Achievement Test Scores: Help or Hindrance?

1 May 2001

by: Theresa Jones

Any day now, a large envelope containing the results of the standardized achievement tests administered earlier this year will appear in the mailbox of home educators across the state. Many will use the results to pass judgment on all the hard work done throughout the year. Home educators already know what their children are accomplishing, what their strengths and weaknesses are and where they are struggling and succeeding—but can we glean further information from the testing that will help in the education of our children? Or was all that time, effort and expense wasted except for mere compliance with the law? Test scores neither make one a great teacher, nor label one a failure. They can, however, be helpful if you understand what information they will provide and what they will not.

Many factors other than academic knowledge affect standardized test scores. Following directions, proofreading and understanding the language of the question are only a few of the many skills needed to score well on a standardized test. Over the years, many bright, knowledgeable children have tested poorly. For example:

  • A child could get a low score on the grammar section due to poor proofreading skills, and not lack of knowledge.
  • A child could be so sure he knew the right answer that he would not carefully study all the choices.
  • A child could be confused by questions which are dated (one test asks a question referring to a picture of an old-fashioned card catalog).
  • A child might be sick or feeling badly, and yet be well enough to be tested.
  • The unfamiliar setting or noises could distract a child.
  • A child could be anxious about the test.

Every child and family has their own little quirks that may affect the test results. Individual educational goals affect your choice of curriculum, which will in turn affect the information covered in any given year. This is especially true of the social studies and science section (which are not required by our law), but may also affect other subject areas. Standardized tests were designed for the general population, and therefore a child may or may not be fully prepared in all aspects of the test. On the other hand, teaching to the test accomplishes nothing except a high score on that particular test. The rule of thumb with nationally standardized tests is: if it confirms your knowledge of your child, then it is accurate, and if not, then other factors are affecting the numbers that are reported.

While it is helpful to know how a child is doing in comparison to his peers, the most meaningful information is derived when we note his progress from year to year, thereby allowing the teacher to individualize the curriculum and still gain practical information from the test. It is best to continue with the same test year after year, as results from one testing company cannot be directly compared with another.

So, what do all these different numbers mean? The most useful number is the percentile (NPR or PR) that is designed to show how well your child is doing compared to others taking the test. An 87 means that a child has scored better than 87% of the population with which he is being compared. The comparative population usually consists of all students nation-wide. The 50th percentile is considered average for the nation, but homeschoolers generally score somewhere in the 70th to 80th percentile.

Since any child may score lower or higher on any given day on any given test, the results are also given in a score called a stanine (S or NS). All raw scores are divided into one of nine groups. These are further separated into three groups representing low, middle, or high. This way of reporting the score gives you the range within which your child could be expected to perform.

The Standard Score or Scaled Score (SS) is a number designed for comparison of a child with himself. As long as the number continually gets higher, then your child is progressing. If the number is less than the year before, then your child is not progressing.

The Grade Equivalent score (GE) is probably the least useful and most misunderstood of all the scores. If a child is in the fifth grade, eighth month (5.8) and scores an 8.4, this means that an average child in the eighth grade, fourth month would score the same. It does not mean he should be in the eighth grade. Likewise, if a child scores a 3.2, this means that an average child in the second month of the third grade would score the same. Your knowledge of your child’s ability, work habits, and maturity are far better indicators of appropriate grade placement.

Each of these scores has a different purpose and gives you different information. The most important thing to remember is that this information is only one tool for assessing your child’s progress. It can help as you evaluate and make decisions regarding his education. Testing gives us valuable information if we hold it in the right perspective and do not elevate its importance beyond what it was designed to do. Now, when that familiar envelope arrives in the mail, you will know what to do with it.

Theresa Jones and her husband, Matt, live in Fayetteville where they are in the midst of educating three of their four children ages 19, 16, 14, and 6 at home. She is a certified Education Therapist with NILD. The whole family participated in getting this article ready for print.

(Editor’s note: The state law requires each homeschool to administer a nationally standardized test, or other nationally standardized equivalent measure that measures achievement in the areas of math, grammar, reading and spelling to all students. The state does not dictate which test must be given or who is to administer it. If your students are younger than seven, or older than sixteen and not planning to drive until they graduate or are 18, they are not required to be listed on the “Notice of Intent” form and therefore are not required to be tested. You are required to keep the results on file at your home. The Division of Non-Public Education may request that you voluntarily mail test results to them.)



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Deanna Ellis's picture

Do you sell the Nationally Standardized test at any time?