Standardized tests—the kind that are given by states each spring in grades 3-8—are inescapable in public education these days, and they have become increasingly controversial. Many parents and educators view them skeptically, often for good reason. Some tests are better than others. Results often arrive too late for teachers to use them productively to help students improve. Schools sometimes focus on test prep in counterproductive ways that harm the learning experience for students. And parents and caregivers rarely have access to clear or timely information about what test scores actually mean for their children. Moreover, standardized testing content has too often left out the experiences of students of color and those from marginalized communities—leaving many students at a disadvantage when tests require background knowledge or cultural referents that are far from “standard.”
Over the last few decades, the data collected from standardized tests have allowed policymakers and education leaders to highlight gaps in educational equity, and to advocate for policies and funding to help close those gaps. That alone is a good argument for the value of standardized tests. But is that enough? Can tests actually be useful for educators and families, too?
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:
1 | Even in elementary school, a student’s test scores can predict their future success.
Of course, test scores are only a snapshot of what your child was able to do on a particular day. We should all keep that in perspective. But results on tests are not just noise; when we look at students’ academic performance over many years, test scores turn out to be predictive of long-term success in multiple ways.
In our research, for instance, we found that students who perform well on tests are more likely to be prepared for challenging coursework in the future and less likely to drop out of high school. They tend to earn more money in their jobs when they are adults and to live in neighborhoods with higher numbers of college graduates. And those differences hold true even when we keep other factors—for example, their family’s financial circumstances or the child’s racial identity—consistent.
Consider two students who just completed third grade. Each of them took their state’s tests in reading and math for the first time. The students have exactly the same demographic traits: They are the same race and gender, and come from the same socioeconomic background. However, one student—we’ll call him Mario—scored significantly higher than average on both tests (in fact, better than 75 out of 100 students statewide). The other student, James, scored significantly lower than average (better than just 25 out of 100 students statewide). These are very young kids, right? Surely their results on this test can’t tell us what may happen years down the line, could they?
Remarkably, they can. Based on data from a large pool of past students with similar profiles, we can estimate that Mario, with his higher scores, has a 93 percent chance of graduating high school and a drop-out risk of about seven percent. For James, who scored lower, the picture is different: He has a 73 percent chance of graduating high school and a drop-out risk of 27 percent. In other words, James’ drop-out is risk is more than three times higher than Mario’s. And we know it when he’s only nine years old.
2 | Test scores are not destiny.
As alarming as their differing trajectories may seem, James’s and Mario’s fates are not sealed in third grade. Their test scores represent just a starting point. When a student’s scores improve over time, that student’s chances of attaining their longer-term educational goals also go up. But there is a risk in dismissing early test scores as nothing to worry about, too. The biggest danger is missing an opportunity to deliver tutoring or other assistance when your child has plenty of time left to benefit from added support.
Let’s return to James. We learned above that James scored well below average as a third grader and that he has an elevated risk of not graduating high school. But James is fortunate because his school and his family recognize immediately that there is cause for concern. They develop plans to support him in both reading and math.
Over the course of three years, James steadily improves his performance on the state tests, until he is no longer below average. In fact, his scores are right in line with the state averages for math and reading. This doesn’t mean that school has suddenly become easy for James and that he no longer has any academic challenges. But his mastery of the material is clearly stronger as he finishes sixth grade than it was when he completed third grade.
Now, when we compare James to students with similar results and profiles, his risk of not graduating high school has decreased from 27 percent to 18 percent, cutting the gap between him and Mario almost in half. Nothing about James changed—not his family’s financial circumstances or his school. But his stronger academic performance increases his chances of future success.
3 | Math scores matter.
Beginning in third grade, public school students in all states must be tested each year in both math and reading. We hear a lot of messages about the importance of learning to read and supporting reading at home. While those messages are absolutely true—reading is a critical skill that opens up doors for a lifetime of enjoyment and opportunity—we should be careful not to overlook the importance of math.
When it comes to tests, your child’s scores in math are actually a better predictor of future success than your child’s reading scores. Why? There could be many reasons, but we know that a good foundation in math prepares students to thrive in challenging high school and college courses that can otherwise become barriers to graduation. This isn’t just about doing well in future math courses, although early math scores do predict that; it’s also about predicting success in the advanced courses that are key milestones toward completing post-secondary programs.
To make this more concrete, let’s look at the experiences of two middle school students, Asha and Olivia. They are both energetic seventh graders who love working with animals. They share an ambition to become veterinarians, and they know that gaining admission to veterinary school requires strength in math and science.
Asha tends to score very well (better than 75 out of 100 students statewide) on math tests, but not so well on reading (better than only 25 out of 100 students statewide). Olivia is the exact opposite—she tends to struggle more on math tests (scoring better than 25 out 100 students statewide) and excels on reading (better than 75 out of 100 students).
In some respects, they have a similar profile, with one subject strength and one weakness. But when it comes to achieving their long-term goals, Asha has a key advantage with her skills in math. When we look at the experiences of students with similar backgrounds and scores, we learn that Asha has a 70 percent chance of completing advanced coursework in math or science in high school. This might include key classes like precalculus or physics that will prepare her to major in science as a college student. Olivia, on the other hand, has only a 42 percent chance of completing the same types of coursework. In fact, Olivia also has a modestly higher risk of not completing high school, 17 percent, than Asha, whose risk is just 13 percent.
4 | Students tend to stay on the same academic path over time—unless they get support.
While tests can’t tell us everything, we know that without academic interventions, students tend to stay on the same trajectory over time. Students who achieve top results in third and fourth grade also tend to earn top scores in tenth grade, for instance. Unfortunately, the opposite is also true: Students with low elementary test scores also tend to have low scores in high school, which can prevent them from pursuing their dreams.
Take Kayla, for example. By fourth grade, she has outscored only 10 of 100 peers in math over the last two years. Being so far behind her peers significantly elevates Kayla’s risk of not graduating high school. Her drop-out risk is 30 percent. Just like James in our earlier example, Kayla needs support quite urgently. Unlike James, unfortunately, Kayla doesn’t get any particular extra support to address her challenges in math. By sixth grade, when James has caught up to the average, Kayla is still far behind.
What does this mean for parents? 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 take seriously. Something is preventing your child from displaying mastery over a core set of knowledge in reading and math.
What could be the issue? There are plenty of possible answers. Perhaps it was just a bad day—no big deal. Perhaps your child was unable to put forth their best effort, for whatever reason. The best solution is to ask for guidance from your child’s teacher (or teachers, if there are more than one). How does your child’s performance on the test compare to what the teacher sees in class on a daily basis? Has the teacher seen your child be able to do the same things they were not able to do on the test? If so, that is encouraging information and may decrease your concern. But if the test results line up pretty well with the teacher’s observations of your child in class, it probably means your child needs more support in that area.
What should parents and caregivers do?
Knowing all of this, what should you do differently as you guide your child through school? Most of all, we advise families to take their children’s test results seriously and act on them sooner rather than later. Parents and caregivers are often eager to explain away worrisome test results; they may chalk them up to a bad day, a distracted student, a poor night’s sleep. Educators often do the same, reassuring parents by pointing to other examples of progress in class—and as parents, we are naturally inclined to accept the best possible interpretation. We want our kids to do well.
Sometimes, such explanations are entirely valid. As we have pointed out, 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. Here’s what that means for you as a parent or caregiver.
1. Each year, review your child’s test results.
Make sure you know when they will be delivered and look at them carefully. Consider the following questions—and if the answers are not apparent from the score report you receive, schedule time with your child’s teacher to review the results together:
- Has your child mastered all of the skills that should be mastered in this grade?
- Do the test results indicate that your child needs additional help in any area?
- Do students with results similar to your child’s typically thrive in school down the road?
2. Consider your child’s trajectory.
Ask yourself—and your child’s teachers—how do my child’s latest results differ, if at all, from past results? Are these results notably more or less positive? Going back a few years, can we see that my child is growing consistently? If not, what can we do differently to ensure that happens?
3. Pay special attention to math.
Because you may have fewer opportunities to observe your child doing math in the course of your regular time together, consider asking your child to talk you through problems from their homework or quizzes. Listen for how well they can explain their thought process and steps. At parent-teacher conferences, make a point of asking the teacher whether your child has mastered grade-level skills for math, and whether your child is on-track to be able to thrive in the most challenging math opportunities available at your school in future years. If the answers are not as positive as you hope, ask the teacher for support finding additional help. If you're still not getting the support you and your child need for math, it might be time to look for out-of-school support through tutoring or extra online practice. Another thing to consider is what types of opportunities will be available to your child in advanced math as they go through the school system. Understanding your district’s math offerings through 12th grade may help as you talk to your child’s teachers about your hopes for them.
4. Find the “percentiles” on your child’s score report.
Percentiles indicate how your child’s performance compares to their peers, by telling us how many students, out of 100, your child outperformed on this particular assessment. If your child’s percentile is below 25 in math or reading, typically that means they are significantly behind. Educators should be partnering with you to ask questions about what is causing your child to struggle and putting plans in place to support them. If that is not happening, raise the issue with your child’s teacher(s) and consider making a formal request for additional supports by submitting a letter to your school’s principal.