Every year–usually in the spring–schoolchildren across the country take standardized tests. These tests are purported to show how much a child has learned in a given year. The results will show how your child compares to other children. Often they will show a percentile ranking. If a child is at the 53rd percentile, that means that 53% of the same-aged children who were tested scored below that child. Such a score is squarely in the average range.
Types of Assessments
Tests that measure children and compare to the scores of others are called norm-referenced tests. These are the types of tests that are typically administered nation wide to assess how well children have mastered certain concepts. Scores will be reported that show a certain level of mastery (7 of 10 correct) and then that information will be compared to other children of the same age or grade level.
Norm-referenced tests can be problematic when it comes to assessing the skills of kids with special needs. Sure, it can be helpful to know how your child compares to other kids, but if your child is very delayed or learns things in a completely non-traditional way, test results can feel like one more way to emphasize the differences rather than promote the positives in a child’s development.
Criterion-referenced testing can be much more useful in determining how much a child has learned. Criterion-referenced tests measure how well a child has mastered a certain skill. IEP goals are often criterion referenced. For example, a child who is working on producing a /k/ sound in conversation might have a goal that looks like this:
Child will produce the /k/ sound in the word-initial position of words with 90% accuracy when given a word list containing 25 target sounds.
With such a goal, the child’s progress is measured by comparing the initial level of performance against the current measure of success.
There is a place in education for each type of assessment, but it is important to know what information each type of testing yields.