Standardized Test Scores

Standardized test scores provide a consistent way to compare children, classrooms or schools to others within a school, district, city or state. These exams are one measure of what students have learned in their core academic subjects at a given period of time and can be extremely helpful to parents when they are deciding among a group of schools. However, standardized test scores can also be misleading.

Since schools typically serve students of different abilities and backgrounds, test scores can be a poor measure of teaching quality. For example, a school with high test scores may only teach students who had tested very well at their previous school, and their students in fact may not have learned a great deal at this school. In contrast, there are schools with poor tests scores that offer an excellent education, only they only teach students who came to their school with poor math and reading skills. The school with poor test scores may have increased their students’ proficiencies dramatically, but did not make up enough ground to perform well on the grade-level exams.

Ideally, a parent would want to see gains in student achievement during their tenure at the school. Growth scores provide information regarding the extent to which students learned skills at school rather than prior to enrolling at the school. Unfortunately, these data are rarely available.

When you compare school scores, average scores do not help a great deal. Instead, look at the percent of students who score at the target (proficiency) or distinction levels.  Some cities, like New York City, report scores by type of student (i.e., race, gender, limited English proficiency status).

While comparing test scores is a good starting point, you will also want to look at other measures of school quality. For example, most schools report their attendance rate, suspension rates as well as a wealth of measures of teacher quality. Comparing various measures of school quality may give you a better sense of a school’s achievement than relying solely on test scores.