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16.1: Introduction

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    Authors: Kevin Seifert and Rosemary Sutton


    Understanding standardized testing is very important for beginning teachers as K-12 teaching is increasingly influenced by the administration and results of standardized tests. Teachers also need to be able to help parents and students understand test results. Consider the following scenarios.

    • Vanessa, a newly licensed physical education teacher, is applying for a job at a middle school. During the job interview the principal asks how she would incorporate key sixth grade math skills into her PE and health classes as the sixth-grade students in the previous year did not attain Adequate Yearly Progress in mathematics.
    • Danielle, a first-year science teacher in Ohio, is asked by Mr. Volderwell, a recent immigrant from Turkey and the parent of a tenth-grade son Marius, to help him understand test results. When Marius first arrived at school he took the Test of Cognitive Skills and scored on the eighty fifth percentile whereas on the state Science Graduation test he took later in the school year he was classified as “proficient” .
    • James, a third-year elementary school teacher, attends a class in gifted education over summer as standardized tests from the previous year indicated that while overall his class did well in reading the top 20 per cent of his students did not learn as much as expected.
    • Miguel, a 1st grade student, takes two tests in fall and the results indicate that his grade equivalent scores are 3.3 for reading and 3.0 for math. William’s parents want him immediately promoted into the second grade arguing that the test results indicate that he already can read and do math at the 3rd grade level. Greg, a first-grade teacher explains to William’s parents that a grade equivalent score of 3.3 does not mean William can do third grade work.


    Understanding standardized testing is difficult as there are numerous terms and concepts to master and recent changes in accountability under the former No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) and current Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 2015 (ESEA), have increased the complexity of the concepts and issues. ESSA remains to be a test-based accountability system.

    However, ESSA now allows schools to incorporate “one or more non-academic indicators that can help bring attention to the nation’s broader educational purposes.” (Mathis and Trujillo, 2016 p.3)

    Link to: Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) – from the US Department of Education.

    • In this chapter, we focus on the information that beginning teachers need to know and start with some basic concepts.


    Standardized tests are created by a team—usually test experts from a commercial testing company who consult classroom teachers and university faculty—and are administered in standardized ways. Students not only respond to the same questions, they also receive the same directions and have the same time limits. Explicit scoring criteria are used. Standardized tests are designed to be taken by many students within a state, province, or nation, and sometimes across nations. Teachers help administer some standardized tests and test manuals are provided that contain explicit details about the administration and scoring. For example, teachers may have to remove all the posters and charts from the classroom walls, read directions out loud to students using a script, and respond to student questions in a specific manner.

    Criterion referenced standardized tests measure student performance against a specific standard or criterion.

    • Criterion referenced tests currently used in US schools are often tied to state content standards and provide information about what students can and cannot do.

    For example, one of the content standards for fourth grade reading in Kentucky is “Students will identify and describe the characteristics of fiction, nonfiction, poetry or plays” (Combined Curriculum Document Reading 4.1, 2006) and so a report on an individual student would indicate if the child can accomplish this skill. The report may state that number or percentage of items that were successfully completed (e.g. 15 out of 20, i.e. 75 per cent) or include descriptions such as basic, proficient, or advanced which are based on decisions made about the percent of mastery necessary to be classified into these categories.

    Norm referenced standardized tests report students’ performance relative to others.

    For example, if a student scores on the seventy-second percentile in reading it means she outperforms 72 percent of the students who were included in the test’s norm group. A norm group is a representative sample of students who completed the standardized test while it was being developed. For state tests, the norm group is drawn from the state, whereas for national tests the sample is drawn from the nation. Information about the norm groups is provided in a technical test manual that is not typically supplied to teachers, but should be available from the person in charge of testing in the school district.

    • Reports from criterion and norm referenced tests provide different information.

    Imagine a nationalized mathematics test designed to basic test skills in second grade. If this test is norm referenced, and Alisha receives a report indicating that she scored in the eighty-fifth percentile this indicates that she scored better than 85 per cent of the students in the norm group who took the test previously. If this test is criterion-referenced Alisha’s report may state that she mastered 65 percent of the problems designed for her grade level. The relative percentage reported from the norm-referenced test provides information about Alisha’s performance compared to other students, whereas the criterion referenced test attempts to describe what Alisha or any student can or cannot do with respect to whatever the test is designed to measure.

    • When planning instruction, classroom teachers need to know what students can and cannot do so criterion referenced tests are typically more useful (Popham, 2004).

    The current standard-based accountability and ESSA rely predominantly on criterion based tests to assess attainment of content-based standards. Consequently, the use of standardized norm referenced tests in schools has diminished and is largely limited to diagnosis and placement of children with specific cognitive disabilities or exceptional abilities (Haertel & Herman, 2005).

    Some recent standardized tests can incorporate both criterion-referenced and norm referenced elements in the same test (Linn & Miller, 2005). That is, the test results not only provide information on mastery of a content standard, but also the percentage of students who attained that level of mastery.

    Standardized tests can be high stakes i.e. performance on the test has important consequences. These consequences can be for students, e.g. passing a high school graduation test is required in order to obtain a diploma or passing PRAXIS II is a prerequisite to gain a teacher license.

    Uses of standardized tests

    • Standardized tests are used for a variety of reasons and the same test is sometimes used for multiple purposes.

    Assessing students’ progress in a wider context

    Well-designed teacher assessments provide crucial information about each student’s achievement in the classroom. However, teachers vary in the types of assessment they use so teacher assessments do not usually provide information on how students’ achievement compares to externally established criteria. Consider two eighth grade students, Brian and Joshua, who received As in their middle school math classes.

    However, on the standardized norm referenced math test Brian scored in the fiftieth percentile whereas Joshua scored in the ninetieth percentile. This information is important to Brian and Joshua, their parents, and the school personnel. Likewise, two third grade students could both receive Cs on their report card in reading, but one may pass 25 per cent and the other 65 percent of the items on the Criterion Referenced State Test.

    There are many reasons that students’ performance on teacher assessments and standardized assessments may differ. Students may perform lower on the standardized assessment because their teachers have easy grading criteria, or there is poor alignment between the content they were taught and that on the standardized test, or they are unfamiliar with the type of items on the standardized tests, or they have test anxiety, or they were sick on the day of the test.

    Students may perform higher on the standardized test than on classroom assessments because their teachers have hard grading criteria, or the student does not work consistently in class (e.g. does not turn in homework) but will focus on a standardized test, or the student is adept at the multiple-choice items on the standardized tests, but not at the variety of constructing response and performance items the teacher uses. We should always be very cautious about drawing inferences from one kind of assessment.

    In some states, standardized achievement tests are required for home-schooled students in order to provide parents and state officials information about the students’ achievement in a wider context. For example, in New York home-schooled students must take an approved standardized test every other year in grades four through eight and every year in grades nine through twelve. These tests must be administered in a standardized manner and the results filed with the Superintendent of the local school district. If a student does not take the tests or scores below the thirty-third percentile the home schooling program may be placed on probation (New York State Education Department, 2005).

    Diagnosing student’s strengths and weaknesses

    • Standardized tests, along with interviews, classroom observations, medical examinations, and school records are used to help diagnose students’ strengths and weaknesses.

    Often the standardized tests used for this purpose are administered individually to determine if the child has a disability. For example, if a kindergarten child is having trouble with oral communication, a standardized language development test could be administered to determine if there are difficulties with understanding the meaning of words or sentence structures, noticing sound differences in similar words, or articulating words correctly (Peirangelo & Guiliani, 2002).

    It would also be important to determine if the child was a recent immigrant, had a hearing impairment or intellectual impairment. The diagnosis of learning disabilities typically involves the administration of at least two types of standardized tests—an aptitude test to assess general cognitive functioning and an achievement test to assess knowledge of specific content areas as part of the special education process. (Peirangelo & Guiliani, 2006). We discuss the difference between aptitude and achievement tests later in this chapter.

    Selecting students for specific programs

    • Standardized tests are often used to select students for specific programs.

    For example, the SAT (Scholastic Assessment Test) and ACT (American College Test) are norm referenced tests used to help determine if high school students are admitted to selective colleges. Norm referenced standardized tests are also used, among other criteria, to determine if students are eligible for special education or gifted and talented programs. Criterion referenced tests are used to determine which students are eligible for promotion to the next grade or graduation from high school.

    Schools that place students in ability groups including high school college preparation, academic, or vocational programs may also use norm referenced or criterion referenced standardized tests. When standardized tests are used as an essential criterion for placement they are obviously high stakes for students.

    Assisting teachers’ planning

    • Norm referenced and criterion referenced standardized tests, among other sources of information about students, can help teachers make decisions about their instruction.

    For example, if a social studies teacher learns that most of the students did very well on a norm referenced reading test administered early in the school year he may adapt his instruction and use additional primary sources. A reading teacher after reviewing the poor end-of the-year criterion referenced standardized reading test results may decide that next year she will modify the techniques she uses. A biology teacher may decide that she needs to spend more time on genetics as her students scored poorly on that section of the standardized criterion referenced science test.

    These are examples of assessment for learning which involves data-based decision making. It can be difficult for beginning teachers to learn to use standardized test information appropriately, understanding that test scores are important information, but also remembering that there are multiple reasons for students’ performance on a test.


    • Standardized test results are increasingly used to hold teachers and administrators accountable for students’ learning.

    Prior to 2002, many States required public dissemination of students’ progress, but under NCLB school districts in all states have been required to send report cards to parents and the public that include results of standardized tests for each school. Under ESSA, schools continue to be required to make student performance indicators publicly available, annually. (ASCD, 2015) Providing information about students’ standardized tests is not new as newspapers began printing summaries of students’ test results within school districts in the 1970s and 1980s (Popham, 2005).

    However, public accountability of schools and teachers has been increasing in the US and many other countries and this increased accountability impacts the public perception and work of all teachers including those teaching in subjects or grade levels not being tested.

    For example, Erin, a middle school social studies teacher, said:

    “As a teacher in a ‘non-testing’ subject area, I spend substantial instructional time supporting the standardized testing requirements. For example, our school has instituted ‘word of the day’, which encourages teachers to use, define, and incorporate terminology often used in the tests (e.g. “compare”, “oxymoron” etc.). I use the terms in my class as often as possible and incorporate them into written assignments.

    I also often use test questions of similar formats to the standardized tests in my own subject assessments (e.g. multiple-choice questions with double negatives, short answer and extended response questions) as I believe that practice in the test question formats will help students be more successful in those subjects that are being assessed.”

    Accountability and standardized testing are two components of Standards Based Reform in Education that was initiated in the USA in 1980s.

    16.1: Introduction is shared under a not declared license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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