Making Sense of Your Child's Standardized Test Scores

04/30/2012 12:46 pm ET | Updated Jun 30, 2012

Coloring inside the lines didn't carry high stakes when we were kids. But for our children growing up in the era of No-Child-Left-Behind, coloring in ovals with #2 pencils is a primary means of proving their academic prowess.

Many kids now spend a full 1/10 of their 180-day academic year taking standardized tests. To say nothing of the all months they spend answering multiple-choice questions on practice tests. A recent article in TIME magazine said, "By the time kids graduate to college -- where the essay, the experiment and the case study still rule -- the reprieve from bubble-filling and time limits is a welcome one indeed."

With so much weight being put on standardized testing, it's more important than ever for us to understand the meaning of our children's scores. Unfortunately, the score reports we receive can rank right up there with hieroglyphics on the unreadability scale. The following information will help you cut through the jargon and decode your child's standardized testing results once and for all.

Two Types of Tests

While the specific tests children take vary from state to state and school to school, all standardized tests can be categorized into two major groups: Norm-referenced tests and criterion referenced tests.

Criterion Referenced Tests

Criterion Referenced tests are the most straightforward to understand in terms of how they work, but perhaps the most stressful in terms of how they are used. They are usually generated by the state (based on core educational standards for individual grade levels) and administered in the spring with the intent of checking how well kids have learned the material they were taught during the school year. A child's score on criterion referenced test is simply the number of questions answered correctly out of the total number of questions. But the score itself is not as important as where it falls in relation to the "cut score" which draws a hard fast line between proficiency and lack thereof. If the cut score for a math test, for example, is 33, a child who scores a 33 is considered to have met state standards in that subject area, while a child who scores a 32 is considered not to have met standards. It should also be noted that proficiency levels are determined using what appear to be cryptic formulas that have cut scores jumping around between subjects, grade levels and years.

Norm Referenced Tests

In simplest terms, norm-referenced means that test scores reflect a students' ranking relative to other children at the same grade level who took the same test. This category of tests (which include the likes of the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS), the Cognitive Abilities Test (CogAT) and the California Acheivement Test), are generally used by schools to identify "outlier" students for gifted and remedial programs. They also help teachers form ability leveled reading and math groups. A child's performance on these kinds of tests are communicated in a few different ways:

Percentiles: A percentile score of 76% means a child's performance equaled or surpassed that of 76% of the students who took the test (not that 76% of the questions were answered correctly).

Stanines (Standard Nines): This is a method by which all students tested are assigned to one of nine groups based on the bell curve that is formed by their scores (lots in the middle and fewer at the extremes). Though sometimes criticized as too broad, extreme stanine scores (1's and 2's or 9's) can be indicative of specific problems or talents.

Grade Equivalencies:
These commonly misunderstood scores work as follows: If a fifth grade child received a math computation grade equivalency of 9.5, this means she obtained the same score as a typical ninth grade student in the fifth month of school taking the SAME test. This does not mean she's ready to skip the next three years of math instruction; there are many critical ninth grade skills that are not evaluated by a fifth grade standardized test.

If you are concerned about your child's standardized test scores, schedule a meeting with the teacher to review the results and discuss whether they are reflective of your child's school performance. Ask to see your child's answer sheet along with the original test, if available. Sometimes lower scores result from stray marks, incomplete erasures or the error cascade that follows a misplaced answer. Children with attentional and organizational problems may also score in ways that are not reflective of their true academic aptitude.

On the flipside, don't assume high test scores undermine academic concerns expressed by your child's teacher. Multiple choice test formats don't address skills of recall, memory, written expression or organization, all or which are critical to daily school functioning. Also keep in mind that while standardized test scores can be valuable tools, they don't' mean nearly as much how a child does in school every day.