Understanding Test Scores

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Since the beginning of public schooling, teachers have used testing to measure students’ skills. Testing can be thought of as a “yardstick” that compares an individual student with him or herself or others, and/or documents student progress. Test scores are used in a number of ways:

1) To provide a profile of the entire class in a subject such as reading;

2) To identify student strengths and weaknesses;

3) To evaluate the effectiveness of instruction;

4) To document student progress over time; or

5) To compare individual students or groups of students with some national or local standard.

Regardless of the reason for testing, parents typically have a difficult time reading and understanding the results. Here are some keys to understanding test scores.

Most tests used in schools are either “norm-referenced” or “criterion-referenced.” Norm-referenced tests compare an individual child’s performance to that of his or her classmates or another large group. These tests tell you how your child compares to similar children on a given set of skills and knowledge, but it doesn’t provide information about what the child does and doesn’t know.

Criterion-referenced tests are used to measure student mastery of instructional objectives or curriculum and don’t compare one student with another. These tests are often used as end-of-unit tests in textbooks or as a “benchmark” tests to identify areas of strength, weakness or readiness.

A percentile is probably the most commonly used test score in education. A percentile is a score that indicates the rank of the student compared to others, using a hypothetical group of 100 students.

Test scores can be useful, with careful interpretation and keeping the purpose of the test in mind. A single test only reflects a sample of skills, therefore, all scores include some degree of error and no score is absolutely accurate. Test scores alone shouldn’t be the sole basis for making placement or other serious educational decisions.

When you get your child results, think about how the results compare to your expectations and to past test results. If scores seem lower or higher, find out more about the test and what these scores mean. It’s important that you become familiar with the limitations of any test or score and that you receive a comprehensive picture of your child’s performance, not just test results.

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