Interpreting STAR Test Results

Every year, public school students in California are tested through the Standardized Testing and Reporting program, commonly known as STAR testing.  Parents receive their child’s results, which slot that child into one of 5 categories: Advanced, Proficient, Basic, Below Basic, and Far Below Basic.  Most parents perceive a child’s scores falling in the Advanced range as excellent, scores falling in the Proficient range as good, and scores falling in the Basic, Below Basic, and Far Below Basic ranges as potential causes for concern.  But those labels—Advanced, Proficient, Basic, etc.—can be deceiving.  Because many people have false conceptions about STAR testing, this article aims to help college-bound students and their parents interpret STAR testing results.

In 2011, 54% of California students scored at Proficient or above in the English-Language Arts CST (STAR) test, and 50% of California students scored at Proficient or above in the Mathematics CST (STAR) test.  On those same tests, 26% of students scored in the Advanced range on English-Language Arts, and 33% of students scored in the Advanced range on Mathematics.

If your child scored in the Advanced range, you might be satisfied with the knowledge that your son or daughter is in the top 30% of California students.  Being in the advanced range is pretty good, right?  Well, yes and no.  It depends on your goals.  If your desired outcome is for your child simply to attend college, then your child is on the right track.  If, however, you have more ambitious goals for your child, such as an elite college or a UC school, you’ll need to give further consideration to the STAR test results.

Standardized Testing Scantron

STAR test results alone, like most state standardized test results, may not tell you the full story of a student’s college readiness.

Putting STAR Results in Their Proper Context

Of the half-million students graduating from California high schools each year, only 65% attend college.  Scores in the Advanced and Proficient ranges serve as an early indication that a student is on track to attend a 4-year university.  Scores in the Basic range or below indicate that, without some sort of change in academic performance, a student will not be accepted to a 4-year college or will struggle in college courses.

From those half-million California graduates, less than 10% are accepted to any school in the UC system, not to mention even more highly ranked private universities.  With 30% of students in the Advanced range of STAR testing but only 10% gaining acceptance to these top schools, most students in the Advanced range will ultimately be shut out, as will almost all students not in the Advanced range.  If your goal for your child involves a prestigious university, then anything less than the upper half of the Advanced range should be a reason to reconsider your goal or take a deeper look into your child’s studies.

For a more representative sample of college-bound students, consider the 2011 STAR Testing results* for several public schools from which almost all students ultimately attend college.  At Woodside Elementary, for example, 83% of 4th grade students scored in the Advanced range in the English-Language Arts section of 2011 STAR testing.  This means that students in the lowest fifth of their class are still scoring in the Advanced range.  At Palo Alto High School, 71% of 9th graders scored in the Advanced range of English-Language Arts testing in 2011.  Thus, a student in the lowest third of his class at this public high school could still be in the Advanced range of STAR testing.  No matter how strong the school, a student in the bottom third of his class will almost never be a strong candidate for a highly competitive college, let alone any UC.

While one year of STAR testing may not tell the whole story for any student, repeated scores in anything less than the upper half of the Advanced range indicate that a student is unlikely to become a competitive candidate at well-regarded universities.  In these days of competitive college admissions, being Proficient is not enough.

*All data is publicly available on the California Department of Education’s STAR Testing website, where you can sort the STAR Test results by a variety of factors, including county, district, school, ethnicity, economic status, and English-language proficiency.

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