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The school your child attends just released its Stanford Achievement Test scores, and they're down this year.

Is this a problem?The answer is yes and no, depending on how you look at it.

Naturally, no one likes lower test scores. But educators say parents need to understand the test itself and take a look at the full picture of how a child is doing before making judgments.

The nationally recognized test is actually a series of multiple choice exams in math, reading, language arts, social studies and science. However, only scores in math, reading and language arts are calculated into the total battery.

The state Legislature required all Utah public schools to administer the SAT in fifth, eighth and 11th grades to make schools more accountable and to provide some kind of consistent comparisons. Previously, districts administered a variety of tests (and still do), but there was no single common denominator exam.

The test results divide schools into comparable "bands." The idea is that schools in the same band will have similar socioeconomic and other influences such as how many of a school's students are from low-income families. Comparing schools with similar statistics is supposed to help show which ones are most effective.

Proponents say it's important to be able to see how students, schools and districts perform on a statewide level.

But the SAT has its critics who say there are too many other factors that are not taken into account.

"We have focused on the cheapest, easiest things to score: factual knowledge, content knowledge. You can run them through a computer," said Lily Eskelsen, president of Utah Education Association.

What the SAT doesn't measure are the things UEA members keep hearing are important from parents and the business community: creativity, ability to write, ability to understand directions, character development, good citizenship and work ethic.

For example, Eskelsen said in spelling tests, students are given four choices and are asked to pick the right one. But that "editing" ability doesn't necessarily mean the student can spell the same word correctly in real world situations.

"Picking the one that's correct, that's a whole different skill," she said. "Being able to look at something and saying that looks wrong doesn't mean you know what is missing or if someone said the word that you could spell it correctly. If you want to teach kids to spell, you ask them the word or have them write something and check to see if it's spelled correctly."

What Eskelsen would like to see are much more comprehensive and complete types of testing - that also would be more expensive.

Some districts, for example, are supplementing standardized test scores with portfolios of a student's work to actually show what the youngster can do in many subject areas.

Salt Lake City School District is creating a number of its own tests. Its reading test, for example, has no right or wrong answers. Instead, students read stories and write responses.

Among other things, district documents say that effective readers will be able to demonstrate they are "engaged with the text" by experimenting with ideas, thinking divergently, taking risks, expressing opinions, speculating, hypothesizing, visualizing characters or scenes, exploring alternative scenarios, raising questions, making predictions and thinking metaphorically.

One problem: It costs about $3.80 per child to administer this test because a carefully trained team of evaluators reads and assesses the responses.

On the other hand, the state gives districts the SAT tests for free.

Eskelsen applauds these new types of tests, which she said gives a more complete picture of how well or poorly a student and school are doing in a given subject.

What do standardized test scores show?

Unlike most other tests, standardized achievement tests, such as the Stanford Achievement Test, do not have a passing score. They rely on the national norm known as the 50th percentile - half of the students scored above this average, with the other half scoring below it.

The tests have been specifically constructed to produce bell-curve results, so that the bulk of the students fall in the middle third between the 33rd and 66th percentile.

The norm is the midpoint of scores, or 50th percentile, achieved by a sample group of students who took the test before it was released for general use.

Like pollsters conducting political-opinion polls, test company officials choose a sample group of students for test norming. Because these students are to statistically represent the United States, they're matched proportionately by race, socioeconomic status and geographic location.

Testing experts generally say one problem in assessing standardized scores is socioeconomic background. Educational studies have repeatedly shown that children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds don't do as well on standardized achievement tests as those from more affluent back-grounds.

That doesn't mean the poor can't learn, the experts say. It means the socioeconomic background affects test scores. A number of factors involved include parents' educational level; the availability of more books, educational toys and computers at home; language use and reading in the home; reading skills of parents; and exposure to stimulating activities such as family vacations and trips to museums or other educational spots.

Taking into account socioeconomic and other factors, the state sets an expected test-score range for each school and district so parents and others can gauge if their children's school or district is performing up to expectations.

In the past, it was difficult to compare standardized test scores district to district or school to school in Utah. That's because the standardized tests varied between districts or the districts using the same standardized tests gave ones normed in different years.

However, for the past four years - after the Legislature's mandate - all fifth-, eighth- and 11th-graders statewide receive the same standardized test, the Stanford Achievement Test, eighth edition, which was normed in 1989.



Stanford Achievement Test

Percentiles for Utah students.

The national median is 50.

Grade 5 Grade 8 Grade 11

Subtest 1991 1994 1991 1994 1991 1994

Mathematics 62nd 60th 54th 51st 59th 59th

Reading 55th 51st 55th 55th 58th 58th

Language/English 48th 48th 45th 45th 51st 51st

Science 56th 56th 53rd 53rd 60th 60th

Social science 55th 51st 50th 50th 56th 56th

Thinking skills 56th 56th 56th 56th 57th 57th

Total basic battery 55th 53rd 51st 50th 55th 55th

Students tested 34,369 35,904 28,608

Source: Utah State Office of Education