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The ABCs of Standardized Testing

What they are, what they mean, and what you can do.


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Standardized tests, objective measures given in the same, exact way to all students, have been used by NJ public schools for many decades, especially in this age of documenting student progress by metrics. Intended to provide information to parents about their children’s academic performance, teachers about their students’ level of progress, and school districts about the effectiveness of their programs, such tests are typically normed on a large population of children reflecting the racial/socioeconomic makeup of the population.

These assessments typically take the form of “achievement tests,” which attempt to measure a child’s learning in academic areas—always reading and math, but sometimes also spelling, language arts, science, and social studies. Predominantly multiple choice, more are incorporating written samples.

Parents may experience both apprehension and confusion about the testing process. It’s understandable: The maze of numbers, graphs, and terms can baffle the most sophisticated of parents. These test scores indicate how their child’s academic skills compare with those of other children. Moreover, the results may be used to make important educational decisions about their child.

What can you do to prepare your child? Less than you might think. Your child will not gain much from studying other than anxiety. Some helpful steps include:
• Talk with your child about the test a day or two beforehand. Keep it brief, low-key, and pressure-free. Explain that the tests are used to help students learn better but that the results have no effect on grades.
• Suggest test-taking strategies to an older child: reading directions closely, answering all questions, identifying key words to understand a question, and checking work.
• Have your child get a good night’s sleep. Awake her a few minutes earlier than usual to avoid a frenzied morning.
• Give your child a nutritious breakfast on testing day but don’t make an issue of it if she refuses to eat.

Keep in mind that standardized tests tell us little about a child’s creativity or curiosity or motivation for learning. They shed almost no light on a child’s emotional maturity or social skills. As a result, they should never be the sole basis for school decisions. These decisions must also consider teacher and parent judgments, grades, and classroom performance.

Kenneth Shore, EdD, a psychologist, teaches part-time at Rutgers.

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