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; Page A06

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."

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