August 21, 2012

For Parents: Key Questions You Should Ask About Student Assessments

Source: NYSUT Communications
students taking tests

How can I find out how my child is doing?

Always start with your child’s teacher. Although report cards are regularly issued at the conclusion of a marking period, parents can always seek more frequent information on their child’s performance in schools. In the early grades there are regularly scheduled parent/teacher conferences. In the secondary grades, you can always arrange time to discuss your child’s progress with the subject teachers or team. If you are concerned about your child’s progress, don’t hesitate to contact your child’s teacher to discuss those concerns in greater detail.

Some districts also provide online access to your child’s grades and assignments. Check with your district for what online capabilities exist. To learn more about your child’s educational programs in general, attend your school’s open house night.

What are standardized tests and how do teachers use them?

Standardized tests are tests that are administered and scored in a consistent manner. All students answer the same questions, usually in multiple-choice format. Each question has only one correct answer. The consistent nature of a standardized test allows for a more reliable comparison among students. Standardized tests have pros and cons, and are one tool among many for assessing students.

Federal and state requirements call for school districts to measure student achievement annually. There are statewide standardized assessments for grades 3-8 in English Language Arts and Math, and grades 4 and 8 science. English as a Second Language tests and alternative assessments for students with severe disabilities are used to determine student proficiency and whether remedial help is needed. Standardized tests are also used as an element of teacher/principal evaluations and to rate schools and districts to determine which are in need of improvement and targeted aid.

State Regents examinations are required for students to obtain high school diplomas. In addition, high school students can take AP exams and nationally normed standardized tests such as PSAT, SAT and ACT.

Sometimes there are other standardized tests administered by local school districts, such as the Terra Nova, STAR and NWEA.

What are the pros and cons of standardized tests?


They help teachers and districts align curriculum and classroom instruction to state standards.
They provide comparative data between schools and districts that are used to evaluate programs for rigor and to identify strengths and weaknesses.


They are “one size fits all” and are not a good measure of critical thinking skills or creative ability. The structure and composition of the test can sometimes limit students with special needs from accurately demonstrating proficiency in the subject matter.

Not all test-takers have been exposed to the same background. For example, the SAT was criticized for a multiple-choice question that required students to know terminology related to crew, a sport popular with the wealthy.

Test results are usually not available to parents or teachers in a timely manner and are therefore not helpful for addressing needs identified by the assessment.

What impact does testing have on children?

Testing may be stressful for some students. It can be worsened by an over-emphasis on test stakes, consequences or grades. It’s important for you to reassure your children that no single test or grade defines who they are. Keep the focus on learning, not testing. Please see the NYSUT tip sheet Helping Your Child to Reduce Test Anxiety” for more information.

What other assessment options are there?

There are many alternative assessments that provide parents, educators and policymakers with richer, deeper, more complete information about what students are learning and can do. These assessments, known as authentic assessments, recognize the wide range of learning styles that standardized tests fail to take into account. Some examples of authentic assessments are: portfolios, writing journals and end-of-course capstone projects.

Authentic assessment constitutes the core method educators use every day in classrooms. Students are asked to do performance-based, real-world tasks that demonstrate meaningful application of knowledge and skills.

What can authentic assessments tell me about my child’s learning?

Students are required to perform, create or produce work aligned to New York State’s Common Core learning standards for that subject area. Because of the product-oriented nature of these assessments, your child’s work is tangible evidence of your child’s progress and knowledge of the subject area.

These assessments provide real-time feedback. Parents are provided with information throughout the year and have the opportunity to discuss concerns with the teacher.

How can schools be certain that authentic assessments are rigorous enough?

Authentic assessments must be aligned to the state learning standards. Performance rubrics developed by the teacher or team of teachers are used to evaluate the student’s work. A rubric is a type of score sheet that defines a student’s proficiency in meeting the learning goals and objectives.

What if I am concerned about how my child is doing? How can I get help?

Once again, start with your child’s teacher. Your child’s teacher can help determine how your child is progressing and if there is cause for concern. Your child’s teacher can also discuss options for appropriate interventions, after-school activities or tutoring, if available. If you believe your child might have special needs, talk to your child’s teacher or school counselor about a possible evaluation for special education services. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

What can I do to encourage a more balanced approach to student assessment?

NYSUT is committed to working with parents to lessen the focus on standardized tests and make the case for a more balanced approach to assessment. We need assessments that provide a more complete picture of what your child has learned and can do.

Get involved in your PTA, volunteer to serve on school district committees, and monitor school board actions. Write letters to the editor, or become a community activist. An informed parent can help make the case for a balanced approach that prioritizes high-quality instruction informed by appropriate and useful assessments.

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