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Testing 101

How parents can understand the purpose of their child’s tests
Student with pencil taking test

From state accountability tests to the SAT/ACT to that in-class quiz on multiplication facts — all these kinds of tests might require students to know something about multiplication, but which one gives parents the most insight into who and where their child is as a learner?

“No single test can serve all your purposes or answer all your questions,” says psychometrician Andrew Ho, professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, noting that tests are designed for a certain measurement purpose. Indeed, some exams aren’t really intended to provide information about an individual student’s performance. So, as Ho points out, knowing the purpose of a test and how it’s meant to be used can provide parents with valuable insights.

Ho categorizes tests as being either low- or high-stakes — meaning there’s a risk/reward factor attached to performance — and designed to look at group or individual achievement. 


Individual: This is how teachers generally assess how students are doing. These tests can range from informal check-ins, verbal responses, homework assignments, and more formal exams like midterms. They monitor what each student understands and, most importantly, when looked at together across the school year, can show how a student has grown.

Group: These include monitoring exams that look at how groups of students are faring. One example is NAEP, also known as the Nation’s Report Card, that identifies trends in education to inform policymakers, researchers, and the general public. These scores are less relevant to parents because they don’t speak to their child’s individual progress, they’re still worth paying attention to because “there’s power in aggregating data like this. When we understand how all kids are doing, we can identify gaps in opportunity and work towards equity,” says Ho, who has used NAEP scores to compare school and district educational opportunity across the country.


Individual: Used by admissions offices, professional agencies, scholarship or prize committees, and tracking policies, these exams evaluate individual candidates for selection. The SAT/ACT fall into this category. Ho reminds parents, “these scores aren’t as critical to the admissions process as many stressed parents think they are. At selective schools, they’re typically one of five broad criteria, including academic and extracurricular records.” Still, in some cases like in Michigan where all students must take the ACT, Harvard Graduate School of Education professor Sue Dynarski has shown how universities can use scores to alert students and parents to college readiness if they hadn’t previously considered that pathway.

Group: State accountability tests may seem like they are meant to collect data about how all children are doing and identify areas for improvement. However, the primary purpose of these exams is accountability, meaning the results around proficiency and average scores help policymakers and education leaders determine consequences and sometimes rewards for schools, districts, and even individual teachers. 

Four Purposes of Educational Tests
So why should I care about a group assessment?

While both low- and high-stakes group assessments offer broad accountability and transparency, parents can still get a sense of their child’s learning if they know what to look at. “States can definitely do more to make the results more interpretable,” Ho says. “Once a child finishes the exam, we’ve already got an idea of how they did. Sending a rough description of their performance right away as opposed to a score several months later would make the test more relevant.” 

He also recommends parents take a look at sample questions. “This can help you know what kind of questions your child can answer and which ones they might struggle with.”

Remember: Numbers Aren't Everything

“As a society, we’re weak to numbers,” says Ho. “We often imbue them with a meaning they don’t necessarily deserve. These scores aren’t the end-all-be-all — you need to remember they’re imprecise and they’re impermanent.” Ho reminds parents:

  •  A test score simply provides a snapshot of where a student is on a particular day and at a particular time — and that could be a representative depiction, or it might not be. And it doesn’t capture everything! A timed multiplication quiz doesn’t assess creativity or grit or even problem solving. Looking at the actual test questions can help you understand how limited tests are.
  • Avoid swapping or comparing scores across exam categories. Just because a child doesn’t perform well on the reading comprehension section of the SAT doesn’t mean they’re not a strong reader — especially if their in-class assessments are strong and vice versa. 
  • Be aware of what kind of meaning you attach to a number. If you decide something is an “8 “or in the 75th percentile, there are assumptions attached about whether that’s a “good” or “bad” score. Instead, numbers need context, content, and an idea of what’s next. If the report doesn’t explain how a child takes a test, what the questions are, and what to do next, then ask.
  • Above all else, the scores are not the be-all, end-all of a child’s learning. “We can’t forget about the importance of a learning mindset,” says Ho. “We often look at these scores and say, ‘ok this child is good at math,’ as though it’s inherent and it can never change, but there’s research that shows that just isn’t the case.”  

What to Do Instead

  • Look at tests as a baseline for future progress or a compass that can help you navigate to what to learn next, rather than as a finale. 
  • Check your child’s backpack and collect the work they bring home over the year. Over the summer, you can look back at where they started and where they ended to see how they’ve grown. 

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