Monday, March 13, 2006

An Introductory Field Guide To EduTesting

With Testing Season just around the corner for some and already underway for others, the folks over at CNN have put together a handy introductory field guide for EduTests. As the piece will soon disappear into their somewhat cranky archiving system, we've reprinted it in its entirety:
MEAP, ITBS, CRCT, TAKS. There are scores of acronyms in educational testing, but these four-letter terms stand for far more than No. 2 pencils and pages of tiny circles.

Today's tests are being used not only to evaluate and direct students' learning, but also -- in the wake of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 -- the results often are used to judge teachers and schools.

"[No Child Left Behind] essentially set in concrete a movement that was already in place at the state level to start testing students at the end of the year to identify whether or not they were achieving state standards," says Lee Jones, president of Riverside Publishing Co., which publishes the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills.

"[The act] made student testing a required activity on the part of states in order to receive federal funding."

When students' test performances have important and direct consequences for the children (e.g., grade promotion), their teachers (e.g., staff effectiveness) or schools (e.g., federal funding), the exam is referred to as a high-stakes test.

Given the impact that these high-stakes tests can have, parents may find it beneficial to be part of the testing process.

But, for many parents, understanding testing is like deciphering hieroglyphics.

"When my son asked me how he did on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills," admits Margaret Kendrick, a mother of a third-grader, "I said I would get back to him in a few hours after I figured out what all of the numbers meant."

To help crack the cryptic code of educational testing, parents need to know what types of tests will be given to their child, how the scores will be reported and how the results will be used.

Types of tests

Tests come in as many shapes and sizes as the kids who take them. They may be teacher-constructed classroom tests, or they may be local, statewide or national standardized tests.

"Standardized testing is simply a situation where all of the students being tested are taking the same test under the same or very similar testing conditions," Jones says.

In general, there are two types of standardized tests: achievement and cognitive abilities tests.

Achievement tests measure how well students have mastered subject and skill requirements at a particular grade level.

The Iowa Test of Basic Skills, Stanford Achievement Tests and California Achievement Tests are examples of nationally standardized achievement tests.

Cognitive abilities tests (also known as aptitude tests) measure students' thought processes, such as verbal ability, creativity and abstract reasoning --- skills considered crucial for academic success.

The Cognitive Abilities Test, SAT and ACT are all standardized cognitive abilities tests.

Norm vs. criterion testing

In some cases, data from achievement tests is compared with the cognitive abilities test data to determine if a student is performing at, above or below his or her ability level.

Another important distinction for parents to understand is how test scores are reported.

In general, standardized tests scores can be reported two ways -- "norm-referenced" and "criterion-referenced."

Norm-referenced tests show a student's test results in comparison with a "norm" group of students at the same grade level.

Criterion-referenced tests show how a student performed based on the "criteria" required for passing.

In a norm-referenced test, students are competing against everyone else who took the test; in a criterion-referenced test, a student knows the standard for passing and competes against him or herself to achieve that passing grade.

Each state determines its own definition of grade-level proficiency. As a result, a passing grade in one state can be different from one in another state. Schools, therefore, find both norm and criterion data important.

Using the test scores

While schools use test scores for many different purposes, Jones asserts, "The primary and most beneficial use of test data is to discover strengths and weaknesses of students and be able to take some sort of instructional action based on that."

"Teachers look at the data in their own classroom to determine what standards their students have or have not met, how to group kids according to what they have or have not done, and to design lessons that will bring them up to the next level," says Susan Schwicardi, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction in School District 45 in DuPage County, Illinois.

Kim Montalbano, assistant principal at Sope Creek Elementary School in Marietta, Georgia, says she uses Iowa Test of Basic Skills scores for school improvement planning.

"When we look to develop school goals for the next year, we break down each test into skills to see what our school should focus on," Montalbano says.

However, as students in some states are being required to meet state standards before grade promotion, increasingly schools are using these tests to make high-stakes decisions for students.

"In grades three and five," Montalbano says, "if a student doesn't achieve grade-level proficiency, we will have a committee decide whether the child will be promoted."

With stakes like these, it pays to ask the right questions -- for parents and their children.
Here in California, the Testing Season is in May. Students will spend over a week taking a battery of examinations that are collectively known as the S.T.A.R. (Standardized Testing And Reporting) tests.
See our latest education-related entries right here.