Standardized Testing

Many readers live in areas where annual testing is mandatory for homeschoolers. One such reader sent me the following email: I would like to hear just about everything you can think of on the topic of standardized testing! This is an expansion of my reply to her.

Disclaimer: Please, please, please check the HSLDA website (http://www.hslda.org) for the specific laws in your area before following my personal example. Homeschooling laws vary from state to state, and local school district administrators are usually not a reliable source for what those laws include. I am an advocate for homeschool education and view everything from a homeschool perspective. Standardized tests have been developed for use in public schools and therefore do not transition well to the homeschooling environment. For those who may believe testing is an accurate form of evaluation, please remember that I am sharing my personal experiences with standardized tests and how we used them in our homeschool atmosphere.

I live in Iowa, where annual testing is one of several options for legal homeschooling. We began homeschooling by using the Supervising Teacher method with a homeschool-friendly teacher. However, the multiple required visits felt like a disruptive waste of time for me, since the teachers we tried knew nothing about homeschooling, often took notes from me for ideas they could use in their classrooms, or suggested things that I considered inappropriate for my children. We struggled through that for many years and several different teachers until we finally switched to once-a-year testing. Being the fiercely independent sort that I am, it was a tremendous relief to me to deal with testing over a couple of days and be done with it for the rest of the year. We did “official” testing (as our legal accountability) for 3 years — by then we had passed beyond the required age limit and were free from government supervision (hooray!).

After our first two years of homeschooling, I thought perhaps I should test my children to see where they were weakest. I purchased my own tests [Iowa Tests of Basic Skills (ITBS) — the standard around here] from an independent curriculum supplier, which I will vaguely disguise as Billy Joe’s Unusual Pantry, intending to use the information strictly for my own purposes of evaluation, not for legal accountability. [ITBS can be purchased and administered by any 4-year college graduate, regardless of degree field, through Billy Joe’s.] Since no one in our family had the 4-year degree required for purchasing the tests, I ordered them in the name of another homeschool dad. His wife had made the offer, assuring me it would be okay with him; I later found out she had never told him. To skip over the nightmare part of this story, he (hearing about this for the 1st time) refused to sign the required document stating that he had personally overseen the testing, even though I assured him it was only a formality since no one outside our home would ever see the scores. However, a wonderfully sympathetic woman at Billy Joe’s listened to my story in full and phoned me back with the results, saying she was not allowed to mail them to me (and I suspected she was giving me the scores orally from the broom closet!).

Before administering those tests to my children, my husband and I wrote out what we felt were the correct answers — giving me an answer key to use in scoring the tests for my purposes of evaluation before mailing them back to Billy Joe’s for their official scoring. (Returning all materials within a certain time period is a required part of the purchase agreement.) From that key, I could see what types of questions stumped my students and know what areas we needed to work on. Mostly, they tested poorly on what I call “non-subjects” like Social Studies (strange questions that were not really history and not really geography) or areas we had not covered yet (science, history, and geography for my 3rd grader; higher math for my 7th grader). The “official” scores did not match my calculated percentages at all, showing me that the questions were not ranked equally: a 20-question test did not score as 5% per question. Also, there was a question on the 7th grade social studies test about the political philosophies of Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln, Gandhi, and Malcolm X that I have yet to find anyone who can answer!

Based solely on this experience, I found the tests to be a poor method of evaluating my children’s academic status. The subject areas tested, the types of questions used, the confusing scoring methods, and the added frustration of the uncooperative dad left me with a really bad taste in my mouth whenever the subject of standardized testing came up. My children later convinced me to allow them to take the tests under better circumstances, just for practice, and their successes there did improve my outlook. I eventually came to appreciate annual testing strictly for its simplicity in legal accountability.

I much prefer testing in a home, whether it is mine or a friend’s, with a familiar church classroom as my next choice. One year a friend and I swapped children during the testing days: she tested my son while I taught her daughter in her home. My son had visited her home often enough to feel comfortable, and she and I used widely-separated areas to ensure quiet during the testing. I abhor public schools and prefer to stay as far away as possible. If I were in a situation that required testing my children at the public school, I would prefer that a) my children be tested by themselves, or b) any homeschooled students be tested together, but most of all c) my homeschooled students be tested in a separate area from the public school students. The time limitations of the tests do not allow extra time for acquainting oneself with a new environment: strange room, strange teacher, strange students. Therefore, the more familiar the situation, the better it will be for the student, enabling him to concentrate on the tests and do his best. However, Moms usually have more test anxiety than their students do, especially since homeschooled students seem to look upon testing as an interesting break from the normal routine.

Our homeschool co-op group provided testing for several years, but I did not submit those results to our school district, since at that time we were still under a supervising teacher. My children both voluntarily participated in the tests for practice purposes, theorizing that eventually they would need to take a college entrance exam (ACT or SAT) and wanted to be prepared for that type of timed, fill-in-the-oval test. The homeschool co-op testing was a decent way to go: familiar moms with the proper degrees administered the tests in the church where we met for other homeschool functions, while we non-degreed moms played in the nursery with the younger, non-testing children. Incidentally, the tests were acquired through a nearby Christian school who submitted our group’s tests with their students’ tests, calling us their “satellite school.” The group-rate price discount was a wonderful blessing for us! For my son’s final two years of testing, our pastor administered the tests in his office area — the pastor volunteered and thought it was great fun.

Each testing service considers its product to be the one and only good test. Here in Iowa we hear repeatedly that the ITBS is the standard across the nation — yet I have not heard that from anyone living outside this state. Since the tests are designed by “professional educators,” specifically to judge how their own enterprise is doing, I see the tests as hopelessly flawed for homeschool use. (Remember, I broke the cardinal rule of testing and read through the tests myself!) Public schools routinely “cheat” by teaching specific test material ahead of time, filling in correct answers for the students, or posting correct answers where testing students can easily copy them during the test, thereby skewing the results to improve their school’s scores. (Not rumors — I have this from the participants.)

Because the tests cannot cover material identical to what every school teaches, standardized tests are nearly impossible for homeschooling parents to use for academic evaluation. The descriptor “standardized” implies that it is covering a core area of curriculum, but in this case, it is the supposed core of public school curriculum, plus some added questions from higher academic areas to point out higher achievers. Obviously, a public school test is not going to cover Biblical topics, creation science, or other specific areas valued by many homeschoolers, but it will cover evolution and similar subject areas that homeschoolers often avoid.

If your children take the tests, look over the resulting scores to see how each child ranks in general subject areas. Then shove your master copies of the scores deep into your filing cabinet and forget about them. [For legal accountability through testing in my state, copies of the results must be sent to both the local district and to the state Dept. of Education.] Do not put too much credence on the tests — they are designed for public school students, not homeschooled students. Your students will probably score quite well — after all, it is the students who score lower than 13% who are considered unsatisfactory. Homeschoolers usually score above 50% nationally (often much higher). The scores indicate how your student compared with all other students nationwide who took the same grade level test during the same month of the same year. [Note: make sure that your students understand that the scores do NOT reflect how many questions they answered correctly. The number of correct answers is never given, which is why I made my own answer keys — to determine exactly what information my students did not know.]

For my own purposes of academic evaluation, I read the official scores using the 50% mark as my guideline: below that level meant we might need to work on that general subject area (unless it was evolution-heavy science); above that level meant we were doing just fine. Make sure your students understand that their goal is to do their best, not to score 100% — a near impossibility on this type of test. Most of the pressure disappears once the children realize they are not supposed to know the correct answer to every question on the test, since many questions are purposely included that are far above the grade level of each test. Normal math or spelling tests that you may give in your homeschool usually only cover material you have already taught.

My personal opinion on annual testing is to do what you have to do in order to maintain compliance with your state’s laws. Check with Home School Legal Defense Association — http://www.hslda.org — for the exact wording of the laws in your state — there may be suitable non-testing options that the public schools do not know about or will not tell you about. Finally, relax, assuring yourself that your students will do the best they can and that the testing process will be valuable practice for college. If Mom is relaxed about the situation, the children will be more relaxed as well.

Tests, Book Reports, and Other Un-necessities

Tests are valuable only if you do not know what your student has learned. If Johnny spends 45 minutes telling me about something that only took him 20 minutes to read, he is ready to tackle the next thing. He does not need to waste time (his or mine) taking a test or writing a book report. Tests are great for a classroom of 30 kids and a teacher who has no idea who knows what. Unless you have an extremely large homeschool family, you probably have a pretty good idea of what is being learned.

It is my personal opinion that book reports should be banned. Reading books should be encouraged, but I do not want to ruin a budding love of reading by enforcing reports. Reading well-written books teaches by example: sentence structure, grammar (formal/descriptive and informal/conversational), spelling, punctuation, etc. A student who reads often and reads from a variety of sources will pick up a surprising amount by observation. Then, and only then, should they be expected to write.

My students participated in a co-op class in novel-writing (meeting twice a month for a semester). My daughter, a voracious reader, had little difficulty with descriptions, character development, etc. My son, who had read very little on his own at that point, struggled tremendously. He had great difficulty trying to put his thoughts on paper. His scene descriptions were awkward, and he felt every scene should be done with only dialogue. I eventually realized that he was not writing a book, he was writing a screenplay — he was more familiar with movies than with books and therefore wanted to use that format. I changed plans and rearranged my son’s assignments to include more time for reading and a greater variety of reading materials, emphasizing things of special interest to him. Sometimes I allowed him to watch a video, then read the book afterward, reasoning that knowing the plot ahead of time would help to keep his interest as the story slowly developed through the pages of the book. It worked. His reading speed increased dramatically, his comprehension level increased, and his understanding of grammatical rules increased.

After a couple of years of heavy-on-the-reading-time-but-no-writing lessons, I again brought in a serious writing assignment. Wow! What a difference! I actually had to (tactfully) ask him where the idea had come from for the paper, because I suspected he might have plagiarized it from a magazine article. Not the case. He had used a magazine article as his resource material, but it was an article he had read months before at the library and just used the facts from memory. (Several weeks into his first semester of college English composition, the instructor pulled my son aside and remarked, “You know you don’t really belong in this class — you already know how to write very well!”)