Standardized testing 101

What every parent should know—but don’t worry, you won’t be tested


Paige Hobey

Here’s a parenting pop quiz for you: What’s the ISAT? IMAGE? PSAE? NCLB? AYP?

Eyes glazing over? Don’t worry; it’s just standardized testing time again. And this year, No Child Left Behind (that would be NCLB) kicks into full gear—which means these assessments are required in more grades than ever before.

It’s easy to be confused by the acronyms and shifting subject areas in your children’s standardized tests. Here’s a parent prep course so you can head into testing season in the know.

Who will be tested this month?

A. Third, fifth and eighth graders B. Fourth and sixth graders C. Seventh graders D. All of the above

Answer: D. This year, kids in grades three through eight will take the Illinois Standards Achievement Test (ISAT) between March 13 and 24, according to Becky McCabe, Division Administrator for Student Assessment at the Illinois Board of Education.

Before the federal No Child Left Behind law, only third, fifth and eighth graders took the ISAT. But now students are tested annually from third grade until the end of junior high.

What will be tested?

A. Writing B. Reading and mathematics C. Social studies D. All of the above

Answer: B. The ISAT tests reading and mathematics every year and also tests science in grades four and seven.

Subjects such as writing, social studies, health and fine arts are no longer included, although Gov. Rod Blagojevich signed into law this summer a bill that, among other things, requires fifth and eighth graders be tested on writing again starting in the 2006-2007 school year.

Kids learning English as a second language take the Illinois Measure of Annual Growth in English (IMAGE) instead. It tests reading and mathematics in grades three through eight during the same weeks.

When can you find out your child’s ISAT results?

A. Later in the spring B. The summer C. The fall D. Next winter

Answer: C. In the fall, parents will receive their children’s scores and a packet from the Illinois Board of Education explaining how to interpret the results.

Some school districts offer information sessions to further explain the results to parents. If yours doesn’t, Illinois PTA President Barb Quinn recommends scheduling a meeting with your children’s teachers.

How are test results used?

A. To make sure schools are meeting state-level standards B. To get a sense for each student’s annual progress C. To place kids in gifted programs D. A and B

Answer: D. Administrators will use this year’s results in two ways: To assess each student’s progress in key academic areas and to gauge schoolwide performance.

On the individual level, test scores help teachers determine if students have mastered concepts and helps pinpoint areas where more challenging material or special attention might be needed, says Craig Besant, school board member and father of two students at St. Norbert School in Northbrook. Besant has been pleased to see teachers using ISAT performance from the previous spring to tailor individual attention as needed.

Under No Child Left Behind, schools are evaluated based on the percentage of their students who meet or exceed state-level standards. Each school is held accountable for "adequate yearly progress" (AYP), and if overall student scores fail to meet these standards, schools are given an escalating series of sanctions.

What happens to schools that don’t make adequate yearly progress?

A. The school is essentially put on notice. B. The school has to notify parents and give them the option of transferring their children to a different school. C. The school must develop a comprehensive plan for improving school performance. D. All of the above.

Answer: D. The sanctions occur in order—first the school is put on notice and if it doesn’t improve the next year, students have to be given the option to transfer and so on. If none of that brings up the scores, the state can come in and take over the school.

As a parent, how can you help?

A. Make sure your kids get the basics: plenty of sleep and a good breakfast. B. Point out siblings’ previous scores to create some healthy competition. C. If you know your kids tend to feel anxious before any test, try to avoid the topic. D. All of the above

Answer: A. Some kids are natural test-takers and confidently breeze through exams. If this describes your child, your parenting role is simple: Make sure she has a good night’s sleep and a good breakfast before heading off to school, just as you would on any other day.

Other students, however, feel stressed before any kind of performance assessment. The fear is understandable: It’s not easy to be measured against your peers and low scores can quickly make a child feel insecure about her academic abilities.

To minimize pre-test stress, casually discuss your children’s feelings in advance and try to address any concerns. By staying upbeat and relaxed, you’ll build your kids’ self-esteem and set the tone for a positive experience.

When results come back, Glenview parent Paula Reichert recommends sharing lower scores with your children only when they’re old enough to request the results and never comparing scores between siblings. You can use the results to offer help, she says, without discussing the specific scores.


Prepping (not pressuring) your kids Wondering how to help your kids do their best without adding pressure? Follow these recommendations from Becky McCabe of the Illinois State Board of Education, Margaret Bartz of Chicago Public Schools and Barb Quinn of the Illinois PTA:

• Encourage them to sleep and eat well. Remind your children to head to bed early starting a night or two before the assessments. And offer good breakfasts on test mornings. Studies show well-rested, well-fed kids do their best.

• Be calm, cheerful and supportive. "When parents become stressed about these tests, consciously or not, their children pick up on it," says Quinn.

•  Put things in perspective. Remind your kids these are simply assessments to see how they’re doing—not tests to be feared. And let them know how proud you are of the work they do every day at school. If your high school junior is worried about her first ACT score, make sure she understands the college entrance exam can be retaken.

• Set realistic expectations. Some kids panic when they run across that first impossible question. It can be helpful to say, "You won’t know every answer, but don’t worry. Just give your best guess if you’re not sure and then move on."

• Chat with your children’s teachers. Each teacher takes a different approach to test preparation. Find out what your children are doing in the classroom so you can answer their questions and help them feel comfortable when testing time hits.

To learn more, visit the Illinois State Board of Education’s Web site,

Testing high schoolers Once kids hit high school, standardized tests have a longer-term personal impact—college. The Prairie State Achievement Examination (PSAE) juniors take on April 26 and 27 includes the ACT college entrance test. Reading, mathematics and science are assessed, and writing will be included starting in spring 2007. If your junior scores well, he or she can use this ACT result when applying to colleges, says Margaret Bartz, of the Chicago Public Schools. If not, don’t worry. The ACT can be retaken.

The PSAT/NMSQT also known as the Preliminary SAT®/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test is taken by juniors in October.

Are there too many tests?

Advocates of No Child Left Behind believe annual assessments help kids—and schools—stay on track.

"The ISAT and IMAGE are valuable assessments," says Barbara Eason-Watkins, chief education officer for the Chicago Public Schools. "In addition to measuring how well our schools are implementing the Illinois Learning Standards, they are also crucial for students, teachers and parents to have a sense of how students are performing on an individual level."

Parents can use test results to help their kids at home, further encouraging them in areas of particular strength or offering guidance in areas where improvement is needed, says Bartz.

And parents can become advocates for their kids at school, says Paula Reichert of Glenview. She was concerned by her son’s ISAT performance in reading and used his scores to make the case for additional reading instruction for him during the school day.

But some fear too much required testing may result in "teaching to the test" rather than encouraging innovative thinking.

"I understand schools have standards they have to meet, but I do worry they go overboard with testing," says Reichert.

Many educators are concerned the tests are driving the focus of education, says McCabe. To minimize this risk, she says the Illinois Board of Education has put together a blueprint that helps teachers understand what’s going to be tested. Then they can cover key concepts without significantly altering their preferred lesson plans.

"Teaching to the test is such an awkward phrase," says McCabe, "because we have taken that to mean that all teachers do is teach what is being tested. But in fact, teachers teach much more than what is tested. They always have. What they may do is teach how to take the test." This instruction can include how to do your best on multiple choice questions and timed exams.Stakes are high

Other critics worry that as resources shift to the tested subject areas, important programming may be sacrificed. The current high stakes testing approach judges schools based on their students’ ISAT scores in reading and math. And if supplemental instruction is required to beef up these scores, arts, music and other enrichment programs can become easy targets for cuts.

However, most schools used standardized testing to help assess student performance and curriculum even before No Child Left Behind, says Randy Tinder, superintendent of Forest Park District 91. Annual assessments, he says, are helpful in terms of data collection and analysis. Plus, schools base their curriculums on the Illinois Learning Standards—which are assessed in the ISAT. So teachers shouldn’t have to change their plans to prepare kids for the concepts covered in this assessment.

Teacher Judith Stocker agrees. Public school teachers generally don’t have to change the basic concepts they were planning to cover. However, she points out, teachers do have to allocate class time to prepare kids for the format of standardized tests. The math portion of the ISAT, for example, includes extended response—which means kids have to explain how they got the answers. So math teachers allocate time each year, to make sure students can excel in this testing format. Test preparation is definitely emphasized to teachers, says Stocker, and some feel stressed about their students getting high enough scores so their school won’t be penalized.


Paige Hobey is a writer and mother of two living in Chicago. Her new book, The Working Gal’s Guide to Babyville, will be available in bookstores in May.


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