To Test or Not to Test? Homeschooling and Standardized Testing

With the advent of Spring, our school year is beginning to wind down. I begin to think about books we want to read this summer and next year’s curriculum. But first I remind myself, “It’s time to order those tests.”

Standardized testing. Some states require testing, and others don’t. For those of us who are privileged enough to be given the choice, the decision is worth consideration. If not required, should we make our homeschooled children take standardized tests? What are the pros and cons?

The Pros

1. Objectivity. When I was a highschool teacher, I learned that most parents are not completely objective about their children. This is not through any fault of ours. Being so emotionally tied to their children, parents tend not to be as objective about their children as school teachers, who are more detached and work with large numbers of children.

A standardized test can give a homeschooling parent a more objective view of their child’s academic strengths and weaknesses. Rather than simply assessing our children with our gut feeling or comparing them to the neighbor’s kid, we can use standardized testing to see how our children are faring academically compared to the national average.

Some homeschooling parents don’t care how their children compare to other children. Their kids are where they are and they work at their own pace. Certainly there is much truth in that. There is wisdom in allowing each child to work at his/her own pace. Even so, a standardized test allows us to measure progress. If my child scores in the 80th percentile in reading one year, I would hope to see him score the same or higher the next year.

With a more objective view of our children, we can set more realistic expectations for our children. For example, suppose I assume that my “brilliant” child should score in the 90th percentile in math, but she scores in the 50th percentile. I would need to ask myself: Is my child studying hard enough? Does she need extra practice? Or is she studying reasonably well but she is just not naturally strong in math? When your child takes a standardized test year after year, the scores become more meaningful since you can begin to observe trends. Assuming that our children work hard and consistently, these trends help us to know where our children’s academic aptitudes lie.

2. A standardized test can also serve as a diagnostic tool. Once in a while, one of my children get a test score that is unexpected. One year, Big-Sis scored very low on the estimation and computation part of the math test. She was not used to timed math tests; on the contrary, she usually took her sweet time when she did her math work. To remedy this, I gave her 5-minute math quizzes several days each week the following year. When she took the standardized test that spring, she scored in the 90th percentile for the same section.  Had Big-Sis not taken the standardized test, we would not have guessed that speed in computation was something she needed to improve on.

3. Whether we like it or not, most homeschooled children will need to take a standardized test at some point during their education. Test-taking is an important skill, as is being able to work under time constraints. I want my children to practice test-taking at the end of each year so that when they do have to take a real test, such as the HSPT (High school Placement Test) or the SAT, they will be both comfortable and familiar with the process.

4. According to NHERI,

    • The home-educated typically score 15 to 30 percentile points above public-school students on standardized academic achievement tests. (The public school average is the 50th percentile; scores range from 1 to 99.)
    • Homeschool students score above average on achievement tests regardless of their parents’ level of formal education or their family’s household income.

 Most of us can expect that the results of our children’s standardized tests will be encouraging and affirming for both parents and children. Sure there will be areas that need improvement, but overall, I think that many homeschoolers will find cause for celebration when they get their test results. Furthermore, many parents will enjoy a greater sense of confidence and competence as home educators.

The Cons

The cons of taking a standardized test have mostly to do with its limitations and how we approach the test. Like the internet, the value of a standardized test depends largely on how we use it.

One trap that some parents can face is the temptation to teach to the test at the expense of other subjects. We can spend too much time on test prep and make getting a high score more important than savoring a beautiful poem, reading aloud, or studying the catechism. We need to be careful that our curriculum does not become results oriented. While your children are young, avoid giving them test-prep workbooks. (The one exception to this would be if you live in a state where there is a pass/fail grade and you know  your child needs extra practice in specific areas.) These workbooks may boost your children’s test scores, but the exercises are so dull and tedious that by the time your child writes the test, he may be so tired of them he may not take the test seriously. Rather, as I suggested earlier, use the test as a diagnostic tool and make adjustments to the next year’s curriculum accordingly.

Another trap some parents fall into is that of giving too much importance to the results of the test. We need to remember that standardized tests are very limited in scope and can only reflect a few aspects of a child’s education. These tests measure basic skills: math skills, reading skills, and writing skills. They cannot measure work ethic, creativity, appreciation for beauty, artistic ability, athleticism, or what is most important in a Catholic education: growth in virtue and love for God. Once the test results are in, congratulate your child where he excelled, take note of where he needs to improve, and then file the scores away. Avoid berating him for poor scores or bragging about his excellent scores. After all, the test is but a piece of a puzzle. It does not give you the big picture of what or how well your child is learning.

The third trap is allowing ourselves to think that the test results reflect our own competence as teachers. If a child scores poorly, we may be tempted to think that we simply can’t teach, that we are failures, or that we need to send our children to certified teachers. Indeed, we can all improve our teaching skills, and many homeschooling conferences offer excellent talks on pedagogy. However, Whether homeschool parents were ever certified teachers is not related to their children’s academic achievement (NHERI). 

If a child scores poorly, we should not fall into a pit of discouragement or despair. Instead we need to look for causes and solutions: Why were the test scores low? What areas need the most attention? How can I help my child do better in those areas? How can I motivate my child to do better in those areas? Might my child have a learning disability? Do I need to adjust the curriculum, learning environment, or schedule to help my child? One of the great things about homeschooling is that we can make adjustments relatively quickly, easily, and as often as needed.

On the other hand, if a child scores really well, we need to thank God for this grace and humbly avoid letting it get to our heads. Let’s use all our children’s accomplishments for His glory, not ours.

So despite the limitations of standardized tests, I do believe them to be a valuable tool, especially if we can avoid giving the test results too much importance.

Where, when, and how should the tests be administered?

States that require standardized testing will have their own mandates about when, where and how the tests should be administered. For the rest of us, where, when, and how the tests should be administered depends on our own discretion.

In our home school, my kids take the tests each spring starting in 3rd grade. We order the IOWA Tests  from Seton Testing because I find their reports to be very detailed. The tests usually come in about two weeks time, and we have 2-3 weeks to complete and return the tests. With the IOWA Tests, I can test several children at once since all the tests follow the same structure and the instructions are almost the same for each section of each test. Some people get friends or relatives to administer the test at home. I bribe the younger kids not to distract us and administer the test myself. The tests themselves usually take 3 days,  a few hours each day. I give my kids breaks between each major section of the test. The Stanford 10 Online is a great option if you want your child to do the test on the computer while you keep younger kids at bay.

Whichever test you use, be sure to photocopy your children’s answer keys, in case their completed tests get lost in the mail. Seton Testing sends the results by email in two weeks. Using the results, I determine which areas each child needs extra help/work and plan accordingly for the following school year.

This link allows you to compare the different standardized tests and to see sample reports.

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