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Knowing the Score on Tests
With a Proliferation of Standardized Exams, Educators and Parents Wonder What to Make of the Results

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 20, 2002

Summer is a pleasant escape from the classroom. There are picnics and ballgames and ice cream after the movies. But because of the national movement to improve schools, summer also has become the season in which many parents get their child's standardized test results.

What should they do with them? If the scores are worse than the child's classroom performance, is that a problem? If the child is young and the results have no practical impact, should the parent mention them at all?

Educators and parents say such questions are becoming much more common as the No Child Left Behind law forces annual state testing of every child in third through eighth grades in public schools. Asked how parents should react if the test scores are considerably worse than their child's classroom grades, the best-informed educators and parents say that, at least initially, everyone should remain calm.

"This is one test and not the full measure of a student by any means," said Vicki Wallace, director of elementary education in Clarksville, Tenn.

Said Paul Young, president of the National Association of Elementary School Principals: "There are always those days when one can't test well. Maybe the school staff can help explain the circumstances."

Marcie Roth of Rockville heard similar explanations when she asked the faculty at the school of her third-grader, Dustin, about his low scores, some of which were in the 8th and 14th percentiles. "When I questioned them about what we were going to do about it," she recalled, "they said, 'He was having a bad day' and 'Well, that was last year -- he's doing fine now' and 'The tests are only one measure -- don't take them too seriously.' "

Like most parents, she was worried, but she did not persist when district officials dismissed her concerns -- "at terrible cost to my child," Roth said. Three years later, after independent tests that she arranged for, her son was found to have significant learning challenges.

She said she has spent the past year trying to get the school district to provide special education services ordered by the state. A Montgomery County schools spokesman said Roth's son has been receiving special education services under his individual education plan, but Roth has a pending complaint with the state.

This, experts say, appears to be a case of dangerously poor communication between the parent and the school. Roth says administrators failed to listen and give Dustin the testing he needed. In turn, she says she failed to keep digging in the face of officials saying "I was making much ado about nothing."

Young, who also is principal of West Elementary School in Lancaster, Ohio, said that in the new age of testing, parents must be persistent and seek "good communication, assistance with intervention and remediation and development of a strong partnership" with the school.

"Do not be a stranger," he said. "Get to the school and conference with the appropriate personnel. Many tests don't reflect what has been taught in classes. The flip side, of course, could also be . . . that the kids were not exposed to the right curriculum."

Jay Shotel, director of the Graduate School of Teacher Preparation at George Washington University, said, "It is absolutely reasonable to ask for a conference with the principal, teacher, et cetera, to find out what the scores mean and what, if anything, can be learned from the profile that is produced."

There is no need to alarm the child, several experts said, but they also warned against obscuring the truth with sugary frosting. "Even 8-year-olds know a snow job when they hear one," said Laurence M. Lieberman, an independent special education consultant. "The more words used by the parent to diminish the sting, the deeper the sting will go."

A few parents have taken drastic action to eliminate any adverse impact from a test result. Dennis Fox, a University of Illinois associate professor of legal studies and psychology on leave in Brookline, Mass., said he and his wife did not let their third-grade daughter take the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System test in the spring "so we won't have to figure out what to tell her about the results."

Fox said he is suspicious of any kind of external assessment of impressionable children, particularly after his son stopped drawing in first grade because a teacher criticized his work. "In the younger grades," Fox said, "parents should ignore the scores, whether they are good or bad. . . . In the higher grades, parents should discuss the results with the child and also discuss the supposed purpose of the test and conflicting opinions about how to deal with them. They should let the child participate in the decision whether to continue taking irrelevant tests or whether to boycott them."

Several parents said they will never again take test results lightly, for in the era of No Child Left Behind, the state tests are supposed to reflect closely what is being taught in class. Eileen Weinstein, a parent and mathematics consultant in Houston, said she once tutored a child who received A's and B's in class but failed the mathematics part of the Texas state test. "If I were that parent," she said, "I would be furious and would want to know why."

Lela Curtis, an Alexandria parent and part-time English teacher, said parents should carefully examine classroom practices if they see a discrepancy between school grades and state test scores. "There are still those teachers out there that say, 'Well, she looks like a B student to me,' " Curtis said, "and that's where the kid ends up. If the conversation with the teacher gets nowhere, then try the guidance counselor for more explanation of the test and what it means, and finally work your way up to the principal. If there is a great discrepancy, then it's a red flag to investigate."

Nancy Rader, a former school psychologist in Acton, Mass., agreed, saying some teachers' grades "may reward neatness, punctuality and effort more than actual knowledge and understanding."

Dick Reed, a very active Fairfax County parent, said he was concerned about his fourth-grader's Virginia state test this year, but she did well enough to want to show her friends her score sheet posted on the refrigerator.

If he ever finds her scores less pleasing, Reed said, he is going to take it very seriously and believes other parents should do the same. "The message from the schools is insistent, urgent and concerted: The tests matter," he said.

If there is a problem, "go hard and insist on both remediation and understanding," he said. "Do not let the school system blow off the tests by saying that what is tested isn't covered in their curriculum. It should be."

© 2002 The Washington Post Company