Recently, the Biden administration announced that, despite the pandemic, states would still have to administer standardized tests for public school students this year. Recognizing the extraordinary challenges involved, the administration offered plenty of flexibility in how and when testing should happen. Even so, many parents and educators are understandably skeptical that testing is the best use of time for students who may have only recently gone back to school or are still learning at home. “What’s the point?” they ask.
Supporters of testing often note the importance of the data tests generate for school system leaders and policymakers—data that have helped shine a spotlight on inequities in our education system and that may be critical to understanding the impact of the pandemic on a generation of students.
More rarely does anyone focus on the value of individual test results for families, perhaps because that information has not been especially useful in the past. Results tend to arrive months after the tests were administered, so they cannot be used to shape what happens in classrooms. The score reports are often full of jargon and difficult to decipher. For families, tests feel distant and disconnected from a child’s actual educational experience.
A few years ago, we decided we needed to get better at helping families understand the results of standardized tests and why those results matter for kids. We partnered with one of the nation’s leading education research organizations, the Center for the Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research (CALDER), to examine the test results and performance histories of more than three million students in Massachusetts, North Carolina, and Washington state, going back more than a decade.
We wanted to know what these students’ test scores could tell us about their educational experiences—and most importantly, their real-life outcomes. For example, were students who scored higher in certain subjects or certain grade levels more likely to graduate high school on time or take more rigorous high school classes? How early in a child’s educational career could we spot warning signs of future challenges? Knowing the answers to these and other questions would help us guide families as they tried to make sense of their children’s results.
What we found was surprising, and often dismaying. While it is clear that a student’s test results can never fully define who they are or how their educational journey will unfold, they do provide useful information—information that all of us should be reviewing and acting upon with much more urgency.
Here are four things we learned about test scores through this research that you should know, too (take a look at our new paper for more detail and examples):
1. Even in elementary school, a student’s test scores can predict their future success. We found that, as early as third grade, a student’s test results can tell us something about how likely they are to drop out, take more advanced courses, or achieve other important educational outcomes.
2. Test scores are not destiny. Despite the above, you don’t need to panic if your third grader’s test scores aren’t as high as they could be. We also found that when a student’s scores improve over time, that student’s chances of attaining their longer-term educational goals also go up.
3. Math scores matter. Schools and families tend to focus heavily on reading scores. But we found that your child’s scores in math are actually a better predictor of their future success in school and beyond.
4. Students tend to stay on the same academic path over time—unless they get support. There is no need to worry over every single test question. But if your child’s overall test results place them well below what is typical for students of the same age in your state, it’s a signal that you should talk to their teacher and ensure they get additional support. Without it, they will tend to stay on the same path.
What does this mean for parents and caregivers? Most of all, we advise families to take their children’s test results seriously and act on them sooner rather than later. A single test score cannot tell the whole story of a student’s educational journey. But after reviewing the scores and life outcomes for literally millions of students from multiple states, we can confidently say that they do tell us something and should never be simply waved away. Review your child’s results carefully, talk to their teachers about their performance, and don’t hesitate to push for additional support if you have concerns.