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Factors That Affect Students' Test Scores

Megan is a writer and mom of two. She enjoys cooking, running, and gardening.

Many tests in elementary, middle, and high school are "high stakes' and impact the future of students and their schools.

Many tests in elementary, middle, and high school are "high stakes' and impact the future of students and their schools.

Why Standardized Test Scores Are Important

When our kids come home from school saying they have a big test the next day, most of us will encourage them to study so they can do well. We want them to pass the test and get good grades. The school wants them to do well so that it reflects well on them.

Ideally, both parents and the school want a student to do well to prove that they really are learning and gaining knowledge. Most parties involved want students to do well on tests, especially on standardized tests, for these reasons.

If a student does poorly on an assessment, there are some consequences. Their grades could suffer. If they consistently do poorly, they may be required to repeat a grade level.

If a whole school or class does poorly, and those test results are publicized, it could negatively affect their image and could even deter funding from the school. As students reach the end of their K-12 schooling, high test scores often mean more scholarships available. There is actually quite a lot at stake when you consider students’ performance on assessments.

In the United States, test scores hold all of this weight. In other nations, even those with very high-quality education systems like Finland, there are far fewer tests. According to Smithsonian Magazine, Finland only administers one standardized test, which is at the end of high school.

Unfortunately, we cannot change the situation in the United States, and at least for the time being, tests from kindergarten through high school are here to stay. Beginning in K5, students will take assessments such as the Renaissance Star Test that measures their reading and math level against others in the state. It ranks them by percentile, so schools and parents can see exactly where students fall compared to their peers.

In 2nd grade, students typically take the CoGAT test, which measures whether or not they should qualify for gifted and talented programs. If they do well, they may be placed in a special program or a different school. In 3rd and 4th grade, students usually take the FORWARD Exam or another similar state exam.

This test is particularly important because it holds a lot of weight on a school’s report card. In college, students will take the SAT or ACT, and it will determine which colleges they can get into, and how much scholarship money they can get.

Factors That Lead to Success or Failure on School Tests

It’s clear that doing on well on standardized assessments is beneficial. What conditions result in good test scores? Quite a few factors go in to how well a student does on tests:

Overall Intelligence

Probably not surprisingly, a student’s IQ likely is the single greatest predictor of how they’ll do on any given test. According to a 1997 study, “studies repeatedly show that performance on intelligence tests is correlated with school achievement.”

Intelligence and success at school are not directly linked by cause and effect; however, they are strongly correlated, and in the vast majority of cases, students with a higher IQ will do better on tests than students with a lower IQ.

Familiarity with Testing Materials

Because standardized assessment results hold so much weight these days, some schools and teachers have been tempted to throw out the regular curriculum and instead spend the majority of classroom time preparing students for specific tests. They may take time to go over lots of practice questions, send practice tests home, or focus on activities that will use the same language as the test so students are familiar with it.

“Teaching to the test” can be a bad practice. If classroom instruction is focused on certain test items that are almost exactly like those on the test, students will be better prepared, but are not really getting the skills they need to problem solve in other areas.

Something can be said, however, for familiarity with the computer they are using to take the test, with the kind of questions they’ll encounter, and with the language questions will use. If a student is hung up on how to “click” to the next question because they aren’t familiar with the program (most tests are on computers now), they certainly will be hindered and probably won’t score as well.

Likewise, if a student is used to calling the answer to an addition problem the “total” but the test keeps using the word “sum,” they may be set back even though they have the skills to answer the question.

Ability to Focus

Some standardized tests are LONG. One exam I proctored for Wisconsin 5th graders had a math section that took almost all of them an hour and a half. If a student is not used to being able to focus their attention on complex thinking for long periods of time, they may burn out by the end.

Students ideally have built up stamina from the beginning of their educational career so they are able to focus and think long enough to do their very best from the beginning to the end of the test.

Some studies have shown that things like temperature and lighting can greatly impact a student’s ability to focus during tests. If the room is too hot or too cold, our recall is not as great. If the light is poor quality, it can affect pupil size, which interestingly has a strong correlation with performance on reading comprehension sections.

State of Mind

If you come to school in a bad mood, it’s going to affect how you do on a test. If a student sits down to take a high-stakes test, but is distracted because of something that happened on the playground or at home, that incident is going to occupy their brain, and they won’t be able to focus on the test.

Likewise, if a student is super nervous to take a test, they may “choke” and not perform well under pressure. Many schools are aware of these issues that can get in the way and have adopted “mindfulness” practices for both pupils and adults to get them in the right frame of mind.

Its implementation is still new in many schools, but so far studies are showing that there is a positive correlation between implementing mindfulness training and with test scores.

Socioeconomic Factors

Sadly, students coming from low income families statistically perform worse on standardized test than their middle- or upper-class peers. Why? This is a complex issue, but a lot of research has been done around it. Some of it does have to do with how much money parents invest in their child’s education—even before they start preschool.

Families with more than 10 books at home are twice as likely to be successful early readers than their peers whose families own no books. Families with higher income also tend to be more educated and understand the importance of spending time reading to their children. They may also have more resources available and help to be able to make that happen.

A poorer family may understand the importance, but have different priorities---they may want to read to their kids each night, but in order just to get by both parents may need to work several jobs and don’t have time.

Other factors related to a family’s income level that can be predictors of school performance include: enrollment in extracurricular activities, exposure to educational places like museums or orchestra performances, eating a meal once a day with the entire family, being encouraged to try hobbies, and whether or not a family subscribes to periodicals like newspapers or educational magazines.

All of these depend on a family’s disposable income—not all families can afford extra music lessons or to go frequently to museums. Exposure to these things give a student a broader knowledge base, however, and set them up for success.

Other Factors

A number of other things can affect how kids do on tests. Class size could have something to do with it—there is a link between a smaller student-teacher ratio and how well those classes do.

The internal motivation of a student is also big. If they care and want to do well on the test, they will try their best. If they don’t understand the implications of doing well on a test, or if they have a general negative attitude toward school, even if they have a high IQ they won’t try their best, and won’t receive high scores.

Culture may have something to do with it, too. Certain cultures may have different attitudes toward school, or some may place higher value on education than others. In cultures where school is highly regarded, students will be more motivated to do well.

A student’s state if mind the particular day of the test is also important. If they are tired because they did not get enough sleep, they won’t do their best. If they are hungry, they also could do poorly. Making sure students are well rested and well fed before a test can greatly affect their test performance, also.

Temperature is one external factor that can affect test scores and ability to concentrate.

Temperature is one external factor that can affect test scores and ability to concentrate.

Is Testing the Only Way to Measure Academic Success?

Testing is one way to measure how well students are likely to perform in life later on, but it’s not the only means to demonstrate students’ progress. As noted before, Finland gives very few tests, but they are still at the top of the education system.

Some schools are more project-based, and focus less on tests. In these settings, students demonstrate working knowledge of what they’ve learned by writing papers, presenting, or doing other hands-on projects to connect the material to the real world.

In these cases, it will be clear whether or not the student grasped the content of the curriculum based on the depth and detail of their project. This is sometimes referred to as portfolio-based assessment. This is not only a good indicator of knowledge, but the prep work of creating these projects likely ingrains the material more than studying only for the purpose of passing a test.

Other schools may use games as a way of evaluating students. While playing a game, teachers can observe a student’s understanding of certain concepts compared to their peers.

Tests Are Probably Here To Stay

Tests are not the only way and maybe not even the best way to measure academic proficiency, but unfortunately are here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future.

Now that you know some of the factors that can affect student’s test performance, you can take measures to affect those that in your control. Make sure your student is well rested and has a good breakfast all school days, and especially on test days. Talk to them positively about tests, and encourage them positively before testing.

Take time to expose your child to experiences that can add value to their educational experience—take them to museums, encourage hobbies, play games at home, and read to them. Above all, don’t stress too much about tests. All we can do is encourage our children to do their best, and do our part to set them up for success.

Should We Get Rid of Standardized Testing?

What Do You Think?


Markus Musa on October 28, 2019:

thanks for a wonderful and great write-up sir

Rick on August 22, 2019:

I really appreciate your post and you explain each and every point very well. Thanks for sharing this information. And I’ll love to read your next post too.