Friday, February 5, 2010

Part 2: Testing: Fleshing Out the Results

Yesterday I addressed the question “How do you know if your kids are keeping up with their peers?” from the perspective of using a measurement tool that is nationally normed as a baseline (Part 1 here). Mostly these tests can be used to quiet fears, either internally or externally, about what your kids are learning at home.

Part 2: Testing: Fleshing Out the Results

Today I will discuss how to move beyond a baseline and use testing as a tool for giving you information on your child's strengths and weaknesses. Most times we know the weak and strong areas just by working with our kids every day. But what if the initial testing results unexpectedly showed your child is hugely behind or ahead grade level? Now what?

The problem with grade-level tests is that they only test grade level material in a single grade. They do give you a baseline, which in many cases is sufficient. If your child is an average student across all subjects, standardized tests are very good at telling you that. But how many homeschooled students are average across the board? Most homeschooling parents give their kids an individualized education. That means if Johnnie is ready to read chapter books early, that is what they are given. The parent doesn't tell Johnny he can only read the 3rd grade books when in 3rd grade. If Suzy is struggling with fractions, the parent doesn't tell her "too bad" and go on to the next page or suggest she get after-hours tutoring so they can move forward with the curriculum.

Testing will often reflect this variation in levels. Whether you administered a standardized test for yourself, the state, or a nagging relative, there are sometimes indications on such tests that may be useful to your homeschool. Some variations are normal, but many low or high scores may be a sign that your child would be better off with a different level test. Unfortunately, this isn't as easy as just giving your 3rd grader a 2nd grade or 4th grade CAT, SAT, or ITBS test. To understand your next step, I first need to explain a bit about how standardized tests work.

Many people do not understand what the results of standardized testing and often misinterpret scores. If you are going to use a standardized test, it is important to know how to read the results. Most results give a composite score (all the subtests together) and individual subtest scores. You may see raw scores, number of questions, answers marked and scaled scores, among other data. However, the most useful information is the percentile ranking and the grade equivalent column.

Percentile Ranking

This score is not the percent answered correctly on the test. Instead, it tells you how your student did compared to other students that took the same level test. A percentile ranking of 88% means your child did better or the same as 88% of the students taking the test. In this example, 12% did better. A percentile of 50% is considered average.

Grade Equivalency

This is where there is the most confusion. Many times I've heard parents say, "Our annual testing shows that little Susie is working three grades ahead!" This is not the case! The number in the grade equivalent column does not tell you what grade level your child is working. Remember, this is a grade level test with material that covers one grade. The only thing results can tell you is how much your child knows in that particular grade level.

So, what exactly is that number in the grade equivalent column? To best explain, I'll use a numerical example. Say little Susie takes a 3rd grade CAT test and has a grade equivalency of 6.5 in the Reading Comprehension subtest. What this does not mean is Susie is comprehending at at mid-6th grade level. What is does mean is Susie answered just as many questions correctly as a 6th grader taking the 3rd grade test would. Yes, she knows her third grade material, but knowing how far above is impossible to extrapolate out of the results.

Parents like to look at those grade equivalent scores, but the percentile scores are really more useful. Look closer at subjects that have very high or very low percentile scores.

If there is an unusually low score, parents should first consider if there are reasons other than knowledge for a lower-than-expected score. For example, were time constraints an issue? Does the child not understand the material or is it something as simple as the sequence of topics is different in the curriculum you use? Maybe your child was just tired on testing day or is simply not a great test-taker.

Low scores do not necessarily mean your child is behind, but you should look into potential reasons for them. There may be a gap that you didn't know about that needs filling. No matter if your child is educated at the local school or at home, there will be gaps. The advantage of homeschooling is you have the opportunity to fill them when presented. In a public school environment, the class is just moved on.

What if your child's scores reflect that he knows all the material tested extremely well? While that is good news, how do you know your child is being challenged in your homeschool? Are your materials too easy? How far above grade level is your student working? A grade-level test will not give you this information; some further investigation will be required.

Most standardized tests are not normed to give useful results when testing out-of-level, whether above grade or below grade level. Therefore, the solution isn't to give your 3rd grader a 2nd or 4th grade test if they are working below or above grade level. If you are looking for a standardized measurement tool that measures beyond or below the students grade by age, there are a couple of options.


One possibility is the PASS Test mentioned yesterday. The PASS is normed by level, not grade. Before administering the PASS, students are to take a pretest to determine what level test they should take. A 3rd grader will not necessarily pretest into the 3rd grade level. Unlike the CAT, SAT, or IBTS, the results on the PASS are compared to those students who place into the same level test, regardless of age. The actual tests do not have a grade designation and instead go by letters, but most parents will be able to determine grade level of each test.

The flexibility of the PASS test applies to both those behind and above grade level and is an excellent way to test them where they are at. Testing at a grade level by age for a child with a learning disability, an long-term illness, or at some other issue that prevents them from working at the level of their ages peers is no more useful than testing a precocious child at a grade lower than they are actually working.

Talent Searches

Some students may qualify for testing through one of the talent searches. The one in my area is Northwestern University's Midwest Academic Talent Search NUMATS) and is for kids in grades 3-8. The talent search programs test high achieving students with out-of-level tests with results and percentile rankings of both the other students of the same age in the talent search and the typical student taking that level test. For example, students 3-6th grade are given the 8th grade EXPLORE test. Parents get two sets of results. The first is how their child did compared to the 8th graders across the nation that took this test. The second is how their student did compared to the other students in the talent search the same grade as their student. Grades 6-8 take either the ACT or SAT with the same sort of comparisons.

Using the harder test material is beneficial in two ways. First of all, scores are more meaningful. If a 3rd grader gets a 99%ile on a grade level test, but a 80%ile on a 8th grade test, that is very telling. They know much farther than 3rd grade. In fact, they know as much as 80% of 8th graders. However, it is possible that same student that scored a 99%ile on a 3rd grade test could also get a 20% on the 8th grade test. Their mastery of 3rd grader material is no different, but how much farther they go beyond that material is.

The second benefit is that each year the student takes the same level test, which helps determine growth in an area. For example, one year one of my kids had over a 25%ile jump in the science subtest after introducing a new science curriculum. Because I was comparing the same level test and format over the two consecutive years, the success of the new curriculum was very obvious.

One note: I do not recommend that students participate in the talent searches unless you are sure they meet the eligibility criteria. Otherwise, they will find the experience very frustrating.

In the next post, I will gladly move beyond the complete standardized test. They have their place and are worth discussing, but there are other options to test students in specific subjects if there is a concern. After that, we'll move beyond testing and get to the core of this question.

Other posts in this series:

Part 1
Part 3
Part 4


Sravani said...

Hi Heidi,
Great informative, detailed posts on Testing. I love the core question and looking forward to more thoughts from you.

Marie said...

Very informative! I am learning alot!!