High-stakes testing is the practice of using a single, standardized test to make important decisions about a student's education, usually whether the child will be promoted to the next grade or be allowed to graduate from high school. Such tests tend to work in a discriminatory fashion against students with dyslexia, both because of the content of the test and the method of assessment. At least through eighth-grade level, these tests almost always are focused largely on appraising reading and math skills; by definition, a child with dyslexia can be expected to have poor reading skills. But even after gaining skills, the timed, multiple-choice format works against students who have a history of dyslexia; many such students become capable readers and strong students but continue to perform poorly on standardized tests. Thus, the high-stakes test is a double barrier for your child.
School Pressures for Testing
Many states and individual school districts impose strict testing and grade retention policies because of political or social pressure to increase standards among their students. The practice of social promotion — promoting children to maintain age/grade level regardless of level of achievement — can lead to children being passed from one level to the next in school without learning anything. Obviously, this is not an acceptable outcome for any child. However, retention policies do nothing to improve the quality of teaching.
The federal No Child Left Behind Act creates additional pressures that may tend to encourage schools to retain children who perform poorly on standardized tests. The law is intended to provide greater opportunities to children in failing schools. In order to measure school performance, the law mandates nationwide annual standardized testing in grades three through eight. Schools are penalized and parents gain the right to transfer their students from schools that fail to meet yearly progress goals. Unfortunately, these penalties increase the pressure on schools to raise test scores by any means necessary; one way to do this is to hold back the students who do not test well. This tactic may not help the child, but it will ensure that he isn't in the testing pool of the promoted class to bring scores down the following year.
Misuses of Standardized Tests
Unfortunately, schools often misuse standardized tests to make grade retention decisions, applying their results for purposes where they are not valid. The most common problem is using the same norm-referenced test geared to test school performance to measure individual achievement. These tests are designed to provide a good statistical sampling of how a particular school's students score when measured against typical students. However, the norm-referenced tests developed for assessing school performance are not valid as a measure of individual achievement. In some cases, they may contain questions about material that has not been covered in your child's school. While it is valid to criticize the school for failing to teach content appropriate for each grade level, it is not appropriate to draw conclusions about your child's abilities based on subject areas where he may not have received adequate instruction.
What is a norm-referenced test?
A norm-referenced test compares a student's score against the scores of a group of students who have already taken the same exam, called the “norming group.” Some widely used tests are the California Achievement Test (CAT); Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills (CTBS); Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS) and Tests of Academic Proficiency (TAP); Metropolitan Achievement Test (MAT); and Stanford Achievement Test (SAT).
Even on subject matter that has been covered in class, the group norm-referenced test is ordinarily not designed to measure individual ability or achievement. In many cases, missing a single question can cause a big change in an individual student's percentile rank. The designers of these tests try to choose questions that are useful to sort students along a curve. Many items that most students in a grade level would be expected to know are not tested, and questions may be deliberately designed to focus on more obscure knowledge, in order to help rank the students. Thus, there is too much left to chance — and too much material that is not included in the test — for the test to give a good picture of your child's abilities.
When the test results of many students are considered cumulatively, as is done to measure school performance, individual variation loses significance and the tests can give a good general picture of how well the students at the particular school perform in comparison to nationally expected averages. But when the same test is used to measure your child, the test is simply being misused.
Further, on a test of reading achievement, it is unfair and unreasonable to expect your child with dyslexia to score well against a norm-referenced standard. By definition, children with dyslexia will score significantly below average for reading skills — in fact, it is likely that your child only qualifies for services at your school by virtue of such low skills. The concept of “grade level reading” is by itself an expression of a norm, or average; it reflects what the typical, or midrange, student is expected to be able to achieve at each grade. It is neither reasonable nor possible to expect that every child will perform at or above average; statistics make that goal impossible.
It is a reasonable goal to expect a child with dyslexia to eventually achieve reading proficiency; many will, in fact, become good readers. It is not reasonable to expect your child to read the same as a “normal” child at the same age or to somehow radically increase his performance when measured against other students within a single year.
Thus, your child's reading achievement should be measured using criterion-based tests — that is, tests that measure many skill areas without referencing how your child's performance compares with others.