Alphabet soup: a peek into the world of standardized testing
October 7, 2008
Eat a good breakfast, sharpen your No. 2 pencils, and don’t forget to completely fill in the bubble. Remember the days of standardized testing? For students, taking these tests may be a major chore, but for teachers and administrators, the resulting test scores are a valuable resource for analyzing the progress students are making.
Students today take a whole slew of tests, each a little different. Park City High School (PCHS) administrators have looked at test scores from each of the individual tests to figure out the strengths and weaknesses of the student body as a whole.
High schoolers who take the ACT test usually plan to go to a four-year college but, according to John Hall, Park City School District administrative intern, some students just take the test because they’re curious about how they stack up. The ACT tests for college readiness. A majority of colleges look at ACT scores as part of their admissions process. According to Hall, most students take the ACT during their junior year. The number of students who take the test is an indicator of how many students have a desire to go to college. Last year, 281 PCHS students took the test, out of about 340 juniors, according to Hall.
The ACT is comprised of 4 sub tests, English, math, reading, and science. The four scores are averaged to produce each student’s composite score. ACT has calculated a benchmark score on each subtest that, if a student reaches that mark, predicts they have a 50 percent chance of earning a B or higher in a college class of the same subject.
So, how do Park City students measure up? In 2008, PCHS students achieved an average composite score of 23.4, with 36 being a perfect score. The average score in Utah was 21.8 and the national average was 21.1. PCHS was also ahead of state and national averages in each of the 4 subtests.
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Hall said that one reason PCHS students are scoring well on the ACT is that the school has higher graduation requirements than those mandated by the state. He said that their goal is for students not just to graduate from high school, but to be ready for college when they receive their diplomas.
Hall explained that it’s hard for students to pass every ACT subtest because most students are stronger in some subjects than others. Thirty-six percent of PCHS students passed all four subtests. The average benchmark score from each of the subtests is 21, and 61 percent of PCHS students who took the ACT scored at or above that mark.
Another family of tests that high school students can choose to take are Advanced Placement (AP) tests. AP tests are taken in the spring, upon completion of a yearlong AP class. Students take AP tests so they can earn college credit for classes taken in high school, which saves them tuition money, explained Hall. AP tests are scored on a scale of 1 to 5. A score of 3 or better is passing, and a 4 or 5 is a very good indicator that a student will succeed at the college level, said Hall, who has taught AP classes in the past.
According to data presented to the Park City school board on Sept. 23, PCHS has seen a steady increase of test takers and tests administered since they began collecting data in 1993. The average increase of tests given, per year, is 52, and the average increase in test takers, has been 28.
In 2008, PCHS administered a total of 984 AP tests to 467 students. According to Hilary Hays, PCHS principal, the school had a 70 percent passing rate last year. This is a favorable range, according to Hays, because if all their students were passing AP tests, it would indicate that they were discouraging less-competent students to take the test.
According to Hays, the high school encourages everyone to take AP classes, and they have some students taking 4 or 5 AP tests a year.
High school students also take Criterion-Referenced Tests (CRT) which are end-of-level tests, explained Hall. CRT tests are administered to students 6 weeks prior to the end of the school year, upon completion of a given class. Tests are scored on a scale of 1 through 4. Hall explained that a 1 or 2 indicates not proficient, 3 means proficient, and 4 stands for mastery.
PCHS administrators look at CRT scores to identify which students aren’t passing then, the challenge is figuring out why. Hall said that they lay out data from year to year, and when they notice that students make significant improvements or fail to improve in a specific subject, they can go to that department to figure out what they did differently that year.
PCHS uses disaggregated data to figure out if specific segments of the student population, such as English Language Learners or Special Education students are the ones lagging. Hall explained that, for students with limited English, achieving a passing CRT score in English may not be a reasonable goal.
The Utah Basic Skills Competency Test (UBSCT) is given to students each October. The way the UBSCT works, explained Hall, is that students take the test until they pass. Students are given five opportunities to pass, beginning the spring of their sophomore year. The UBSCT is comprised of 3 subject areas: reading, writing, and math. Of sophomores taking the UBSCT in 2006, 26 didn’t pass the reading, 19 didn’t pass the writing, and 45 didn’t pass in math. the time the class reached the end of their senior year last spring, only 8 failed to pass the reading, 9 didn’t pass in writing, and 4 didn’t pass the math test. Hall explained that they use this data to figure out if students are learning what they should be over the course of their college career.