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A Basic Guide to Standardized Testing Part 1

  • Lynn Scully Contributing Writer
  • Published Nov 30, 2006
A Basic Guide to Standardized Testing Part 1

I recently met with a home educated student, Pam, who was preparing for her first SAT. She hoped to one day make medical research her career, but first, she had to take the SAT and begin her college search.

Initial testing to identify areas of weakness revealed almost a complete lack of high school math knowledge; she knew virtually no algebra or geometry. Pam's math program focused instead on "life skills"--her ability to handle money, balance a checkbook, and calculate interest payments were a testament to her studies, but she did not have the skills and knowledge needed to get into, or to succeed in college and beyond. In other words, she had not been preparing for a science-based college education. So, rather than preparing for her SAT, Pam faces at least two more years of high school math study to be ready for the future she envisions. Her parents were as surprised as she was to discover that, despite her hard work and good grades, she was not at all prepared for college.

True, it could be worse--but it could have been better. Consistent standardized testing, either state- or privately administered, would have given objective feedback to Pam's parents. Knowing Pam's goals, they could have chosen the curriculum that would have provided Pam with the skills and knowledge she needs to succeed. In other words, standardized testing helps an educator assess what is age-appropriate knowledge to master.

Like Pam, many students fear standardized testing. Working under pressure on a timed test, in a strange environment, can be intimidating. Familiarity with the test formats, as well as preparation in content knowledge, may ease some of that anxiety.

Testing is also scary to you, the educator. Are you being graded? Do you fear a low test score as a reflection of your efforts? When you chose to homeschool, you knew it wasn't going to be easy, but you knew it was the right choice for you and your child. Your child relies on you to ensure that his education is comprehensive and adequately aligned with the ever-changing national standards. Regularly scheduled testing allows you to systematically identify areas of slow progress for remediation. Don't be too tough on yourself, but be honest and realistic. Expect ability levels to fluctuate: a great year of social studies may result in weakened math ability. Seeing these results in standardized test scores doesn't indicate a crisis, but it does tell you it's time to refocus. If your child's vocabulary level has dropped, perhaps you should read together again for a while. Or you may see that your child was expected to know something about ratios and realize that they're now introduced earlier than high school, the time you first saw them.

The following is an overview of the most common standardized tests: what they are, when to prepare for them, when to take them, how to register for them, and the role of each test. To ensure that the student's ability is accurately represented, provide the opportunity to learn each test format. Visit appropriate websites with your student to help her become better accustomed to, knowledgeable about, and comfortable with the test style.

Since the scoring of these tests varies, look at the national percentages to gauge your child's progress and ability level. Ideally, your student's average will remain the same or increase with each testing opportunity, regardless of the test type. If the percentage on any section decreases drastically, it may be time to re-evaluate your program to fit your child's needs and goals.

The Secondary School Admission Test (SSAT) is for students ages 10-14. Two grading scales are used, one for grades 5-7 and another for grades 8-11. Vocabulary recognition and reading comprehension are key. The math requires arithmetic skills, including fractions and decimals, percents, and basic word problems; basic algebra, including simple solving and ratios; and basic geometry. The 30-minute essay is not scored. Go to to become familiar with the test format, to register, and to find a nearby test center. The SSAT is offered seven times a year, usually at private schools, but can also be administered by an independent educational consultant.

The Independent School Entrance Examination (ISEE) has three levels, spanning grades 4 through 11. It covers verbal and quantitative reasoning, reading comprehension, and math, and also requires an essay although it is not scored. Go to for a student guide, online registration, locations, and dates.


Lynn Scully has been tutoring students and guiding them through their education and college admissions process for the past 18 years. She is the author of the get IT (Independent Tutorial) SAT program. Questions for Lynn? Email her at or visit her website at for more information.

Copyright 2006. Originally appeared in Fall 2006. Used with permission. The Old Schoolhouse Magazine. Right now, 19 free gifts when you subscribe.