Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Standardized Tests in the Homeschool - What Are They For?

Photo by Shannan Muskopf used under a Creative Commons license.
There is a bit more buzz in my state this year about standardized testing in the homeschool.  A few provisions in our state law changed last summer making and it seems to be making standardized testing a more popular way for families to demonstrated yearly progress {which is required by our state.}

I have to admit that my most preferred method of demonstrating this yearly progress is the beloved portfolio review.  Annually, I've gathered all the kids work in a huge 3 or 4" binder and written up a summary of our year to share with our reviewer.

However, with THREE kids now, portfolio reviews are less affordable and I honestly have much less time to gather it all nice and neat for her, yet alone write out three reports.

{Let me say that writing out the reports are not required;  it is actually something I enjoyed doing as it gives me an opportunity to reflect on what went right and not-so-right in our year.  It also gives me a chance to reflect on our plans and goals for  the coming year.  Sort of like the evaluation and discharge reports I would write when I was a speech-language pathologist.}

For all those reasons, this year I determined to use our habit for every other year standardized testing as our option to fulfill state law.

But, there are other reasons people might use standardized testing in the homeschool.  Because of my former career in speech pathology, I'm very familiar with standardized testing benefits and shortfalls.  So, I thought I'd talk about how testing fits with homeschooling.

1.  Some use standardized testing strictly to fulfill state law.   Like us this year. Some state require testing periodically (say, 3, 5, and 8th grades), while others require it more frequently.  In some states, like mine, it is one of the options parents can use to satisfy the legal requirements to test.  In my state, a composite score of greater than 40% is required to continue a home education program.  This is not necessarily an average of all the subtest scores, however, and it must be computed based on the test company's procedures.

Photo by Nalini Prasanna under creative commons licensing
2. Some use periodic standardized testing to help their children learn to take standardized tests.  Let's face it, if you want to go to college or even into the armed services (and doesn't the US government have a civil service test?), you will have to take a standardized test.  Even our church has used standardized assessment forms to take surveys of the membership for planning purposes.  We must all learn to fill in the bubbles properly and timely!  Up until this year, my kids have experienced standardized testing for the practice of learning to take a test in a controlled group environment.  They've had practice taking timed tests -- learning to work efficiently to complete a task within a specified time frame.  And, they've learned to respect the testing environment so everyone involved can complete in quiet with minimal distractions.  It has been a great exercise that I'm glad we've undertaken in the past 8 years.

3.  Some use standardized testing to verify placement in courses.  If you are considering using an umbrella program that provides curriculum, grading, and testing materials for all one cost, you will likely need to participate in standardized testing for placement or to measure annual progress.  One program, for example, that uses a variety of standardized testing is Christian Liberty Press' CLASS Academy.  {This is mentioned as an example and in no way am I making a judgement on CLASS Academy one way or the other.}

4.  Some use standardized testing to gain further information.  I've found the kids' summary scores from their standardized testing to be very interesting.  Only once was a super surprised at the results of the testing.  Usually, I find that it corroborates my own gut-level feeling about how my kids are performing in their day-to-day schoolwork.  If you get that sort of results, you can consider the test valid. In the field of test design, Validity refers to the degree to which an assessment measures what it is designed to measure {thanks to http://aepslinkedsystem.com/ for the definition}.  When I get test results back that show above average performance in, say, math calculations and I am observing this in my student on a general basis, I know that the test is valid.

One of the best tests that I've used (OK, I've only used two different kinds) is the Stanford Achievement Test (SAT).  I used this with Luke two years ago (2nd grade) for two reasons.  One, it was his first time taking a standardized test in our every two-year cycle of practicing test taking skills.  Secondly, I decided that I wanted to make this practice as useful to me as possible.  The SAT analyzes error patterns to return to you a very detailed assessment of what is below average, average, and above average in your child's skill set.  Back then, Luke as struggling with reading, and I wanted more information on how I could help him.  Since the SAT is not timed {there are timing suggestions} I felt this would give me an accurate assessment of his abilities.  Here's a quick look at a portion of his standardized test cluster summary:

Luke's performance on the spelling questions designed to parse out his level of mastery with phonetic principles was below average.  Now, I knew this in my heart, so this particular subtest didn't tell me anything I didn't know but it confirmed for this mama that I needed to stay strong and not give up on our very intense phonics spelling/ reading program.  And that, my friend, was worth every penny.

The other test we've used is the California Achievement Test (CAT).  From what I've found online, this is an old test from 1992 or earlier.  However, it gets the job done and satisfies my state law to administer a nationally standardized test.  This is the one that Ben has taken for the past two testing cycles (I started testing him in 4th grade).  The only bummer about the CAT is that you don't get nice assessments of error patterns to help pinpoint weak points and skills that could use some help. 

This year, Luke and Ben took the SAT (it was less expensive that taking the CAT) and Levi took an online version of the CAT.  Why?  Well, I need to watch my pennies these days.  Luke and Ben's tests were only $29 and Levi's was $25.  Had I used the 1st grade version of the SAT, his test would have been $39 (tests for early elementary can cost more because the answer sheets are usually longer and the administrator's book is, too).  

Do I miss writing out my reports for the reviewer this year?  Nope.  I've thought this past year to death {as is my style and nature} and know exactly what I did right and wrong and what we need to work on.  As a matter of fact, I think I'll go grab all the kids' papers and throw them in manilla envelopes this year, and save myself from putting them in a binder just to take them out again in the fall.

Have you ever administered standardized tests to your students?  
What purpose did it fill in your homeschool?


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