Grade Equivalent scores remain one of the most misunderstood and misused pieces of data from educational testing. Rarely explained in a test report, parents who see “GE > 18.0” sometimes come away thinking their child is achieving at a post-graduate school level.
While a child who obtains such high GE scores is intelligent, no doubt, it is unlikely they are ready to jump into graduate level courses on their own – especially if they’re only 12 years old.
The National Association of School Psychologists explains Age and Grade Equivalent scores simply:
[I]f Jacob’s performance on the test of reading comprehension is equal to an age equivalent of 8.7 years and a grade equivalent of 2.6, this means that his obtained raw score is equivalent to the same number of items correct that is average for all 8-year, 7-month old children included in the norm group on that particular reading comprehension test.
Let’s take a look at a couple of hypothetical test profiles to better understand Grade Equivalent scores.
Before I talk about these numbers in detail, let me give you a quick primer on some of the terminology.
Standardized tests do not report scores as simple percentages of right answers. Instead, a student’s Raw Score (the number of questions that were answered correctly on each subtest) is transformed into a Standard Score. A Standard Score of 100 is considered Average. Standard Scores can run high or low, in either direction.
If you want to compare a score to other test takers of the same age or grade, you can look at the Percentile Rank. For example, a Standard Score of 100 equates to a 50th Percentile Rank. Put another way, if you lined 100 kids up with highest to lowest Standard Scores, someone with a 100 would be right in the middle of the line – with half the students achieving less than them and the other half achieving more.
Grade Equivalent scores, on the other hand, allow us to compare the total number of correct answers the average test taker got. For example, an average 12-year old taking the 3 subtests that make up the Broad Math portion of the Woodcock Johnson-III Test of Achievement would need to get a total of 141 correct answers out of a total of 268 possible questions to score at the 50th Percentile. How that test taker got those 141 correct math answers will depend upon the individual, but more than likely, the average person got some questions wrong as they worked their way through the test.
So, back to the chart. Mary is our typical 12-year old girl. When we look at her math achievement scores we can feel rather confident that she’s achieving at grade level and is most likely doing well in her actual schoolwork.
Abby, on the other hand, is 7-years old, the typical age for a 2nd grader. Her achievement scores suggest she’s a pretty smart cookie. Some people may even take a look at her Grade Equivalent scores and think she’s a candidate for radical acceleration – but that’s not necessarily the case.
With Percentile Ranks of 99.9, we can say confidently that Abby is achieving, hands down, beyond expectations for 2nd grade. Abby would be an excellent candidate for gifted programming and probably even at least one grade skip.
However, just because her GE is in the 6th grade range in Calculations and Applied Problems, it does not mean she’s achieving at the 6th grade level – or even that she’s capable of accomplishing 6th grade level work, as of today.
Let me explain why.
The WJ-III, just like the Wechsler Individualized Achievement Test (WIAT-III), samples a person’s level of achievement across broad content areas. Neither test was designed to exhaustively assess if a person has learned all the goals, objectives, and content usually taught at each grade level. Tests like the Terra Nova and the Iowa Test of Basic Skills do that.
Take for example the Calculations subtest on the WJ-III. On this subtest, students have the opportunity to answer up to 45 math questions that range from basic addition to calculus. However, 22 of those questions focus on the four basic operations using only whole numbers. Only 2 questions assess calculus knowledge.
In the case of our hypothetical 7-year old Abby who answered 21 questions correctly on the Calculations subtests and earned a GE of 6.2, it’s possible that she aced all the basic operation problems, but failed to get one fraction or decimal problem correct, let alone even attempt a pre-algebra or higher math question. That doesn’t take away the fact that Abby is clearly ahead in math, but, at the same time, it doesn’t make the strongest case for saying that she should be in 6th grade math.
Grade Equivalent scores can be used to compare the number of correct answers children of different ages or grades received on the same test. Those Raw Scores, however, will lead to different Standard Scores based upon the test taker’s actual age or grade. Grade Equivalent scores do not tell us that a child is actually achieving at a specific grade level.
A high GE score tells us that a child has been able to correctly answer far more questions than his or her peers – but it tells us nothing more. At the same time, a high GE allows us to infer that the student more than likely has the ability to handle a greater breadth or depth of material than they are currently encountering, if they are in a typical age-grade placement.
Just how advanced the material should be is a question better judged by examining work samples and talking directly to the child. If you are attempting to advocate for a grade skip through a school, requesting that your child take the end-of-year assessment test for a specific grade level subject will provide you with stronger data.
Alessa Giampaolo Keener, M.Ed. works as an educational diagnostician in Maryland. She holds a Masters degree in Education from Johns Hopkins University and is recognized as an expert witness on matters of educational best fit for special student populations. Alessa also works with families and schools to better understand test data and how that information can help educational planning.
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