The Pros and Cons of Standardized Testing
By Michael P. Farris
There is no doubt that any lawyer trying a homeschool case is happy to learn that the children he defends have achieved high scores on a nationally recognized standardized test. Standardized test scores are no guarantee of success in a legal challenge, but there is no question that they are helpful in virtually all cases.
This does not mean that a homeschooling family should not think carefully about standardized testing—especially testing chosen and administered by the local school district.
Our family has chosen to administer standardized tests to our older two daughters for the past three years. The first two years I administered the older version of the California Achievement Test to my daughters myself. Last year, as an experiment (which I do not recommend to anyone else), I decided to use the SRA test and have a certified teacher administer the test. Virginia, where we live, requires the use of the SRA test. The certified teacher happened to be the secretary of HSLDA who my children knew very well.
Every year our children have done very well on the standardized tests. But despite high scores on the SRA, we will never use that test again because the 4th-grade test had several questions that were testing children in a way that required agreement with evolution in order to get a correct answer.
My daughter, Christy, recognized the evolutionist bias to the questions and refused to answer them.
Furthermore, the SRA test was far from objective or accurate. For example, students were shown a diagram with a pueblo, an igloo, a stilt house, and a tent made out of tent canvas. The question was: “How did the builders of these houses decide what material to use?” The “correct” answer is: “They used what was easy to get.”
While this is true of pueblos, stilt houses, and igloos, tent canvas does not naturally occur in a desert. Therefore, in my judgment, the best remaining answer is: “They used what would last the longest.”
Another question showed a scene out of the Middle East among other photographs. It looked like the ancient Middle East except for a modern house which appeared in the background. Nonetheless, even with its modern house, it was this photo which was the “correct” answer to the question: “Which picture could have been made over 200 years ago?”
Many of the questions were merely matters of opinion as well. Choosing the “best” title to stories is often a very subjective matter. As the author of dozens of articles, I believe the title which would be chosen by a real editor was often more creative than the supposedly “correct” story title. I would rather read a story called “A Faint Meow” than one called “The Missing Cat” any day.
For families who have received state approval for their homeschooling and whose approval is conditioned upon standardized testing, there is little choice on whether or not to take such a test. However, for all homeschooling families, taking a standardized test can be done in a wide variety of ways. Let us turn to some common questions about these tests.
Who should administer the test?
The answer will vary according to state law on the issue of whether the public school will attempt to administer the test themselves. There is no question in the world of testing experts that a child who is comfortable when tested will do better than a child who is uncomfortable.
The usual procedure in public schools is for the child’s own teacher to administer the test. This is clearly the best choice in a homeschool as well. However, in court there may be some attempt to discredit a test by claiming parental bias. Unless a family is actually in the court process, I would not worry about this argument too much. A child can always be retested before a trial to verify the accuracy of the first examination.
A friendly certified teacher is also an excellent choice in many cases. I am sure that my kids were about as comfortable with my certified secretary as they would have been with me. They, of course, knew her very well before the examination. A teacher from a local friendly Christian school can often serve in this capacity.
The least desirable alternative is to have a public school employee chosen by the district (if you have a friend who works for the public school whom you trust, this is an entirely different matter) administer the test for your child.
Permitting a public school official to observe the administration of the test by a person of the family’s choice saved one of our members from court. This is certainly better than having the public school person directly administer the test.
Where should the test be administered?
There are five possible locations which I give you in order of descending desirability. 1. In your “school room.” 2. In your kitchen. 3. In your family room. 4. At a friendly Christian school. 5. At a public school.
Children who are tested in an environment which they are familiar with and comfortable in will do better on tests than children who are tested in a foreign environment. This is an unassailable scientific fact (recently verified in a study done by the American Psychological Testing Association).
Who should choose the test?
Although the public schools will attempt to influence this choice, clearly the parents should do this. Most of the satellite programs include a test chosen by the school. This is also an excellent choice.
The use of a nationally normed achievement test will gain the most recognition in a legal context. Christian Liberty Academy, one of the largest homeschooling groups, uses the Iowa Basic Skills. Many Christian schools choose the older versions of the California Achievement Test. Review any test beforehand, especially for the evolutionary bias.
Should you “pretest” your children?
This is a very sound practice from a legal perspective. One case we have in progress, the child came out of the public schools far behind. In his first test after homeschooling he tested still far behind his age level. However, the fact that he had been pretested allowed us to argue that for the first time in his life, this homeschool child was progressing at the rate of one grade level per year. While in public schools he was progressing at the rate of one-half a grade level per year. The pretest allowed us to argue that he was now learning more than while in the public schools.
What about psychological tests?
There are no circumstances which I could conceive of where I would recommend psychological testing of a homeschooling child administered by the public schools. If the parents see the need for such testing and on their own initiative seek such a test, that is a totally different matter.
I have cross-examined many psychologists and psychiatrists on the use of these kinds of tests. They are not even close to being scientific based on this experience.
What if a child gets a low score?
Some states require that a child achieve to a certain level to continue homeschooling. This is subject to an equal protection attack in court because public school children who get a lower score are not required to be taught in another forum.
The use of the pretest will often enable the parent to demonstrate that their child is progressing at an acceptable rate despite a current low test score.
Moreover, the real issue is whether or not a child is achieving to their potential. Some children have a lower potential than others. Homeschooling allows children to better achieve that potential than in the institutionalization of children.
How young should you test a child?
Unless there is a reason dictated by state law, the younger the child is, the less a test has real value. There is a wide variety of opinion on this subject even among homeschoolers. However, by the time a child is doing some regular “formal academic” work, he or she is probably ready for some type of test. When dealing with younger children, if the child becomes anxious about the test, its accuracy and educational value is subject to serious question.
We have tested our children as early as 5. But we did it ourselves, in a very relaxed manner. Some children would not be ready until 8, 9, or 10. As parents you will generally have a good feel for when your child is ready.
Tests do help get the “in-laws” off your backs. Parents get more out of these tests at times. Also tests often help the homeschool family avoid hassles from their school district, and good scores prove they do not need the help or monitoring of the state.
It is important to remember that all of the above items are subject to negotiation between your family and the school district. Technically, a school district can only require you to test in a certain way if their state compulsory attendance statute provides specific guidelines as to standardized testing. (Of course, unconstitutional statutory testing requirements can always be challenged in court.) If there is no explicit statute, negotiate with the school district until you achieve testing that would be in the best interests of your children.