The Shoebox Phenomenon: What Not to Do with the Results of Your Child’s Annual Statewide Achievement Tests


 By William Blackwell, Ed.D. & Nancy Stockall, Ph.D.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, almost 3.5 million children with disabilities participate in statewide achievement tests each year. Parents typically receive their child’s results in a paper report sent home through the school. Yet, parents often struggle to accurately interpret the reports, which contain complex testing jargon and vague descriptions of their child’s performance. This can lead to what one parent described as “the shoebox phenomenon” (Blackwell, 2015). She said that most of the parents in their local autism support network simply filed the report in a shoebox with all of the other documents sent home by the school. Beyond that, there was nothing ever done or discussed regarding the test results.

This article will address some of the challenges encountered by parents after they receive their child’s statewide achievement test results. Parents will learn 1) why states require all students to participate in these tests annually, 2) key terminology for understanding your child’s test results, and 3) strategies for using the results in your child’s educational planning. This article can help you, as a parent, make sense of the test results and work with teachers to plan for your child’s educational needs.


The history and purpose of statewide achievement tests is unknown to many parents and teachers (Blackwell, 2015). In some ways, it seems like these tests appeared overnight and multiplied rapidly. Here are the answers to three questions that can help parents better understand the reasons that statewide achievement tests have gained such a prominent place in our children’s school experiences.

What is the purpose of statewide achievement tests? Statewide achievement tests are required by lawmakers for two main reasons. First, the test results are used to hold schools and districts accountable for the academic performance of all children. State education agencies grade and rank schools based on the performance of their students. If schools struggle for several years in a row, they may be subjected to stricter oversight by the state education agency. Second, many states use the achievement tests to evaluate individual student performance. Sixteen states use the results to determine grade promotion and retention. More than twenty states now require a minimum passing score on these tests in order for a student to graduate high school (U.S. Department of Education, 2015). 

Are all students required to participate in the tests? The general answer to this question is yes. Although some states may permit parents to opt-out of statewide achievement tests, the intent of the federal law is to require all children to participate in the tests in grades 3-8 and high school. Children with disabilities are provided with testing accommodations that are determined by their Individualized Education Program (IEP) team. They may also be allowed to take an alternative version of the statewide assessment that is more appropriate to their needs. As part of the IEP team, parents should address this option during the IEP meeting. 

How do my child’s test results connect to her/his IEP? This is a great question. The testing results should provide important information that can help parents and teachers develop a child’s IEP. However, as in the case of the shoebox phenomenon described above, this often does not happen. The test results can get lost in the shuffle of progress reports, report cards, and diagnostic assessments. Furthermore, parents and teachers find it difficult to wade through the complex testing jargon and graphic displays (Blackwell, 2015). The following sections of this article will provide strategies for addressing these barriers.

Key Terminology for Understanding YOUR Child’s Test Results

Testing reports often contain specialty based vocabulary with unusual meanings and connotations. The meaning of the words may be quite different from the everyday use of the term. For example, the term “range” can mean anything from a kitchen appliance to a course or route. In testing, the “range of scores” is the difference between the highest and lowest recorded scores. If the lowest score is 28 and the highest is 98, then the range is 70. Here are three key testing terms that can help you better understand your child’s test score report.

Grade equivalent: This is probably the most deceptive and misleading term on test reports. Despite the name, it does not accurately indicate the grade level that corresponds to your child’s academic performance. For example, a score of 6.3 tells you that your child obtained the same score on a test that an average student in the third month of the sixth grade would obtain. Of course, if your child is in the third grade, that is very good, but it does not mean your child can do 6th grade work because she has not yet completed the curriculum from previous grades.

Proficiency level: Proficiency levels are terms used to describe your child’s performance in a specific test area. The most common terms are advanced, proficient, and emerging. These terms can seem vague and do not take into account improvement over time. One strategy that has been helpful to parents is seeing examples of your child’s work at different performance levels. You can ask your child’s teacher for examples from classroom assignments and from the test questions.

Percentile rank: This is perhaps the most commonly reported score on statewide achievement test reports. The percentile rank is the percentage of scores that are below a particular score point for a child on a test. For example, if your child scored in the 76th percentile on the mathematics test, this means that she scored the same or better than 76% of the students taking the test. This is a useful statistic in understanding how your child performs in comparison to other students taking the same test.


Once parents have reviewed their child’s results, the next important step is collaborating with teachers to determine how the results can inform educational planning. Here are three strategies to help you facilitate this process.

Schedule a meeting to discuss the results with your child’s teacher: This is the most highly recommended strategy by both parents and teachers in a previous study on statewide achievement tests (Blackwell, 2015). When parents have the opportunity to engage in real-time conversations with teachers (e.g., face-to-face, conference call, or video conference), they are able to better understand their child’s results.

Ask how the achievement test results compare to other performance measures: As any parent of a child with a disability can attest, there is a seemingly unending stream of assessment data being collected (e.g., report cards, in-class tests and assignments, IEP goal progress monitoring, diagnostic assessments, etc.). Ask your child’s teacher to compare the statewide achievement test results to these other data sources. This will help you to better understand the complete picture of your child’s academic skills.

Request examples of your child’s performance on tested skills: Viewing examples of your child’s work can help you better understand their skill development. Teachers often keep multiple examples of your child’s work products which coincide with the items on the statewide achievement tests.


In this article, we addressed some of the challenges encountered by parents when receiving their child’s statewide achievement test scores. With this information in mind, we hope you feel more confident working with teachers and planning for your child’s educational needs.


Authors’ biographies: Dr. William Blackwell is an assistant professor of special education at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, TX. His work focuses on creating improved educational opportunities for children with disabilities and their families. Dr. Nancy Stockall is a professor of special education at Sam Houston State University. Her work focuses on the inclusion of children with disabilities in least restrictive environments. 


Blackwell, W. (2015). Communicating the results of alternate assessments based on alternate achievement standards (AA-AAS) to parents and teachers of students with significant disabilities. In S. Bowman (Ed.), Special Education: Developments, Teaching Strategies, and Parental Involvement. Hauppauge, NY: Nova Science Publishers, Inc.

United States Department of Education. (2015). Course credit requirements and exit exam requirements for a standard high school diploma and the use of other high school completion credentials, by state: 2013. Retrieved from