A lot of confusion exists regarding the meaning of achievement test scores. Our local schools use achievement test scores to place children in classes and to identify their strengths. Yet the data we, as parents, are given often is hard to understand. Achievement tests taken by school children usually fall into one of the following categories:
- grade level achievement tests;
- above level achievement tests;
- individual achievement tests; and
- computer adaptive achievement tests.
Grade Level Achievement Tests
This category consists of tests such as the CSAP, ITBS, SAT10, and DORA. On a grade level achievement test, a child’s reported “grade level” or percentile may create confusion. For instance, if a second grade student receives an oral vocabulary score of “high 4th grade” on the DORA, it does not mean that the child has the vocabulary of an average child at the end of 4th grade. What it does mean is that this 2nd grader scored the same as the average 4th grade student would on a 2nd grade test. To ascertain if he has a vocabulary similar to an average 4th grader, he would need to be given a 4th grade test.
Many high achieving students will score between the 90th to 95th percentile or even higher on grade level achievement tests. For students who are consistently scoring in the mid to upper 90s (percentiles) on grade level achievement tests, more information regarding their achievement level can be obtained by having the students take an above level test.
Above Level Achievement Tests
Above level testing entails having a child take a grade level achievement test for a grade higher than the grade in which he is enrolled. For instance, a 3rd grade student could take the 4th grade ITBS test. A 2nd grader who scored in the 50th percentile on the 4th grade ITBS vocabulary section would be considered to have a vocabulary on par with an average 4th grader.
The way that most above level achievement testing takes place is through academic talent search programs. These programs allow 3rd-6th graders to take the 8th grade EXPLORE test and 6th-9th graders to take the SAT and ACT tests, commonly taken by college bound high school juniors and seniors. A listing of organizations which offer talent search programs can be found here. Colorado’s regional talent search is Western Academic Talent Search run through the Center for Bright Kids.
Individual Achievement Tests and Computer Adaptive Tests
Individual achievement tests include tests such as the WIAT and the WJ-III. These tests require the administrator to be highly qualified, usually someone with a graduate degree in a field such as psychology. They are given orally to the student in a one-on-one setting. Grade level scores on these tests do tell you that the child is functioning at the academic equivalency of a child in the grade in which his score falls. So, a 2nd grade student with an “academic skills” grade equivalent of 4th grade, is doing work similar to that of an average 4th grader.
Similarly, computer adaptive tests, such as the NWEA MAP test, give parents and teachers information that can be compared across grade levels. The publisher of the MAP test states that, “because the tests are adaptive and the test items displayed are based on student performance, not age or grade, identical scores across grades mean the same thing. For example, a third grader who received a score of 210 and a fourth grader who received a score of 210 are learning at the same level.”
Each of these test types was created with a different purpose in mind. For the most part, schools want to ensure that students are performing proficiently for their current grade level. Grade level achievement tests are most commonly used for this purpose. For determining how advanced a child is, the other achievement test types may be more useful, however.