Standardized Testing in School (cont.)

What Are Standardized Tests?

Standardized tests are tools designed to allow measure of student performance relative to all others taking the same test.

Types of Standardized Tests

Standardized test come in two major types, Norm-referenced and Criterion-referenced. Norm referenced tests measure performance relative to all other students taking the same test. Criterion referenced tests measure factual knowledge of a defined body of material. In addition to these two main categories, test can also be divided up into Performance tests and Aptitude tests. Performance tests are assessments of what learning has already occurred in a particular subject area. Aptitude tests are assessments of abilities or skills considered important to future success in school.

Until recently, most of the well-known tests have been norm referenced. These tests are the most common and most comparable across district and state lines. Included in this family are the Stanford Assessment Test- 9th version (SAT-9), Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS), California Test of Basic Skills (CTBS), California Achievement Test (CAT),), the Stanford Achievement Test, the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale and the Terra Nova.

Norm-referenced tests report scores relative to the entire population that takes the test. Hence a score of the 75th percentile means that a student did better on the test than 75 percent of those who took the test.  It bears no direct numerical relation to the actual number of questions answered correctly.

Criterion-referenced testing has been increasing in popularity as States and School districts compete for funds and for students, and seek to demonstrate that they are effectively carrying out their primary duty of educating all children to some basic standard of literacy, knowledge and ability. Annual testing tied to Federal Education dollars has spurred a boom in the testing industry, as well as raised concerns over the ability of the existing industry to handle the increased demand for quality test development and accurate scoring.

How are standardized test scores used?

Standardize test scores are, ostensibly, used to assess school programs are succeeding and/or to provide a picture of the skills and abilities of the current students. Tests are intended to help teachers and administrators evaluate the school system, a school program, or a particular student and to make decisions regarding the instructional program and student placement.

In theory, test scores looked at over time will reveal how much progress schools have made in their efforts to maintain or raise academic standards.  All that can be reliably predicted at the outset, however, is that the tests will measure the ability of schools to maintain high scores or raise inadequate scores. Hopefully, when competition and innovation are introduced into a school district, test score trends can provide an objective means of evaluating the success or failure of the new programs.

At best, standardized tests offer a snapshot of performance relative to other students/schools or to a set body of factual knowledge. Test scores can be skewed by a number of factors:

Test design

Test conditions

Student preparation (Learning of test taking skills as opposed to basic knowledge)


Accuracy of test content

Student disabilities or special needs

Student readiness on the day of the test

(It should be noted that as States develop individual Curriculum Standards and Assessment Tests, the ability to compare results across State lines will diminish.)

Test scores should not be sole basis for making decisions about placement in programs or changes in curriculum for any child. Those decisions should be made on the basis of:

  • Observation in the classroom;
  • Evaluation of day-to-day class work;
  • Homework assignments;
  • Meetings with parents;
  • Observation of student change and growth throughout the year.

Quality in Standardized Testing

Laying aside the basic controversy over the validity of standardized test to begin with, there are further concerns which should give us pause to think about the headlong rush to tying test scores to money for Education. In particular, test Quality is a concern.

Consider the experience of the State Minnesota, where quality control failed to detect a relatively minor computer error by the scoring company, which resulted in 8,000 students "failing" a basic-skills math test they actually passed. Forty-eight high school seniors were wrongly denied their diplomas.

Or look at the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program. This criterion-referenced test was evaluated by a panel of experts and found to be abysmally flawed. Inaccurate and poorly designed, it not only failed to assess performance against the Maryland curriculum standards, but actually failed to penalize lack of basic skills and penalized students by applying inappropriate criteria for assessing knowledge.

So far, the issue of quality in testing hasn’t been widely or openly discussed, but clearly it will be a matter of importance as the amount of money spent on testing (State criterion-referenced testing is estimated to cost up to $30/student, as much as four times what national norm-referenced testing currently costs) and the amount of money flowing into State educational coffers becomes score-dependent. It doesn’t take much foresight to foresee battles at the Federal level over the allocation of funds based not only on test scores but also on the relative rigor of State curriculum standards.

Alternative Testing

Amidst this discussion, there are voices advocating strongly for assessment methods, which do not rely on test scores. There are alternative methods of assessment that are recognized to give accurate and meaningful measures of student achievement. For many students who do not fare well on standardized tests, these alternatives can provide a concrete means of demonstrating their mastery of materials presented in the classroom.

Alternative assessment methods require students to generate on their own, rather than choose a response. In other words, rather than being expected to pick the right answer from a list of possible answers, students are expected use their reasoning ability, creativity and knowledge to complete the task at hand.

Alternative assessment methods used in place of, or in conjunction with conventional testing methods include:

  • Demonstration: Students complete a task, which requires them to demonstrate mastery of a specific set of skills.
  • Exhibition: Students participate in a project and generate a report which demonstrates and understanding of the concepts and principles underlying a specific field of study
  • Investigation: Students research a subject, gather data and draw conclusions based on that data.
  • Oral Response: Students participating in a project are required to make an oral presentation of their results. The content of the report, the level of understating of the material, and the quality of the oral presentation are evaluated.
  • Portfolio:A student produces a body of work that provides an accurate reflection of the level of individual skills and the thought processes that underlie the execution of the work.
  • Written Response: Students write essays on specific topics, demonstrating their level of understanding of the topic and mastery of the written word as a means of communication.

Where standardized testing provides a quick and reproducible means of comparing student performance, most alternative methods are more time and labor intensive. As schools are forced to focus more on standardized testing as a means of acquiring and retaining funding, it becomes more and more important for parents to encourage teachers, administrators and students to broaden their view and include other forms of assessment as a routine part of education.

Helping Your Child Do Well on Tests

However you feel about standardized testing in general, if it is going to be a part of your child’s school career, there are things you can do to make it the most positive experience possible:

  • Be an involved parent every day - Parental involvement…knowing your child’s progress and school, what she or he is studying, and monitoring homework…will have an impact on the testing experience as well as the rest of your child’s attitude towards school and learning.
  • Know what tests are scheduled for what days. Make sure you know which tests are to be administered in which grades. Check your School District calendar to find out what days test are scheduled. Most school districts have already scheduled tests by the beginning of the school year, so you can plan well ahead of time.
  • Understand the purpose of any testing. Are these screening tests, achievement tests or aptitude tests? How will the results be used?
  • Make sure your child is well rested and eats a well-rounded diet. Especially for older children taking tests like the SATs, the night before a test might be stressful and sleep might not come easily. Encourage students to get several nights of good solid rest before a test and to eat well.
  • Don't place too much emphasis on the test, even if you know the results are important, but encourage your child to take tests seriously.

  • Don't judge your child on the basis of a simple test score.

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