Soumya’s parents just looked at her SAT scores online and found that she only needed ten more points on her math score to qualify for a prestigious gifted program. Determined to help their daughter however they can, they enroll her in an afterschool tutoring program (more on test prep). Soumya retakes the SAT and when her scores come in, her parents find that she actually performed 20 points lower in math than she did before. Her parents are shocked and quickly blame the tutoring service.
There can be a knee-jerk reaction if a child does not get into a gifted program. Parents want what is best for their children. Parents often believe that this is a gifted label and gifted programming. Gifted education programs offer educational opportunities, not to mention a sense of victory and success. A child not qualifying for a program can feel like a missed opportunity or even a loss. The immediate reaction can be that the child had a bad day and just did not test well. This may be true. However, as illustrated in the above example, a retest does not always mean a better score.
As many may know from election polling predictions, estimates of performance come with a margin of error. Although not always advertised, test scores also come with a margin of error. For example, a poll may say that a candidate is polling at 45% plus or minus 3%. In election polling, that plus or minus is called the margin of error. In testing, it is sometimes called a confidence interval. A confidence interval for a test is the range that a student’s “true score” is expected to actually fall. A “true score” is the expected score a student would get if she took that many times and all the error has been removed.
For example, with an IQ test, a person might score a 150 +/-3. That means that we believe that that person’s true IQ likely falls between 147 and 153. The important consideration is that a confidence interval goes two directions (plus and minus). In other words, unless the individual truly did have a bad day while testing (i.e., was actually sick), then at retest, that person’s score could just as likely decrease as increase from the original testing experience.
Error on tests can come in the form of taking a test after staying up the night before to coming into the test an hour late and rushing. It can also include getting lucky and happening to get a question where the answer was mentioned on the radio on the way to the test. Even in the best situations there will always be an element of chance that comes into play with test scores.
What should Soumya’s parents do? They can have their daughter take the test again and hope that their daughter scores on the positive side of the confidence interval rather than the negative. There is always the very real possibility of a child losing motivation as well. Finally, if their daughter qualified by chance, will she benefit from an educational environment that she might not be ready to learn in?