The Problems With Age Equivalent Test Scores

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Children may take any number of tests as they grow and advance through school. Many are designed to gauge where they are developmentally and at what age or grade their learning ability lies. These tests may result in an age-equivalent or grade-equivalent test score. What does that mean, and are these reliable in measuring how well your child is doing in school?

This is a topic of debate in school psychology, and it can certainly be confusing for parents. Before you rush to judgment about your child's scores—whether they're good or poor—it's important to get a better understanding of what these equivalency tests actually mean.

What Do Age Equivalent Test Scores Mean?

Simply put, an age equivalent is a comparison of your child's performance compared to age groups whose average scores are in the same range. For example, if your 9-year-old child scores a 42 raw score on a test, and that score is average for 8-year-olds, their age equivalent score would be 8.

Age equivalent test scores are also known as mental age or test age, and some are defined by grade level. However, age equivalent scores are not usually considered the most precise scores for measuring a student's performance on tests.

How They Work

According to the Educational Testing Service, age equivalent tests work by using samples of scores from a range of different age groups. Children with birthdays in a six-month window are grouped together to represent a certain year group.

The materials on the test should range in difficulty from extremely easy to very difficult. The mean test score for each age group is found and shown on a graph. It is used to determine what the age equivalent score should be.

As Paul Kline points out in the book A Handbook of Test Construction, there is great difficulty in "establishing meaningful criterion." There are many factors that go into writing and taking tests. In order to truly interpret the results, one must take into account things like content, context, and a standard of error, as well as a child's test-taking skills on that particular day.

The Drawbacks

Some parents mistakenly believe that age equivalent test scores mean that a child is more advanced (or not) than they actually are.

For example, let's assume that our 9-year-old example child receives a score of 62 on the previously mentioned test. That score may be interpreted as average for 10-year-olds. This may lead the parents to think that their child can do the same work that the average 10-year-old can do.

However, it's important to keep in mind that the child was not given a test for 10-year-olds but one for 9-year-olds. Doing the same as the average 10-year-old did on the test content does not mean that a child can actually handle the work required of an older child. In other words, a child who has not learned what remainders are yet cannot be expected to do a worksheet of long division problems.

If a child does poorly on an age-equivalent test, it doesn't necessarily mean that they can't handle age-level work and should be relegated to material for a child one year younger.

The Educational Testing Service notes that although a 6-year-old may perform on a test as well as, say, a 9-year-old, they are not the same. The former does not have the "mental equipment" of the latter, no matter the score.

The same applies to grade equivalent tests, which children are given to see if they're performing on grade level. If a sixth-grader performs the same as an average seventh grader on a test, it doesn't mean they can handle the seventh-grade curriculum. Educators argue that these tests should not be regarded in this manner.

A Word From Verywell

As a parent, it's important to keep in mind that a variety of tests can determine how well your child is performing academically. Rather than take stock in any single test, consider your child's scores on a variety of tests as well as their performance on school work. If you have concerns, be sure to speak with their teachers about ways you might be able to help.

3 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Frey BB, editor. The SAGE Encyclopedia of Educational Research, Measurement, and Evaluation. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Research Methods; 2018.

  2. Angoff WH. Scales, Norms, and Equivalent Scores. Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service; 1984.

  3. Kline P. A Handbook of Test Construction: Introduction of Psychometric Design. New York: Routledge; 2015.

By Ann Logsdon
Ann Logsdon is a school psychologist specializing in helping parents and teachers support students with a range of educational and developmental disabilities.