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Student Tests for K-12 and College Students

Get important background about the most common tests and assessments given to K-12 and college students in America.

Photo credit: Allison Shelley for EDUimages

Back to Student Testing

Testing and assessments are conducted in the U.S. to measure student achievement and academic proficiency. 

In the classroom, tests and assessments are used to measure how well students are absorbing grade-level material before they graduate or advance to the next lesson or grade. 

At the state and federal levels, tests are used as academic snapshots to hold education leaders and elected officials accountable for making sure all students have access to a high-quality education. These tests are also used to compare the achievement of U.S. students to those in other countries and to allow states to measure their progress against each other. 

Here’s a rundown of the different types of student tests.  

State vs. National Exams

The main National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) exams are administered in math and reading every two years in grades four and eight and every four years in grade 12. Students can reach three different achievement levels: Basic, Proficient or Advanced. This assessment calendar shows NAEP’s testing schedule until 2030. Science and writing are supposed to be assessed every four years in grades four and eight.

NAEP canceled assessments in 2021 because of COVID. Previous test results are available, including those from individual states and the 26 urban districts that participate

States are federally mandated to administer annual tests in reading and math in grades three through eight and once in high school. Assessments in science are required once each grade span for all students. States are required to post the results publicly by student categories, including race, socioeconomic status, disability, and English-language learner status. 

Test results help school leaders understand whether students are meeting the academic standards for their grade levels. If students aren’t on track academically, school and state officials then create plans to address students’ academic progress.

College Entrance Exams

There are two main entrance exams for college:

  • The SAT exam includes two sections: math and evidence-based reading and writing. Each section is scored on a 200- to 800-point scale.
  • The ACT exam has four required sections: English, math, reading and science. The writing section is optional. Each section of the ACT is scored on a 1- to 36-point scale.

Colleges generally accept either exam. Both tests measure college readiness. Higher scores, along with other factors, can provide students access to more schools and merit-based financial aid. After the pandemic fueled the test-optional movement, many colleges dropped both exams.

Other Exams

  • Gifted and talented exams are given, usually in early grades, to identify students with the ability to perform at higher academic levels than their peers. Tests are one benchmark used among others, such as teacher observation or student portfolios, to determine which students qualify for enrichment programs. Methods or criteria used in the admissions process have been criticized for keeping students of color out of gifted programs, and some districts are looking toward new ways to identify students for gifted programs.
  • Advanced Placement exams are given in several subjects offered at the high school level and are scored on a scale from one to five. Students are considered to be successful if they receive a three or higher. Many colleges give credit for scores. Others restrict the number of AP subjects that are eligible for credit. 

How Exams Are Used in Classrooms

  • Diagnostic assessments, such as quizzes, are used to measure the level of students’ knowledge and identify learning gaps. 
  • Formative assessments, such as asking students to summarize the main points of a lecture, take place during the lesson to determine how much students are absorbing and with what concepts they may be struggling. 
  • Summative assessments, such as a final project or midterm exam, are used at the end of a learning unit, semester or school year to measure how much students have learned. 

Examples of formative vs. summative assessments can be found here.