Advice about Standardized Tests

Parent Q&A

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  • I have twin sons in 6th grade in the San Francisco public school. The school academics are poor, the classes are disruptive and they are not challenged. I would like to make sure they are challenged and prepared for the 7th grade SBAC and high school in general. Can anyone recommend a tutor or a learning center for math and English in San Francisco?  Or any other suggestions (books, online programs) would also be greatly appreciated. Thank you!

    Our child worked with Paul Gabriel for two (high school) years, and our whole family loved him. He’s smart, interesting, and engaging. Our kid learned study and organizational skills in addition to subject matter material. Best of all, he really listens and gets to know your child(ren) as a person; there is nothing cookie-cutter about his approach. His respect for and understanding of his students was inspiring, and his knowledge about learning differences helped eliminate a lot of stress in our relationship with our kid. I can’t recommend him highly enough. paul [at] 

    I don’t have a recommendation, but I’m wondering what the point of studying for the SBAC is.  My kids take it, and they both do well on it, but their scores do not seem to affect their lives in any way.  It seems more like a measurement of how the schools are doing.  Is it used for something else?

  • Hi Parents

    We received our daughter's test results yesterday and I need some advice please.

    She got "nearly met standard (2)" for language arts and "below standard" for math (1). We didn't expect her to be exceeding standard but we're very surprised by this. Mainly because we know her math is good, her knowledge of math facts is solid. She's a great reader. We've seen her school work and homework. We do however know that she struggles to decode and understand long story problems and know what the question is asking her.

    We were so baffled that we decided to have her take a practice language arts s-bac test at home online. We saw that the questions were littered with words she doesn't know. words like infer and inference, she doesn't know what they mean and didn't know how to answer the questions. These words have never been taught, come up in conversation, been in her homework. She's only 9. I'm so confused.

    I understand that she probably needs test practice but even so, it felt like she is being tested according to a standard that she wasn't taught at.

    How do I support my daughter in 4th grade?We already hired a math tutor over the summer.  Any advice, your experiences would be greatly appreciated!

    The first person to ask is her teacher. 

    Hello! I can relate! My 2 boys, now 12 and 14, frequently got those scores in elementary school. My older son had a 504 due to attention issues and he was allowed to take the test at a slower pace, but even then didnt score great, though he is very bright and interested in science and had no problem with math homework, etc. I personally took those results with a grain of salt. I found it more important that they enjoy school, read/be read to every night, give their best effort on homework, and practice their musical instruments. My younger son did receive some reading support at the school, which was fine. Many kids don't test all that well and i just feel like it is not the best measure. I never made a big deal out of the test, just encouraged them to do their best. That is great you have a math tutor, regardless of her score. I feel like test practice is what those tests should be, not making her do MORE tests! I would be more concerned if she acted out in school or was refusing to participate. Like you said, she is only 9! (those Story problems are just hard! Even for me sometimes!) Take care and you know what is best for your child. Sometimes maybe the schools are asking too much.

    Hi! I've gotten my three kid through the school system (my baby is a senior this year), as well as tutored many kids. I think if your child is otherwise doing well in school, then those test results don't matter much. These kinds of tests are generally used to rate the school, and for purposes of funding and resource allocation. They don't affect your child's grades and are by no means a sign of their intelligence. They might be useful to gauge if a child is improving from one year to the next, but even that might not be an accurate measurement if your child isn't strong in this style of test. It seems like the most useful takeaway from the test might be to let last year's teacher know about the words that tripped your child up so she can better prepare her new class by teaching them those words. It sounds like you have a lucky girl to have such an attentive parent. Best of luck!

Archived Q&A and Reviews


Any groups fighting high stakes testing?

May 2010

I have read ''The Death and Life of the Great American School System'' by Diane Ravitch, and despite what I already knew about the major problems of NCLB, this book was eye opening. Anyone who has had to deal with the stupidity of high stakes testing -- whether you are a teacher, a parent, or a former or current public school student -- should read this book. And anyone who gets their info primarily from the TV and radio media should *especially* read this book. However, my question is: What is being done to turn the tide and bring some rhyme and reason back for our children? Does anyone know of any organizations that are attempting to fight these stupid laws and horrifying ''reforms''? Are people still so enamored of Obama that they still haven't noticed that ''Race to the Top'' is just an extension of NCLB? Please let me know what groups are doing something to end this madness. I have asked a few educators and principals, and they did not know of any groups working toward this aim. Thank you. Quality Education Should Mean Music, Art, Science, Foreign Languages...

As a product of Berkeley public schools of the 1970s, I must say that I am in favor of the current testing and accountability, as well as homework in elementary school. I ended up lacking many basic skills such as grammar and essay writing and had to work hard playing catch-up in college. I feel secure knowing that my daughter, her teacher and the school district are held to task to make sure that none of the California education standards are left behind. My opinion has nothing to do with Obama or Bush or any political position at all, just that the state standards represent critical skills and I appreciate that there is accountability that my daughter will learn them. -- it is a good thing

I've done a bit of research on the web and have found only a few calls to end the madness of high-stakes testing. I think the main problem is a publicity problem. That is, so many people think that a test score is a measure of education (which it isn't), and that teachers are be-all, end-all of that score. Really, it's parental education and income level that determines the test score of the child, so holding a teacher accountable makes no sense. Even ''great'' teachers have kids who score inconsistently from one year to the next, so high-stakes testing is stupid all around: it doesn't measure the teacher's teaching or the education received.

As for people taking or advocating action, here is what I found:

The National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest) works to end the misuses and flaws of standardized testing and to ensure that evaluation of students, teachers and schools is fair, open, valid and educationally beneficial.

Has a list of resources and people to contact per state.

This site is compiled by an Oakland mom and has links to many different articles about schools and the crazy reforms going on. This is site that has calls to action on 10/7/10 as well as a petition way down at the bottom of the home page.

Lots of research cited here about the stupidity of high-stakes testing. This page has info on why oppose testing, how to oppose testing, whom to contact and where to get more info.

The home page cites a recent study on the pay per performance experiment in Chicago schools (Arne Duncan's baby). Basically, pay per performance did not raise math and English test scores.

Join each of these blogs and get others to do so as well, so that when an action is called for, you will know about it and be able act in concert. One person can do little against these high-powered, corporate-led reformers who hold the top political positions or other-wise influence them, but large numbers of people (parents, educators, students, etc) can make a difference. The Educated Need to End High-Stakes Testing

I just wanted to second the person who wrote in about going to schools in Berkeley in the 1970's and lacking skills.

I went to schools in Davis at the same time and lacked grammer, essay writing, and basic math skills. I also had to do a lot of catch up when I got to college.

While I think the testing part is overdone - I would rather see elementary kids tested in 3rd and 5th grades only - I think the standards have helped education.

Though there are things I don't like about our Oakland Public school, I think the academics are generally quite a bit better than when I went to school. -another perspective

I wanted to correct one inaccurate statement. Science is tested in 5th grade in all CA public schools.

I agree that high stakes testing, as currently implemented, needs a serious overhaul. It's too much, too soon. We should do STAR testing in 3rd grade, 5th grade, 7th, and 9th grade and follow each students' progress, not hold teachers responsible for a random group of kids they get each year, some of whom come to school with huge educational advantages and disadvantages.

From my experience with 2 kids in the public school system, the schools with a significant amount of middle class families do not experience the narrowing of the curriculum that happens at schools where kids are mostly poor.

Middle class parents generally raise funds to back fill cuts to music, arts, science enrichment, and libraries. Plus, teachers at those schools are more likely to apply for grants to do gardening programs, conservations studies, specialized artist programs, etc. They get a rich curriculum. Public schools today are much better than when I attended them in the late 70's and early 80's.

Arne Duncan has been a huge disappointment as Education Secretary. I have nothing against charter schools (they serve an important niche) but he spends a lot of air time advocating for merit pay and charter schools (which only serve the needs of 3% of the school age population). The other 97% of school age kids are in public schools. And merit pay leaves so many teachers out of the mix anyway. In a public middle school, you have history, art, music, science, special ed, and shop--none of these instructors are going to be easily judged by a machine scored standardized test.

The biggest problem I see right now is a broken school financing system (in Sacramento) with high standards and no money to back it up. Class sizes are going up but the sky high expectations are all in place.

And when you add in the body blows to community colleges and UC, this has huge implications for a well-educated workforce. Even those in private school should be worried. public school mom

I have seen the point made over and over again that test scores are correlated with parental education and income. This is empirically true, but that doesn't make it right.

The point of public education is to equalize opportunities between children of all backgrounds. To accept that children from poor backgrounds will, as a matter of course, acheive less than their more well off peers completely ignores the foundational purpose of public education, besides being an incredibly insulting and offensive perspective to take.

If you are interested in learning how it is possible for children from all backgrounds to meet high academic standards (not just do well on standardized tests), check out any of E.D. Hirsch Jr.s books, or look into the practical application of his ideas - Core Knowledge schools. -frustrated with low expectations

To the person who stated that it is income and parent education that drive test scores - income has nothing - absolutely nothing to do with it. However, family wealth has everything to do with it. Meaning - if the family earns a household income of $125,000 per year, but are not homeowners, do not have retirement savings, do not have objects in the household of significant value, do not have the means to pass wealth down, the income does not matter. Family education matters not so much in the middle grades - 4 through 8, but the planning for college makes that dip rise and scores increase. Wealth not Income

Test Scores vs. Grades

June 1999

My 6th grade daughter got her report card and Star Parent Report in the same envelope last week. Her report card was terrific, A's and a B. Her Achievement Test results were dismal, 37% in Total Reading and 35% in Total Math. What's going on? Is this indicative of her teachers giving indeserved high grades, the Achievement Tests being an unreliable tool or something else? Thanks for your thoughts.

We had the same experience with the Star Report. My daughter got very good grades this year in the 6th grade at King Middle School and her Achievement Test results were awful. There is certainly a discrepancy between what the tests show and what teachers were reporting to us through grades and otherwise. I'd like to hear any thoughts on this, as well.

I just received a letter from Jack McLaughlin, BUSD Superintendent, explaining that the STAR report card is new this year, much tougher and there are complaints all over California that students were frustrated and unable to do well in the test. It's a case of the cart before the horse and is not as meaningful to our children as it is to educators who want to know where to begin raising the level of California's educationally starved system that, unfortunately, has this state ranked at the bottom 50% for quality of education. My son is in 2nd grade and we just got this letter. I wonder if we'll get this letter as high school parents. Anyway, the best way to improve your daughter's education is for her to read, read, and read (as much and as often and as many books as possible, especially this summer)--it will raise her vocabulary and understanding tremendously because she has more Achievement tests and SAT's in her future (and you have those to worry about because colleges look at those scores as well as grades), but keeping up her grades are probably most important while taking challenging classes.

Re: acheivement tests and grades. The head of assessment for the district gave a long presentation to the school board the week on June 14th about the STAR results (I watched on B-TV). She said parents were likely to be shocked because test scores would probably be lower this year. In addition, limited english proficient students were still forced to take the test in English, although there was a parallel test (SABE) administered in Spanish. There were things on the tests that kids hadn't ever seen or been taught. Others were aligned with standards that are not yet being reflected in classroom curriculum and texts. She encouraged everyone to recognize that the scores will be more meaningful as teaching comes into synch with the state standards. Re: the discrepancy between grades and test scores. Make an appointment to talk to your child's teacher(s) and see if they can help you figure out the discrepancy. How did your kid do last year? Maybe it was a bad year, maybe they didn't have a good test day. Or, perhaps you need to help her work on specific things she didn't do well with or help her with test taking strategies.

I don't have enough faith in psychological testing to get very concerned about the disparity between the grades and the test results. For one thing, the test is against national norms, while the grades are against school/state criteria. For another, there's a fair amount of error in all psychometry. For yet another, the kid's teachers and I know his mind and abilities better than a Scantron test scorer does. About the only use I see for the results is as another way of showing my son that he is an excellent performer in some areas but definitely needs to quit blowing off his arithmetic drills. There's something very convincing about a bar chart, even if the information on it is the same thing I've been telling him for a year. -- John

About testing in schools: as a teacher, I found that even with a lot of drilling with similiar questions as on the test, kids still would miss the question. For example on the fourth grade test there were multiple tasks around a central theme, look at the chart, which is higher/lower, compare this to that, add up this - subtract that. Many children just do not have that ability. Our textbooks do not teach what the tests ask.

My experience is that our kids (in Berkeley Public Schools) don't have a lot of experience with workbooks that drill this kind of task. They are asked to be creative, and workbooks are looked down upon as being old-fashioned. Yet children love to work in them (on a limited basis). Since our district does not buy workbooks for children and requires teachers to copy everything they use from one machine that often is jammed or out of order or in use - then, that is one reason they don't do well on standardized tests.

I think there are too many children at too many levels in our classrooms to teach everyone well. Too many disruptive children, can shut down a classroom. We still are 50th in the nation on what we spend in California on our schools, yet ours is one of the wealthiest states in the US; if we were a country we'd place 7th in the world (with our wealth). -- Linda 

My son received straight D's and F's in 7th grade (Albany), but got an average of 98% on the STAR testing stuff. I'm not sure what that says except grades obviously don't show what a kid knows and testing definitely doesn't. John 

Like the rest of you, we got the STAR results for our sixth grader- I was slightly surprised that he exceled in the math portion, almost off the charts, but did poorly in verbal, much worse than his grades. It has always my inclination to take these test results with a major grain of salt- i never feel that they really show the abilities of our kids and this kind of test taking can be learned. The reality is that having just had a daughter graduate from Berkeley High, I have had my fill of standardized tests, including the father of them all, the SATs. My daughter has decent grades and excels when she is engaged in a subject, but she has always been a terrible standarized test taker- she's the kind that the teacher would put in GATE and then the tests would eliminate her, causing a big fuss between her teacher and the GATE folks.

Having said that, the fact of the matter is that if your kid is going to go to a UC or State University and does not have an incredible GPA, those test scores are very important. This is a sad but true fact- that despite what we know about our childrens unique and special qualities, the Ca. Universities look first at those test scores as the key to admission, especially if the grades are under a 3.5.You can avoid the standardized test score dictates by having your kids go to private schools, where other qualities are considered much more important, but then there is the issue of $$$- and some kids, like my daughter, refused to apply to any private school! -- Lynn 

I think that despite the emphasis on standards and test scores, parents should use a variety of indicators to guage how their children are doing in school--homework, grades, effort, willingness to tackle new subjects and work beyond their comfort level, even willingness and ability to help other students who are struggling with assignments! Unfortunately, some teachers tend to look at scores and label a child with that score--I hope the teachers are as sensitive to the limitations of these new scores as the parents are being encouraged to be.

For all the rhetoric about teaching to multiple intelligences the tests really focus on only a few of the intelligences and good test taking abilities (which she suggested can be taught to some extent eg how to eliminate obviously wrong answers and spend time on the other choices).

That said, I also think there *is* such a thing as grade inflation. My daughter got excellent grades (all A's) in 6th grade. Although I'm very proud of her and think she worked hard I only saw her really stretch a few times throughout the year.

Tests such as the Star test are designed to compare and rank children against one another. They include questions at your child's grade level, as well as questions below and above your child's grade level. In other words, much of the material on the test may never even have been taught to her.

It is most likely largely up to your child's teacher(s)to determine what the letter grades are based on. But she is mostly likely only being judged on materials at her grade level. The grades probably reflect such things as whether she completes her homework, is a willing participant in classroom discussions, does complete and neat classwork etc. How much of the grade is even based on classroom tests of the subject matter taught varies widely from classroom to classroom.

I have two sons, one entering 8th and the other entering 4th. Especially with the middle schooler the test results reflect the same curriculum gaps in language arts I have been asking teachers and principals to remedy for years. Beyond workbook and drills, principals need to be assessing how well grade level curriculum is covered and manage the sequential skill-building curriculum.

Currently the principals labor over too much required paper work and BUSD's teacher contract states every teacher has the right to teach curriculum as they see fit. I would welcome clear assessment tools to evaluate effective teachers and their stategies. I would like students and families to respond to classroom surveys. Of course, some might preceive this to be threating, though in a more honest supportive environment this information will lead to mentoring, collaboration, and perhaps team building. Next year our teachers are going to be stressing over math standards, continuing reading assessments, and now interventions for students at risk for retention. I'm still primarily concerned with improving home-school communication. Unfortunately, I think all this new pressures will add more defensiveness to our teaching staffs overall.I participated in disrict committees last year, this year I want to continue with the retention intervention committee, and keep parents needs in the discussion. Laura 

In recognition of the fact that tests such as the Star test may not be the best measure of whether a child is learning what they should learn at each grade level, California school districts are being directed by the state to develop multiple measures. The state has developed standards and benchmarks outlining what students should learn at each grade level, and each district's assessments are supposed to check specifically whether the child is meeting those benchmarks. -- Betty 

Concerning the Star Parent Report. Didn't you get the letter with it. It said, Don't base your kid's furture on the scores. The textbooks weren't available. The teachers weren't familiar with the new curriculum. Many excuses. However, since it was percentile scores, some districts must have been up to speed.

As a 6th and 7th grade teacher in Moraga I have to say that the Star test does not reflect what we teach our students. In other words it is not aligned with our curriculum. Why is that? A fracture in Sacramento between who sets the Framework ( what we teach) and who sets the testing. The standards aren't really addressed completely either. Grades are often inflated in our middle school because they can reflect so much - attitude, effort, besides achievement. ellen

We just got our son's STAR results and they were worse than his grades. But other than that there were no real surprises: all his strengths and weaknesses showed up as usual. The difference between his grades and his test scores doesn't necessarily mean that his teachers have been giving undeserved high grades, or that the achievement tests are unreliable (although both could be true). -- John