Understanding Standardized Testing

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Standardized testing is here to stay. Like it or not, from about age 5 onward, most children will be evaluated by at least one standardized test every school year.

Testing is big business. Currently, Educational Testing Service (ETS) in Princeton, New Jersey, administers over 8 million tests annually. As more states institute competency testing for promotion and high school graduation, the field is sure to grow. How valid and how important are these tests?


Parents’ reactions to standardized tests vary depending on their own school experiences and how their children fare on the tests. An informal survey suggests that parents of children who do well on standardized tests see these tests as valid measures of their child’s abilities and like the use of test scores as the basis for placement in gifted and talented or other special programs. Parents of kids who score poorly believe the tests do not accurately reflect their child’s strengths because of cultural bias in the questions or because of the structure of the test.

The truth about tests’ validity lies somewhere between these two extremes. “Any test is a snapshot of how your child is doing at that moment. But test scores should be used in combination with other information in evaluation of a child,” says Dr. Gregory Anrig, president of ETS, the world’s largest private educational measurement institution.


A child’s first experience with standardized testing may come as early as preschool or kindergarten. Many private schools and selective public school programs require I.Q. and readiness tests for admission.

But young children are erratic test takers. Their performance is influenced by whether they feel comfortable with the test giver and the testing environment, how much sleep they got the night before, whether they ate a nutritious breakfast and the degree of tension parents communicate about the test. Older children may also be influenced by these factors.

“I am not in favor of testing very young children,” says Anrig. “If it is done, the results should be very carefully examined in context with the other information available. Readiness is best determined by controlled observations of parents, teachers and others who work with the child.”

Another point parents should remember is that ability or aptitude tests can be misleading. Their name suggests that they test for something children are born with, that either they have it or they don’t. This is not true. Ability test results are not unchangeable verdicts written in stone. “Children do better on almost all kinds of tests, including ability tests, when they receive quality instruction,” says Anrig.


When it comes to understanding the information obtained by testing, the best thing parents can do is ask the school what tests are being administered, what they are supposed to measure and how the results will be used. Parents have a legitimate reason to be concerned about how the school will interpret and use the test results.

Standardized tests compare children to other children in a reference group called the “norm group.” Find out who the norm group is. Often the norm group is a cross-section of children across the nation, but some schools choose to have children’s scores compared against similar school districts (suburban, urban or rural) or against regional, rather than national, norms. Schools, says Anrig, have this information on hand and should be willing to make it available to parents.

As for helping your child prepare for the tests themselves, parents should observe these basic guidelines. First, avoid surprises. See that your child has as much information about what the test will be like as possible. What is the format? How long will the test take? What types of questions will be on it?

Second, see that your child is physically ready to take the test. Arrange for her to arrive at the test rested and having eaten a good breakfast. Getting a good night’s sleep really does make a difference.

Third, try not to pass your anxiety about the tests on to your children. Children who are not anxious do better than children under pressure.

For additional information on school testing, search under “test preparation” in the National Parenting Information network at www.NPIN.org.

Tish Davidson is a freelance writer.

A Vocabulary for Understanding Testing

Ability (aptitude) tests – used to predict future educational performance and do not directly test material learned in the curriculum. An example is I.Q. testing.

Achievement tests – measure specific information learned from the curriculum, for example Stanford Achievement Tests, the Metropolitan Achievement Tests or the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills.

Readiness tests – may test both ability and achievement. These tests often test specific skills such as letter recognition as well as behavior and general aptitude. Example are the Metropolitan Readiness Test or the Gesell Developmental Observation Kindergarten Assessment.

Norm group – the group of children to whom your child is being compared. This can change from test to test. For example, the norm group for the Educational Record Bureau test is usually children from suburban school districts.

Percentile rank – A comparison that shows where your child stands relative to others in the norm group. This is not the same as the percent your child got right or wrong on the test.

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