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Test scores revisited: fragment of a picture.

The dramatic dawn of the space age four decades ago, sparked by "Sputnik", led to intensive activity in the area of formal standardized testing. Our schools were and still are looking for potential leaders and scientists, for children and adolescents who show promise in their early years. Our schools continue to be interested in determining the needs of all school children, whether they are average, below average or superior in intelligence.

Routine testing programs have been set up in local communities to evaluate thousands of pupils. For the most part, these programs are positive and practical. The results of such programs present a picture of development and sometimes regression of children in their formative years. The pupil's test scores, past and present, together with other information can be extremely valuable to the educator who is trying to help the student resolve an academic or an adjustment problem.

Rumbles of Dissatisfaction:

Testing programs are currently widespread, not only in the public schools through 12th grade, but at all levels of education. Children and young people are being given aptitude tests, intelligence tests, achievement tests, college board examinations and vocational tests.

What is occurring at this time? What is the natural antithesis? Simply put, parents, educators and others are challenging testing programs. Some feel they are of no value at all. Others feel that too much emphasis has been placed on them. A considerable number of students have been refused college entrance, presumably on the basis of a test score. It has been charged, as well, that some elementary-school children have been labeled slow learners as the result of a test score. Other inequities, such as right to privacy and test bias, have been cited in professional journals and commercial magazines, and on radio and television shows. Some clarification of issues is due.

Interpreting the Test Score

The core of the problem does not lie with the test or testing programs as they have developed in the schools of this country. The key, lies in the use of the scores. Individuals sometimes misuse scores. Consequently, pupils are misclassified, misplaced or misguided.

How does this happen? Some educators put faith only in the test score and give consideration to little else. Sometimes the score becomes the formula for guiding pupils and for structuring school programs. To many schoolmen, the score represents a "scientific" index that automatically classifies, diagnoses and makes predictions regarding the pupil in terms of thousands of youngsters of the same age.

The prime difficulty here revolves around the fallacy of "mono-symptomatic diagnosis". In other words, diagnosis, classification, or predictions for any given pupil are based on one symptom only. The pupil is - or is not - placed in a special class for the retarded on the basis of one symptom only - the test score. The pupil is or is not retained in 3rd grade on the basis of one symptom only - the test score. It is as if a teacher declared that a child was retarded because his schoolwork was poor. It is as if a pupil was classified as a slow learner because of his inattentiveness or his reticence or his monosyllabic responses in class. It is as if a physician decided that a patient had appendicitis on the basis of one symptom only, a fever of 102 degrees (4).

Studying the Pattern

Sound pupil evaluation and hence placement, planning and guidance can be accomplished only through an approach that takes many symptoms into account (1). A test score reflects only one symptom or aspect of a highly complex human organism in a learning situation. This one aspect can be viewed and interpreted soundly only in relation to the total picture, which includes the child's scholastic record, his home environment, his developmental history, his classroom behavior, his health record, his past performance on similar standardized tests and teachers reports and observations. All these together can uncover much about a youngster, shed light on his problem and offer a guide to planning.

On the subject of counseling and standardized tests, Patterson wrote many years ago and the elements still hold: "It should be apparent that the meaning of an objective test score is determined by numerous other factors concerning the counselee. The pattern into which the score is to be fitted must be constructed by the counselor from the total quantitative and qualitative data about the counselee. No objective statistical method had yet been devised for constructing such a pattern. The subjective interpretation of the counselor is essential" (2).

The "pattern" technique or approach in child study is of major importance. The dictionary defines Pattern as "material in sufficient quantity to make a garment" or a "set of forms to the shape of which material is cut for assembly" (3). For this article, the definition may be changed to read "factors or symptoms in sufficient quantity to make a diagnostic formulation of prediction".

The Story Behind Three Scores

Let us look at Johnny. At the end of eighth grade, he scored in the dull or below-average range on a standardized intelligence test usually given to all eighth-graders. What does this result mean? Only that Johnny, compared with other thirteen-year-olds, scored in the dull range on Text X. This is all. Nothing more. One minute aspect of Johnny's intricate personality has been evaluated. How much do we actually know about Johnny? Very little. Only what we have stated.

What happens if we look further? A great deal. First of all, we learn that past testing has shown this boy as an above average child, a bright child with intelligence levels of 111 and 113. The teachers cumulative records show better than average marks and a boy who has always been cooperative in class. His history, contraindicates mental retardation or dullness. His marks have slipped somewhat only during the last year.

Further study brings to light another factor - sudden, prolonged employment of his 48 year old father, who had long been a top administrator in industry and the federal government. Financial problems and parental bickering at home upset the boy and interfered with thought processes. The dull score on the intelligence test begins to mean something, a lower capacity to perform because of stress at home. The pattern of Johnny's history-test intelligence quotients, the home situation along with other information - enabled the teacher to interpret the test score more adequately.

Let us turn to Peter, an eight year old who was retained in second grade because of poor work. After Peter had repeated second grade the teacher suggested a slow learners' class for the child who was described as reticent, timid and unable to express himself freely and fluently. Actually, the reticence, timidity and inarticulateness can be interpreted as one symptom, or aspect, which should not determine the child's immediate future.

A study was introduced and Peter was found to be a bright, normal youngster with an intelligence quotient of 115 which is above average. Testwise, he was achieving on a low 3rd grade level, and his mental age was at the nine year level. Therefore, he had the intelligence potential, the reading ability, and an achievement capacity to work comfortably in 3rd grade.

But his mother and father, first generation Italians, spoke little English. The father used his hands a great deal in communicating and so did Peter. Two older children in their twenties who had graduated from high school, were married. Peter, the last child at home, had been babied and over indulged, yet taught to remain silent and respectful. The father and mother strictly controlled and dominated the boy but could not help him with schoolwork. Here, again, the one symptom displayed in class told little about this boy. His problem began to emerge, however, when all components were evaluated.

In viewing another pupil, Jane, one sees a similar kind of condition, outward behavior that points in the direction seemingly of backwardness or mental retardation, but which originates with a rare genetic kind of bone disorder on the father's side of the family. Such is characterized by fractures which occur readily at the point of a brush, bump or mild kind of fall. It so happened that when Jane's history was studied, the pediatrician learned she had 15 broken bones by the age of six. These occurred very easily, many at play. The result was a little girl who was timid, unable to freely allow herself to interact with others and her environment and always basically attempting to "play it safe" for fear of "hurting" herself. She did not speak very much and seemed quite withdrawn. Her entire demeanor, therefore, suggested to the teacher that she was below average and needed special help because of her "intellectual" limitations. It was learned that her father and his father before him experienced the same broken bone traumas until the age of mid adolescence when the boned solidified and no longer were susceptible to easy fracture; the diagnosis was osteogenesis imperfecta tarda. Her IQ was 122, superior.


In all schools, formal testing programs are generally evidence of good school administration. They offer a picture of child development and in the long run can contribute to individual growth and stability. They add a great deal in other words to the "total picture".

Scattered instances of poor diagnosis, guidance or prediction involving test scores are not evidence of faulty test or test scores but reflect a lack of preparation or experience or both on the part of the counselor, teacher, or administrator responsible for making a meaningful, reliable interpretation. Thus, a multidimensional perspective is most desirable in our schools. Interpretation of test scores require an analysis of all evidence by way of multiple avenues of investigation. This is essential if predictions regarding pupils are to be considered reliable and optimal.


Daly, W.C., In Defense of the Past, the Training School Bulletin, November, 1968, Page 104

Patterson, C.H. The Wechsler Bellevue Scales - A Guide For Counselors, Page 115, Springfield, Illinois, Charles C. Thomas, 1953

Webster's New World Dictionary, Simon and Shuster, Inc., New York, 1988

Wechsler, David, The Measurement of Adult Intelligence, The Williams and Wilkins Co, Baltimore, Maryland, 1956
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Author:Daly, William C.
Date:Mar 22, 1994
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