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What Every Parent Should Know About Standardized Testing

If your child is constantly sharpening up those No. 2 pencils, you may want to ask your child's teacher for a meeting and find out just what those test scores really mean.
standardized testing

Thirty years ago, American school children spent two or three days a year bubbling in answers on standardized tests. Today, children in some school districts spend as much as 18 days per 180-day school year on standardized testing. And that's not counting teacher-developed spelling quizzes, book reports, and unit tests.

In short, US public school children are tested more than ever, and at younger and younger ages. This testing is, in part, fueled by the accountability measures built into the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation of 2003. And the testing mania shows no signs of abating, despite the fact that most measurement experts would agree that testing very young children -- kindergarteners, for example -- rarely yields valid or reliable data.

What is a parent to do? The first step is to become informed and know your rights.

Find out what type of test your child's school is giving and what it measures.
There are basically two types of standardized tests: norm referenced and criterion referenced. They each yield different information. The test score your child earns on a norm-referenced test like the California Achievement Test (CAT) or the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS) tells you how your child compares to the other children who took the test that year. For example, if your child scores in the 50th percentile, half the children who took the test that year scored above your child and half scored below. It does not tell you if your child has achieved certain benchmark levels of proficiency. That is reserved for criterion-referenced examinations that do tell if your child, for example, has achieved proficiency in multiplying numbers up to nine.

Find out how your child's school uses the test data.
Are your child's test scores used to determine his or her placement in certain classes such as gifted or resources classes? Are they used to determine whether she or he will advance to the next grade level at the end of the year? It is important to find out how your child's test score data will be used. Critics have pointed out that many of the most popular standardized tests are now being used in ways that their developers never intended.

Find out which grade levels get tested.
NCLB mandates that students in grades 3 to 8 be tested every year. In many districts, however, children are tested every year beginning in second grade. A few districts even test kindergartners and first-graders, though critics point out that this is waste of time as most 5- or 6-year-olds can barely hold the pencil to properly bubble in the Scantron sheet.

Find out how much classroom time is spent preparing for the tests.
These are important things to know, as researchers have found that teachers now spend more time than ever on what is basically a "test-preparation" curriculum. This results in an overemphasis on basic reading and math skills, and short-changes subjects like science, history, and music. For example, some schools spend over three hours a day on reading, but only do science experiments once a month. Middle school science teachers often get sixth graders who have never done any science because of the overemphasis on English and Math. When you, as a parent, talk to teachers or principals, use their language. Ask how many "instructional minutes" a day are spent on each subject, for example.

Understand that you, as a parent, have the right to request your child opt out of the tests.
This is a little known, but very important, fact. School districts are required by law to inform parents of this right, but it's not widely advertised. There have even been cases where principals have pressured parents to not opt out because their child's score is needed to bring up the school's overall ranking.


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An educator for nearly 20 years, Emily Arms writes on a variety of gender and accountability topics.
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