Standardized testing fails to accurately place students in math courses


Nayana Celine Xavier

Many students will often feel frustrated while taking standardized tests.

Nayana Celine Xavier & Shivani Sethu, Academics Editor & Managing Editor

As schools in Virginia move to create a more equitable and accessible curriculum for students, questions have arisen over the future of accelerated math programs. Virginia is attempting to revise the curriculum and selection process for accelerated math through programs such as the pathways initiative, without removing the advanced track altogether. Currently, plans for how to implement this are still being discussed. An incorrect Fox News article claiming that Virginia was removing all of its accelerated math programs in an attempt to promote equity in the education system spurred immense controversy. 

Some parents praised the decision, citing that accelerated courses placed students in an unnecessarily stressful place. Other parents decried the decision by pointing out that removing accelerated math programs put students ready for high-level math courses at a disadvantage. 

“[Advanced math] is beneficial if you are able to deal with higher-level math,” junior Sharon Santos said. “However, the advanced math track is really not as beneficial as it is made out to be because it is not going to be a deciding factor for anything in anyone’s life.”

While supporters of accelerated math classes focus on the tangible advantages of taking advanced math, they ignore the process students must go through to test their capabilities. Currently, in Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS), students take standardized tests such as the Naglieri Nonverbal Ability Test (NNAT) and Cognitive Abilities Test (CogAT) to be placed in advanced classes. The NNAT and CogAT tests—taken in first and second grade respectively—are used to determine which students are placed in the four levels of the Advanced Academic Program (AAP) offered from third to eighth grade. 

AAP puts students on a track to take advanced math, honors and AP-level classes in their later years. In sixth grade, AAP students take the Iowa Algebra Aptitude Test (IAAT) test and the Math 7 SOL. If they score in the 91st percentile or higher on the IAAT and score within the Pass Advanced range on the math SOL, they are given the option to skip seventh-grade math and go straight to Algebra 1 Honors. However, this is not a system that works for all students. 

“In elementary school, not getting into AAP meant a lot to me, and I used to cry about it,” junior Ardavan Davoodi said. “There were fewer non-AAP classes, and it sort of felt like we were singled out for being supposedly dumb. I remember I wanted to play soccer with the AAP kids, but they wouldn’t let me because I wasn’t in AAP.”

This brings into question whether standardized tests can truly measure the abilities of students. Students who have a high aptitude for math, but do not test well, could be passed over for the more challenging math courses. One such student is former FCPS student and current AP Calculus BC and AP Computer Science A teacher, JeanMarie Stewart.

Stewart didn’t score a mark high enough to take Algebra 1 in the seventh grade, so her school placed her in Math 7. However, her mother, who was a teacher at FCPS, fought for her to be put in Math 7 Honors.

“I loved [honors math] and did well. I ended up at Thomas Jefferson High School, taking AP Calculus BC as a senior, and I think I turned out okay in the end,” Stewart said. “I benefited from immense privilege because my mother knew how to and was in a position to advocate for me to be placed in honors classes in middle school.”

Standardized tests are a faulty way of assessing student readiness for advanced classes because they only measure a student’s knowledge of a certain topic at a fixed point in time. In doing so, they discount equally important factors such as a student’s learning ability and capacity to handle stress. This leads to some students being inadequately challenged by their classes, and others becoming overwhelmed at a young age and falling behind in their school work.

Although placing students in the accelerated math track through standardized testing may be necessary to determine if students have the minimum knowledge required to take an advanced class, it should not be the decisive factor in their placement. Instead, schools should consider a holistic assessment of student readiness based on teacher recommendations and a student’s learning and academic capabilities throughout the school year. 

“I personally believe that intelligence is not fixed; it’s something that can grow and change with a person,” Stewart said. “If students are taught more with a growth mindset—that practice and work can help you improve—rather than a fixed mindset in believing some people are just naturally smarter, everyone achieves more.”