Importance of Meaningful Standardized Testing Labels

The Alaska System of Academic Readiness (AK STAR) assessment, administered for the first time in the spring of 2022 to Alaskan K-12 students, promises continuity with mid-year assessments and less testing time — both good things for students. However, one change from the Performance Evaluation for Alaska’s Schools (PEAKS) exams may cloud transparency and fail to adequately communicate student results with parents and the public.

PEAKS exam scores were reported in four achievement levels: far below proficient, below proficient, proficient, and advanced. AK STAR amended the two achievement levels indicating students testing below grade-level expectations to “needs support,” and “approaching proficient,” while retaining “proficient” and “advanced” to describe students meeting or exceeding grade-level expectations. These changes were made in the hopes that updated achievement levels “might better incentivize student performance” by emphasizing “growth and progression,” according to materials provided to the State Board of Education in September 2022.

It is difficult to see how changing the way that education insiders describe student achievement will incentivize students to perform better, especially if parents or teachers do not communicate with the student about their results. However, it is possible that parents might feel softened concerns about their child’s performance when their assessment results state the child “needs support” rather than learning their child is “far below proficient.” First, all students need support in some way at some point in their academic careers. Secondly, this description fails to be specific as to how severely a student may be behind grade level and what kind of support might be needed.

Other state assessment scales manage to convey the degree of severity to which students are falling behind grade level in relatively neutral terms. Florida’s FAST assessment has 5 levels (inadequate, below satisfactory, on-grade-level, proficient, and mastery), with the third level and above indicating proficient scores on all tests. Mississippi describes its 5 achievement levels as “minimal,” “basic,” “pass,” “proficient,” and “advanced,” and those proficient and advanced are above grade-level expectations. California describes its four achievement levels as “standard not met,” “standard nearly met,” “standard met,” and “standard exceeded.” Describing students as “nearly” at grade level does well in emphasizing the growth that students could undertake to meet grade-level expectations while providing a realistic description of how far below grade-level expectations students truly are.

While it is admirable to declare that a student “needs support,” all students may need support in some way at some point, and this label fails to be specific as to what kind of support is needed. Changing the way education insiders describe student achievement may not motivate students to grow in their abilities, but it may fail to communicate to parents the degree to which their child has fallen behind.