Everything you’ve ever wanted to know about standardized tests.
Each year across the mid-state, thousands of students sit down at their desks – number two pencils in hand – to begin filling in hundreds of tiny circles in what can be the most harrowing of experiences – the standardized test. If the student doesn’t test well, then the experience is surely daunting. And, if she does, it may just seem tedious. In the end, though, what does it all mean? Is a standardized test a true examination of a student’s academic ability or simply a way to gauge the success of a school? What do you know about the tests being given at your child’s school? Is she being taught to prepare for the test? And, is there anything you can do to help her get ready?
Standardized tests, typically designed to measure areas like intelligence, achievement and competency, “can be created to test almost anything,” says Gina Wilson*, dean of students at a Nashville area private school. Wilson says a test is standardized if the test formats are the same and administered under similar conditions at similar times to similarly prepared test-takers AND if the tests are scored the same way for all students.
There are two types of testing references: norm and criterion. If a test is norm referenced, it means that every child who takes the test is compared on a national level. Criterion referenced means that the test is designed to evaluate “an individual’s mastery of one specific area,” says Wilson.
Whether or not standardized testing accurately reflects a student’s true academic ability is still up for debate, but the tests do provide a general idea of how a student is learning and determine if a school is teaching effectively. According to Wilson, test scores are compared nationally at three levels – (1) for all schools, (2) for suburban public schools and (3) for independent schools, which are defined by the Tennessee Association of Independent Schools as private, parochial, boarding and day schools. While the comparisons are helpful in determining the effectiveness of instruction, they are not – or at least they shouldn’t be – used to define a school’s curriculum.
Teaching to the Test
Considered highly controversial in the academic arena, teachers should not “teach to the test” says Wilson. “It is educationally unsound to find a test first and then teach just what is on the test,” she says.
Many believe that when this occurs, not only is it unethical, but it’s cheating. “I want to know that my daughter is not only learning, but is also understanding what it is that she’s learning,” says Patricia Pearson, mother of a Rutherford County Schools sophomore. “I would definitely consider it cheating if I found out that the teachers were only teaching what’s on the standardized tests.”
Wilson says schools should develop curriculums based on national standards, which for independent schools means standards set by the National Association of Independent Schools (www.nais.org), a national organization representing more than 1,200 independent schools nationwide and abroad. She says that when the curriculum is in place, only then should a school or school district select a standardized test, which should be in accordance with its chosen curriculum.
Know the Tests
If you’ve got a school-age child, whether she’s in a public or private school, you’ve probably heard names like TCAP, Gateway, PLAN, Stanford, ERB, PSAT and Iowa a time or two, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. But, has anyone ever explained what these tests are and what they measure? While Tennessee’s public schools are required to take the TCAP, all schools can choose from a variety of tests including the ones listed here.
TCAP and Gateway
The TCAP, or Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program, is an achievement test administered to public school students in grades 1 – 8. It measures a student’s knowledge in the core subjects of reading, math, language arts, social studies and science and how they’re applied. The TCAP uses multiple-choice questions with a set time limit. While no “grades are given, results determine how and what students are learning and ensure that no student is left behind.
In order to comply with the “No Child Left Behind” federal mandate, students in grades 5, 8 and 11 are required to take the state writing assessment, and high school students must pass the Gateway exit exam proving their mastery of the five core subject areas in order to graduate.
PLAN and ACT
The PLAN is the pre-American College Test (pre-ACT) typically taken in the fall by high school sophomores planning to take the ACT. According to www.act.org, the purpose of the PLAN is to “help students measure their current academic development, explore career and training options and make plans for the remaining years of high school and post-graduation.” It’s a timed test that assesses a student’s knowledge in English, math, reading and science.
The benefit for schools in offering the PLAN is that it helps to gauge how they can better assist students in planning for their futures. The PLAN also gives students the chance to assess their own areas of strengths and weaknesses BEFORE taking the actual ACT, which many colleges use for admission.
PSAT and SAT
The PSAT, or Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test, may also be referred to as the PSAT/NMSQT, which stands for National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test. The PSAT is used to determine a student’s strengths and shortcomings, which may affect her college studies, while the NMSQT is used to compete for scholarships offered by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation.
A timed test, the PSAT is typically offered to high school juniors and sometimes sophomores to evaluate a student’s skills in verbal reasoning, critical reading, math problem solving and writing. The verbal section is comprised of sentence completion questions, analogies and critical reading questions. The math section tests a student’s knowledge in the areas of arithmetic, algebra and geometry.
And, the written section is comprised of multiple choice questions that test a student’s writing skills and her ability to find error in a sentence’s structure. The PSAT provides an opportunity to see how a student will test on the SAT for college entrance.
The Stanford Achievement Test is a norm-referenced, untimed (although timing guidelines are offered) multiple-choice examination given to students in grades K – 12. The results are used to evaluate whether she understands the content and is meeting expectations, and also helps teachers identify students in danger of falling behind academically. Areas assessed include reading, math, language, spelling, listening, science and social science. Ask your school’s principal about accommodations if your child has special needs.
The Educational Records Bureau is a nonprofit organization serving more than 1,400 independent schools and suburban public schools. The Comprehensive Testing Program (CPT4), Writing Assessment Program (WrAP) and the Independent School Entrance Examination (ISEE) are all ERB tests. The CTP4, given to students in grades 1 – 11, is comprised of various assessments, which are used to test individual and group achievement as well as to assess a school’s curriculum in the areas of reading, vocabulary, writing and math. Students in grades 3 – 11 also take verbal and quantitative reasoning assessments.
The WrAP is given to students in grades 3 – 12 and assesses a student’s writing skills. The writing samples measure the student’s ability to implement her knowledge of grammar and writing as well as her ability to plan and use language to make a point.
The ISEE is a timed admissions test given to students preparing to enter grades 5 – 12 who are contemplating applying to an independent school. The exam takes approximately three hours to complete, and students may only take the test once within six months.
Iowa Test of Basic Skills
The Iowa test (ITBS) is a norm-referenced, multiple-choice test given to students in grades K – 8 to assess their skills in reading, math and language arts, specifically in word analysis, reading comprehension, listening, vocabulary and social studies. To learn more about the ITBS, visit www.uiowa.edu.
Preparing for the Big Day
While students typically study for tests, standardized tests are definitely not typical. So should students bother studying for them? It depends on who you ask. Debbie Higdon, director of assessment at the Bowie Reading and Learning Center in Nashville, believes in the importance of test preparation. “I think it’s always better to prepare a child than just to go in cold,” she says.
When you get to the higher level of standardized tests, there is even more need to prepare. After all, college entry is on the line. In this case, says Wilson, “If the parents can afford test preparation, it may help.”
Higdon concurs, saying, “So many of the college tests are competitive. Getting a good score is going to help.”
On the other side of the coin, some think that there’s no point in preparing for a test that’s merely measuring what you know – either you know it or you don’t. The ERB’s website (www.erbtest.org) goes as far as to say that “because (the) CTP tests a variety of skills … studying for the test is not useful.” Wilson says, “Preparing younger students for achievement tests and the ISEE is not truly necessary.” So perhaps it’s a matter of the student’s age and what test they’ll be taking.
Regardless of what side of the issue you fall on, there’s no denying the tried-and-true tips that all students should apply before taking a standardized test: get a good night sleep, eat a nutritious breakfast, dress comfortably and bring a sweater in case the test room is cold. Most importantly, relax. Higdon says that if your child is anxious, “talk about it, and see what it is that’s making her anxious. If the child is aware, then she’ll know how to deal with it better.”
Entering a test-taking situation prepared and self-assured is the best way to ensure overall success.
Ashley Driggs is senior editor for this publication.
* Name changed for privacy.