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Testing: The Three A’s – Achievement

July 30, 2009

In the support group for parents of gifted (FHPOGS) that I belong to we have annual parent requests for meetings to explain various school administered tests and what the results mean. Testing can be an involved topic and it is easy to leap to conclusions when looking at a single number. But what if one test shows high percentile results, and another shows only average ones? Or what if one year a student qualifies for the gifted program and another year they do not? What is a nationally normed test and how is it different from the State Achievement test my kid takes every year?

I like to refer to the Iowa Acceleration Scale Form when I talk about the three types of tests used to evaluate students:


An achievement test measures skills and knowledge learned in a given grade level when the grade level of the student matches the grade level of the test. These tests clearly state that they are Achievement tests. Some are nationally normed (students are compared to a national standard of achievement among other students in the same grade level) and some are state or district created instruments.

In recent years, achievement tests have been expanded to measure proficiency levels under No Child Left Behind. States also create achievement (proficiency) tests to determine which schools are meeting curricular standards and are considered by some to be more a measure of the school than of the student. It is not unusual for a high ability student to have a lower achievement score – especially if they have been unchallenged in the regular classroom. In a bizarre twist, some schools will penalize high ability students’ for lower achievement scores by denying them entry into the very programs that would challenge them.

In the world of public education, a parent may receive one letter from the state acknowledging their child has gifted status and another, from the school, saying they are not gifted enough for service. I have known exceptionally and profoundly gifted students who were denied entry to a gifted and talented program because of low achievement scores. And I have known high achieving students who qualified for gifted programs and then struggled to succeed because they were not high ability students.

A common misconception about high ability students is that they are high achievers. A high ability student may or may not be interested in doing well in school (or on a test) and it is not uncommon for them to underachieve. An example: A high achieving child will eagerly study the dictionary for a chance at being a finalist in the Scripps Spelling Bee. A gifted child will agree to enter a Spelling Bee because a favorite teacher asks them to, or because it might prove “interesting” or maybe because they want to see how far they can get without studying. Really. High ability children are not often motivated by grades; high achieving children probably are. (for other excellent comparisons see: Bertie Kingore, Ph.D. “High Achiever, Gifted Learner, Creative Thinker.”)

Unfortunately the confusion between High Ability and High Achievement often bubbles over into the politics of education see Separate-But-Equal and The Trouble with Geniuses – Part Two. I think that many misconceptions about giftedness stem from the confusion of the two measurements. A teacher without gifted training might see a high ability score for a student with a low achievement score and conclude that the student is lazy or immature. A teacher (or parent) with training would understand that this student can not rise to a greater challenge unless he/she is presented with the opportunity to do so – and will seek out accelerative options (like using pre-testing or curriculum compacting) for the bored or disinterested learner in order to re-engage them.

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