Percentile this!

Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale. Wechsler Intelligence Scale.  Gilliam Autism Rating Scale. Woodcock Johnson.  Vineland Adaptive Behavior Scales and Childhood Autism Rating Scale.  Name the State Achievement test and hundreds of other tests.  Just writing these test names bring backs angst and memories.  How does my child rank?  Especially my child with autism?

The topic of testing is a stressful  one for lots of parents – and parents of children living with autism are no exception.  In fact, I would hazard a guess they provide just a tad more angst for us and other parents of special needs children, than they do for the general population.  Here are 3 unofficial Lisa facts in support of that claim:

Lisa Fact 1:  Trees, trees, trees… how many trees will be chopped down to generate all the paper, that is distributed to all the people, who need to review all my childs’ test scores?   And the most stressful part is that most of this paper winds up in stacks of boxes in my home.  Legal boxes filled with tests and evaluations.  Convert to electronic you say?  I don’t dare get rid of any of those originals.  Who knows when I will have to produce an original for some strange administrative ruling.

Lisa Fact 2:  The use of standardized testing within typical education settings is a minefield of controversy  –  there are 4,570,000 Google references on “standardizing testing problems.”   Add the complexities of just testing a child with special needs, not to mention the interpretation and use of the results, and the tension rises.  What exactly will these scores mean when it comes to placement?  Insurance Coverage?  IEP’s?

Lisa Fact 3:  Open the envelope please.  Just the tension involved in opening the testing results envelope every time it arrives brings sweat to my brow.  The first peak at results followed by the inevitable (and multiple) slow and stressful reviews with all the professionals.  It’s particularly difficult because I’m conflicted between wanting to see scores that validate the services I know are needed versus scores that make me feel terrific.

Don’t get me wrong. I definitely understand the value of testing.  Test scores and their interpretation form the dialogue between parents and the professionals whom guide our children’s programs.  If I feel overwhelmed and disadvantaged by the dialogue I seek out a second opinion; as everyone should.  It’s my way of keeping balance, ensuring my stress level stays in check and provides a non-biased picture of my child.

On the topic of biases no test score will ever show how many mountains my kid moves each day just to navigate the “normal” world.  No test score will ever paint the true picture of my child, with all the beautiful colors that radiate when he smiles, when he learns something new, when he hangs out with his friends.  No test score will EVER do that for any child.  Test scores are just a pixel, not a portrait.  Remind yourself of that every time you look at test scores.

Every week, I hear from a parent who is distressed about their child’s results on percentiles or age equivalencies.  I remind them “A test score does not a child make” or “your child has a name, not a number.”  Keep your eyes on the prize which is moving your child toward tangible goals and successes.

I also hear success stories, ones that give me tremendous hope and demonstrate just how far our kids can go.  I think our success story parents figured out how to separate the child from the score, which actually HELPED them use those tests scores successfully!  Percentile schmentile!!

Test scores are SO full of information.  With each test we see raw scores, age equivalences and percentile rankings.  From Wikipedia, percentiles are described (briefly) as:

A median is the numerical value separating the higher half of a sample, a population, or a probability distribution, from the lower half.  The median of a finite list of numbers can be found by arranging all the observations from lowest value to highest value and picking the middle one.  f there is an even number of observations, then there is no single middle value; the median is then usually defined to be the mean of the two middle values.

“Damn it, Jim!” I’m a parent not a statistician.

Children with autism often demonstrate what is known as “splinter skills.”  That means they can excel in one or more areas, and really need help in others.  While that is a basic truth of all people, it is exaggerated in people living with autism.

Splinter skills make test scores even more confusing.  Remember, tests can help uncover both strengths and deficits, they give us important clues as to which areas need the most attention, and what approaches are considered the most successful in strengthening those skills.  While teaching a new skill to a child living with autism may seem tougher than a Sherlock Holmes mystery, testing can provide important clues if we know how to read them!

Not all tests are perfect, and poor results can sometimes be outside your child’s control.  External influences can include the quality of the examiner, students comfort level with the examiner, student’s sensory issues, comfort of the room, routine or test disruption, timed vs. untimed tests, clarity of test directions (especially with receptive or expressive language deficits), child’s health at the time of the test, and many more.  If you receive test scores that seem “off,” especially as they compare to your child’s testing history, take a closer look if one or more of these factors might have influenced test scores.  It’s important to look at these issues honestly, and not as a way to avoid tough information.

For parents please know this: hard work pays off.  Looking at a percentile in a report does not predict the future.  Celebrate the milestones and successes – Don’t curse the test scores.

How do I know hard work pays off?  Those file boxes stacked in my living room are filled with less than stellar results.  Now I am proud to say that there are tests Jeff takes today that I would fail. Every year we raise the bar, he raises it even higher.

So, what’s my conclusion after 12 years of testing and percentiling and comparing and angsting?  The most important test, the one that really measures what matters, can never be shown on paper.  Instead, it is something we see in abundance everyday in Jeff. Heart.


1)     Why perform Independent Assessments

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