Dealing With Standardized Test Results

The 9-year-old took the MCAS (the Massachusetts school standardized tests) for the first time last year as a 3rd grader. The results are in. I didn’t show them to him immediately, though, because I wanted to be thoughtful about how I communicated my interpretation of the results and how I hope he will interpret them.

Whether he did well or poorly or some mixture of the two, I want him to learn to look at this – and all assessments – as tools for learning better, rather than statements of who he is or is not.

I would like him to understand that this test only captured his understanding of a limited range of skills and topics at a moment in time. It’s a great snapshot, but it is only a snapshot. It cannot possibly give a full picture of everything that gives dimension to his story as a developing student. It may or may not point to the effectiveness of his teachers. It may or may not point to his true understanding of the skills and topics that the test tried to capture. I want my son to know what this test definitely does NOT do. It does not peg him as  “math person” or a ” writing person” or someone who is destined to be strong or weak in a particular subject. It also missed a whole host of important skills that I hope he is learning in school, like collaboration, creativity, and citizenship.

Now standardized tests do have their place. I am not going to argue that they are extremely important or that they useless and evil. I will say, however, that we (parents, teachers, administrators) usually do a poor job of communicating the purpose of standardized tests to our children. We tend to place too much importance on them and cause our kids (and teachers) undo angst, or we express our disdain for them so strongly that we instill a similar feeling in our children, which is a disservice to them.

Here’s how we might put the standardized test in its place for our young children.

First, understand the purpose of the test. The stated purpose of the MCAS is three-fold: to help families know their child’s academic progress, to help teachers identify curriculum strengths and weaknesses, and to help the state support schools. In a well-functioning school, those first two purposes are already being met and the test is just another data point to help complete the picture. When you receive your child’s scores, nothing should come as a surprise. You should already know her strengths and weaknesses. The teachers and school should already have a sense of what is working and what isn’t.

Second, take a look at the report with your child. Use it as a learning opportunity in itself. Discuss how the report communicates information. It uses words, numbers, and a chart with visuals. There is color. There are a lot of numbers. Figure out together what they mean. And then figure out together what, if anything, about that meaning is important. For example, what does the Writing category score really mean? To understand that, know what this kind of question looks like. Compare your child’s score with the school, district, and state averages. Are these results important? Do they communicate something meaningful about your child or your school? After looking at these numbers for a bit, back off from them. Laugh a little bit. They do not capture everything. Maybe they are low because that material had not been taught in your child’s classroom before the test was given. Maybe they are high because the teacher focused really well on that material…to the detriment of other things that weren’t tested.  Maybe they are low because your kid had a rotten day during test week. Maybe they are low because your child needs support in a particular subject. But you already knew that, right? Take it all with a grain of salt, and model for your child how to not place undo importance on the results. (And what if you’re child did really really well? Go ahead an celebrate that. That DOES reflect something positive, and also recognize that it still isn’t everything. High five your kid and keep encouraging her to challenge herself at school, to take academic risks, and to be okay when the results aren’t perfect.)

Third, move on. Turn your focus back to the here and now of your child’s education. Do what is important now to support your child in and out of the classroom. Establish a positive relationship and open communication with the teacher and the administration. Communicate to your child that we learn best when we are challenged, when we take risks, make mistakes and have to pick ourselves up and try again. School ought to be a safe place to do that. Communicate to your child that while the results of a standardized test are interesting and informative, they are not everything.

(Mathematically…if it is not stressful to your child, spend some time looking at the MCAS results together. It is good practice to model the effort of interpreting this report. Talk about how the information is being communicated and if it makes sense. Would it make more sense to use a different kind of chart or diagram? What, if anything, doesn’t make sense? And if you know it would not be wise or productive to dwell on test results with your kid, don’t do it. You can also do this sort of activity with any other local or state report that you receive…like water quality reports, energy usage reports, etc.)



2 thoughts on “Dealing With Standardized Test Results

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  1. This post was so helpful! My son took the test last spring and I completely (like honestly, truly, completely) forgot that he did. I love how you’re thinking about this and will now go investigate his scores myself


    1. And the next level of “teachable moments” for our kids…I just read our local newspaper’s review of the district’s MCAS scores. It is interesting to look at which statistics are highlighted and which are not, and to ask the same questions…”What does this mean?” and “Is it important?” Maybe interesting for the 9-year-old. Maybe not!


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