If it seems like students have a lot more standardized testing these days than when you were in school, you are absolutely right. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) mandates annual testing in math and reading for all students in grades 3-8 and, at least once more, in grades 9-12. In addition, many states are piloting standardized testing in science, because NCLB will begin to require such testing in the 2007-08 school year.
Rather than developing entirely new standardized tests, which can be expensive and time-consuming, many states contract with major testing companies to develop state-specific versions of existing tests. Generally, these modifications match the test questions more closely to state curriculum standards and frameworks. For example, CTB/McGraw Hill’s Terra Nova test is the basis for the Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test (FCAT), given to approximately 1.8 million students annually in Florida. The FCAT questions are aligned with the Sunshine State Standards, Florida’s K-12 educational framework.
NCLB requires all schools to make adequate yearly progress toward the goal of having all students proficient by 2014. The states themselves select the assessments, an arrangement that inadvertently offers them an incentive to select tests that demonstrate strong student performance. Although NCLB requires states to implement accountability systems, the act does not set national standards for student knowledge level at each grade. In response to these influences, some states have set demanding proficiency levels for their students while others have adopted lower standards that artificially inflate the performance of students in these states.
Concerns for Parents
The increased emphasis on standardized testing concerns parents of highly able students. Due to their design, paper and pencil tests emphasize memorization of facts at the expense of higher-level academic skills and competencies. Since these complex abilities are not being tested, classroom instruction in these competencies may be minimized. Schools may see little need to support academic acceleration or enrichment for the child who has been classified as meeting proficiency, a goal that many gifted students can achieve with limited effort. In addition, state funding for gifted programs has been reduced—in several states drastically—as schools reallocate their resources to focus on raising the competency of their lowest-performing students.
Criticism of mandatory high-stakes testing is by no means limited to concern about its effects on gifted students and programs. Observers note that when facing rewards or punishments based on test scores, many schools respond by devoting additional time to test-taking drills and basic skills development in core areas of reading and math. The time set aside for these efforts often comes at the expense of time formerly spent in academic and enrichment areas such as science, social studies, art, music, and even recess. Instruction in test-taking skills may be focused so narrowly on the requirements of one particular test that students are unable to apply these abilities to other related areas. Topics that are not on the test may never be covered in class, or may be limited to the few weeks of school that remain after annual testing has been completed. These troublesome effects are most evident at schools with lower scores, which often tend to be those schools located in low socio-economic areas or that have more students who are minorities or English language learners.
Connecting Testing to Performance
As a parent, how can you determine how rigorous your state’s testing regimen is? One approach might involve examining the proportion of students who score at each level of performance on your state’s accountability test. This information is usually available from your state’s department of education Web site, or locally through your school or district officials. You can compare your child’s performance to other students at the school, district, and state level to determine how your child compares to other students in these groups.
For example, you might find that 75 percent of the students at your child’s school scored at the top level of performance on your state’s assessment. This may indicate that the majority of students are performing well, as might be the case if your child attends a particularly effective school. However, it could also mean that the criteria established for this level of performance are not rigorous. In contrast, if only 6 percent of students score at the top level, the test may be more rigorous or, perhaps, the school is less effective. In either scenario, how can you determine whether it is primarily the quality of the school’s instruction or the difficulty of the test that is producing the results you have observed?
In-State versus National Comparisons
As mentioned, the structure of NCLB requirements presents a strong temptation for states to water down their assessments. As someone who may not be an educator, how can you determine whether your state has strong or weak standards?
Fortunately there is a way to compare student achievement across states, albeit indirectly. The National Assessment of Educational Progress or NAEP, also referred to as the Nation’s Report Card, is a nationally administered standardized test of student ability in various subject areas. The NAEP has been administered voluntarily to representative samples of students in both public and private schools since the program’s inception in the late 1960s. Although your child’s district or school may not participate in NAEP testing, the schools that do are selected in such a manner that the NAEP results can be generalized to other schools in the same state. The NCLB act now requires all states to participate in NAEP testing, so your state will have scores available for comparison.
Unfortunately, NAEP does not release scores for individual students or schools, so, these data cannot be used directly to evaluate your child or your child’s school. However, the NAEP does provide scores aggregated by state and region, which can be used to evaluate the rigor of your state’s testing program. If students from your state score approximately the same on the NAEP as on the state exam, this suggests that the questions on the state test are of approximately the same level of difficulty as the questions on the NAEP. Conversely, if their performance on the NAEP is substantially lower than that obtained on the state exam, this suggests either that the state exam is less rigorous or that the content of the two assessments is not comparable. Many experts believe that differences in rigor, rather than in content, are primarily responsible when performance differences between the NAEP and state tests are observed. This suggests that if you find performance differences, they are likely a reflection of actual differences in the difficulty level of the two measures. Such comparisons are reported on from time to time in local media. By keeping an eye out for this information, you can get a good sense of how your child’s performance compares to other students around the country.
Discussing test comparisons with your child in a supportive manner can be beneficial, particularly for the child who wishes to pursue career interests in a nationally or internationally competitive field. Repeated exposure to tests that are too easy may lead students to adopt the mistaken belief that they do not need to study. Students with this mindset often experience a rude awakening upon entering a selective college, when their poor performance leads to the sudden realization that they should have studied harder when they were younger.
Explaining test scores from an early age and in a positive way can help your child to understand that their goals should be greater than simply being the best student on a test in their school. For the child who excels in test-taking skills, such comparisons also may help them to understand that there will always be a more rigorous test ahead. Being aware of how your state’s tests compare to national standards can help you and your child to make informed educational decisions.
—Michael S. Matthews, PhD
Michael Matthews is an assistant professor in the gifted education program at the University of South Florida in Tampa.
- National Center for Education Statistics. (2006). NAEP Overview. Retrieved May 30, 2006, from nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/about/
- Peterson, P. E., & Hess, F. M. (2005). Johnny can read…in some states. Education Next, 5(3), 52-53.