What Do I Do With Those Test Scores?

Originally Published: July 2001

You may have been thrilled—or dismayed—by your child’s standardized achievement test scores this spring. If his scores were high, should you jump ahead a few grade levels? If low, have you failed as a teacher? The answer to both questions is, “No.”

Test scores should be interpreted and then used as only one of several references in planning for the next school year. Look at them in light of the student’s comments, work, and work habits throughout his studies. Do they support what you have observed?

High scores suggest that the student has mastered basic concepts and skills appropriate for his age level. While a fifth grade student might have a comment on the test that his score in math concepts, for example, is “tenth grade,” this does not mean the student is capable of tenth grade work. Rather, it means that a tenth grader taking that same test would answer the same number of questions correctly as the fifth grader did.

However, that high score does indicate that the fifth grader is ready to move on in that area and suggests that he may pick up some concepts and skills taught at the next grade level more quickly than average. Therefore, busy work (excessive practice of items already mastered) should be eliminated. If you are planning to use textbooks, allow the student’s ability to dictate the pace. He should not have to complete assignments that simply review what he already knows well. If a student is required to do every problem on every page even though he has mastered the concept or skill, he is likely to become careless in his work habits. The desire to get finished replaces a love of learning. Nor should you hurry him through curriculum packages in order to get a grade or two ahead. Instead, plan for greater depth of study, or a wider breadth of experiences.

If a score is lower than expected, it is necessary to figure out why.

Did the student finish every problem, but get most wrong? This suggests that he either doesn’t understand the concept, or is careless. If he did not finish every problem, was it because he didn’t have time or because he didn’t know the answers? If time was the factor—that is, he worked slowly and carefully getting mostly right answers for what he did complete—then you may want to work on building speed. If he didn’t understand many of the questions, then you may plan to study those concepts and skills next year, unless you covered them after the test. After all, tests given in March and April include content that may not even be introduced in your curriculum until May or June.

Not all test results include the number of questions in each category, the number attempted by the student, and the number correct, like the Iowa Basic Skills Test. If you only receive a single score or percent, you will need to rely more heavily on the student’s recall of that section of the test—Was it too hard? Did you finish? Did you guess?—and your observations of his daily work. If the test results don’t seem consistent with your expectations, you can give an informal test in any or all areas. This will allow you to observe him while he is tested, have access to the questions, choices, and his responses, and compare his scores with the standardized test. You can use tests available for home use, or make up your own using various workbook exercises at the appropriate grade level.

Don’t feel as if you must bring up every low score at once. Target areas for extra attention during the next school year, with the intention of simply not losing ground in other areas, if possible. Saturating students with work in a targeted area will bring faster, more secure results than trying to touch on everything superficially. For example, one of the families I serve as a consultant chose reading comprehension as the priority for both children. When the girls took the Iowa Basic Skills Test, they scored low in language mechanics, but high in the area of emphasis, reading comprehension. Consequently, they both felt encouraged because the test indicated that their hard work had paid off. Next year they will target language mechanics. Work samples suggested especially emphasizing spelling, punctuation, and subject-verb agreement. It’s not that reading comprehension will be ignored. Rather, spelling, composition, and editing will require extra practice time.

Standardized tests give students practice with timed tests in unfamiliar surroundings, which can help them become comfortable with testing long before taking college SATs. However, it is important to select the grade level test according to their work level, not age, so that they can succeed rather than feel overwhelmed. Any student struggling with reading should not be forced to take a standardized test. If by law he must, choose one according to his reading level in order to ensure some measure of success. In such cases, the test will not be helpful as a diagnostic tool anyway. And that’s what it is, a tool. Just one of many.

When kept in its proper place, a standardized test can help you target areas of strength and weakness. If allowed too much importance, it turns into a battering ram used to push children into memorizing information quickly and for the short term. Why? Because the objective has become receiving (not necessarily earning) a high score that will impress others instead of working toward understanding.

But why are we homeschooling? To impress others or to build thinkers that love to learn? Do we tell our children to do everything “as unto the Lord,” and then train them to seek the approval of men? Tests are helpful only to the degree that the scores reflect what the student understands. Let’s keep them in their place as servants, not rulers.