Ask Reading Kingdom: What role do you think standardized testing plays in determining a child’s true skill level?

Standardized tests can be useful tools that allow one to assess the knowledge and/or skills that a student possesses in particular content areas—relative to other students of the same age or grade level. But they have inherent limitations. For a start, if a test actually covered all the knowledge and skills in a domain, it would be far too long. So the tests sample only elements of a subject. Generally, items are selected based on how well they discriminate among students. Developers avoid items that are answered correctly by too many or by too few students. Commonly, the items that make the cut are those that are answered correctly by roughly half the students.

This process means that the tests fall far short of providing a complete and accurate picture of a child’s true skill level. Nevertheless, the tests are a source of valuable information. For example, if a reading test reveals that a child’s performance is equivalent to the average third grader, you will have some sense of what books he or she can read and understand. You will also have a sense of how well he or she is doing in school. If the child is in second grade, the performance is a sign that the child is doing well; conversely, if the child is in fourth grade, the performance is a sign that the child is having difficulty. As long as we guard against ascribing too much precision and accuracy to the tests, or devoting too much time to preparing students for the tests (i.e., teaching to the test) and administering the tests they can serve as a useful resource.

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