea for parents to keep their child’s test scores year to year and compare them as they arrive. If all is well, their national percentile scores will probably hold steady, but there should be an annual increase in their scale score.
A Healthy Parent Approach to Testing
It's important for parents not to put too much emphasis on testing. While they do say something about a child's academic life, they are just one glimpse of one day of testing that does not tell the entire story. Kids should not stress over these tests or their results; there is really nothing they could do to prepare for them. No one’s future was determined by their standardized test scores. So much of life is about skills and behaviors that standardized tests cannot measure. Things like persistence and adaptability are learned and measured in the long term, and they are immensely more valuable than a standardized test profile. Parents can be intentional about helping their child put testing in its proper place and know that hard work has rewards that can’t be graded in multiple choice.