Want to understand your child’s test scores? Here’s what to ignore

Now that the first month of school is over, parents can get ready for the next milestone of the school year – they will soon get reports of the state tests their children took last year.

My estimates show that approximately 26 million students in public schools took statewide tests in reading and math last year. Many of them also took statewide tests in science. These tests provide important information to parents about how well their children are doing in school.

However, my research also shows that when parents receive their child’s test score report, they may have a tough time separating the important information from the statistical gibberish.

What’s more, the results might not even give them accurate information about their child’s academic growth.

Is your child ‘proficient’?

The No Child Left Behind law, enacted in 2002, required all states to set “achievement level standards” in reading and math for grades three through eight, and for one grade in high school, typically 10th or 11th grade. States were also required to develop tests to measure students’ level of “proficiency” on each test.

The new federal law passed in December 2015, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), will continue this practice.

As a result, the test reports parents receive classify children into achievement levels such as “basic” or “proficient.” Each state decides what these classifications are called, but at least one category must signify “proficient.”

These achievement level categories are described on the test score reports, and so this information is easily understood by parents. For example, I find it helpful each year to see if my sons reach proficiency in each subject area.

But children’s test scores in a given year, and their achievement level, are not the only information reported in some states. A new statistical index, called a “student growth percentile,” is finding its way into the reports sent home to parents in 11 states. Twenty-seven states use this index for evaluating teachers as well.

Although a measure of students’ “growth” or progress sounds like a good idea, student growth percentiles have yet to be supported by research. In fact several studies suggest they do not provide accurate descriptions of student progress and teacher effectiveness.

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