Testing Knowledge, Not Anxiety


A version of this post appears on the WNYC SchoolBook Blog. In early August we learned many New York City kids bombed this year’s elementary and middle school tests. Judged against the new and more challenging Common Core learning standards, the percentage of children rated proficient fell by about half.

We were warned as early as last year this would happen. In 2010 just 21 percent of children who were judged 'proficient' and made it to New York City high schools were minimally prepared for college. (see graph below) So there was a clear disconnect between the old tests and reality.


But with Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s education legacy under scrutiny, the spin on the results was tornado-like. Apart from mayoral candidates, we heard from our children’s school, State Education Commissioner John King, and Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott. Because my wife teaches, we also got a note from U.F.T. president Michael Mulgrew.

With politicians so eager to explain the scores to us I found it ironic that parents could not see their kid’s results until August 26th.  It was like hearing: “There’s been a 15-car pile up with a school bus at the corner of Flatbush and Dekalb. Your kid might be involved. We’ll get back to you in three weeks.”

It’s no wonder parents felt left out of the discussion. If you have children in grades 3 through 8, here are some guidelines I hope will help you make sense of things once the results are released.

How Test Results Are Reported

Despite what you’ve heard, standardized tests have a role to play in education. Test results are part of the data that allow administrators to judge how well instruction is working and can also provide feedback on different groups of students and their achievement over time.

The purpose of the state Math and English (ELA) exams is to judge if students have met New York’s proficiency threshold - what many call “passing” the test. Education experts determine the passing score based on their best judgment; while it’s not arbitrary, there's no formula or rule.

The number of correct answers is your child’s raw score. But as test questions are worth different amounts, eight correct answers out of 10 does not mean she got an 80 percent.  To represent this, the raw score is converted to a scale score that runs from 0 to 400. The state sets "cut scores," the scores that correspond to the 1,2,3 & 4 ratings parents recognize.  Cut scores vary by grade and subject but 320 was a passing score for most grades this year.


As seen in the figure, perhaps a half to a third of the questions on a typical test are pretty basic, to identify struggling students. Another third might be of medium difficulty, and perhaps 5-10 percent are hard enough to challenge the highest achievers. The test also included experimental questions. These are not graded so they don’t offer guidance about your child or her school.

In prior years the entire range of “exceeds proficiency” was made up of just three questions- hardly a way to assess excellence.  This year a scale score of 340, just below the cutoff for level 4 (exceeds proficiency) in 3rd grade math, was statistically indistinguishable from a 341, which is above the cutoff.

Similarly, for the child scoring a 313, just one more correct answer would move him to the ‘proficient’ group from 'below proficient'. That one question difference doesn’t signal a true difference in his ability; it’s just an artifact of the test design.

New York City confuses matters further by transforming those 1-4 scores out to two decimal places. So a scale score like 313 becomes a 2.88; 320 is a 3.00.

One More Data Point, Among Many

So if your child was tested, the first step is to stay calm. The results do not indicate your child has not become a lot less, or more, competent in just one year, no matter what the score says. His teachers and principal remain the best source of information about how he is doing at school.

But don’t expect to have a detailed conversation in the schoolyard on the first day of school. Make an appointment for October, when they have had a chance to see how your child is doing in class. Ask about what he does well, and where he struggles.

Reading scores remain weaker than math scores, across the board.  Conveniently, it's the area where parents can have the greatest influence. Turn off the TV, confiscate the smart phone, and ensure your child has a few good books to read. And ask your local librarian for ideas if you are coming up dry.

Another way to help them learn is to praise your child for her effort, not for being ‘smart.’  Cognitive psychologists say that kids who learn that results come from hard work, not lucky genes, overcome setbacks more easily and achieve better grades.

Lastly, get them to bed early. Sleep is critical to children’s health and growth. Research shows it’s also when their brain consolidates and organizes all the information we are expecting them to master.

And what does all this mean for ICS? In April I shared the ICS plan for testing:

doing what we know is right: teaching a love of learning, the joy in figuring things out, and the pride that comes from being able to share knowledge with others.

If we get that right, the tests will take care of themselves.