Introduction to Standardized Testing

Home educators have their children take standardized tests for a number of different reasons. Some parents may have their child tested because it is required by their state’s homeschool law, or because they want to include test results in their child’s educational records. In other cases, home educators may want an independent assessment of their child’s learning so that they can find trouble spots and adjust their instruction. Finally, home educators may have their children take the PSAT, the SAT, or the ACT to meet college admission requirements. Before you choose a standardized test, you should determine why you are having your child tested. What do you want to get out of this experience? 

If you are only having your child tested to meet your state’s testing requirements, or to have a record of your child’s current academic level to keep with your records, it may not matter substantially which test you choose (so long as the test is accepted by your state for homeschool reporting purposes). However, if you also want to learn something from your child’s test, which test your child takes matters a bit more.  

Addressing Concerns about Testing

Given increased concern about “high-stakes testing,” you may wonder whether it makes sense to have your child take a standardized test. It is important to remember that the term “high-stakes” refers to how the test is used, not to the test itself. If you have your homeschooled child take a standardized test, you will be using this test to assess their learning, not to determine the amount of funding a specific public school will receive! In an essay on, Ryan Hickey encourages homeschooling parents to have their children take standardized tests, and calls this “low-stakes” or “no-stakes” testing. 

You may have also heard concerns about “teaching to the test.” While it may be a good idea to have your child do some practice questions to familiarize them with the process, you should not worry overly about test prep. Standardized tests are designed to assess what your child does and does not know. If they do not know the answer to a question, getting the question wrong (or leaving it unanswered) is actually the “right” answer for that child. When a child gets a question wrong, this shows what they don’t know yet and thus still need to learn. 

Avoid inducing stress in your child surrounding the test. Remember, this is “low-stakes” or “no-stakes” testing. Make sure your child has had a good meal, create a space clear of distractions, and encourage them to show what they know — and what they do not know.

There is one type of test that will inevitably create more anxiety: tests required for college acceptance, such as the SAT or ACT. These tests are usually taken during students’ junior year of high school. While not every student needs to attend college, several states require all public school students to take one of these tests, regardless of their future plans, simply to keep their options open. We recommend this for homeschooled students as well. Unlike other standardized tests homeschooled students may take, students should engage in test prep for the SAT and ACT, such as studying out of test prep books or taking practice tests. 

Even if you generally oppose the use of standardized tests, it is still to your child’s benefit to take a few standardized tests over the course of their K-12 education. Put simply: taking the SAT or ACT will keep your child’s options open and give them the option of attending college if they choose to, and your child will have a better experience taking the SAT or ACT if they have already had experience taking standardized tests and know what to expect. 

Some Background on Testing

Whether you’re having your child tested to comply with your state’s homeschool law or because you want to assess their learning for your own benefit, you may find yourself overwhelmed by the number of tests and testing services marketed to homeschooling families. Before we address any specific test, we want to equip you with some general information about testing. This information will help prepare you to make an educated decision about testing.

There are two types of standardized tests: norm-referenced and criterion-referenced. 

Norm-referenced tests are designed to rank children by comparing their achievement to the achievement of other children, separating high-achievers from low-achievers. Test questions are designed to emphasize performance differences between students, and not to measure whether students have achieved specific learning standards. 

Criterion-referenced tests are designed to assess whether a student has achieved the learning outlined in a fixed set of learning standards or criterion. Test questions are designed to determine what children know, and not to compare their performance to that of others. 

In the past several decades, criterion-referenced tests have become the preferred standard while norm-referenced tests have fallen out of favor. One reason for this is a greater focus on equity in education. A norm-referenced test accepts learning inequities as fact: some students will always be at the top, while other students will always be at the bottom. A criterion-referenced test creates a system where all children can succeed, if they are able to master certain learning standards. Criterion-referenced tests measure individual student learning, rather than focusing on how students compare to other students. 

You can see a breakdown of the characteristics of norm-referenced and criterion-referenced tests here. You can also learn more at the Educational Resources Information Center or at the Glossary of Education Reform, or see an explanation with visuals at this link.

You are probably already familiar with a number of common criterion-referenced tests. Driving tests assess test-takers’ performance relative to a required standard, rather than relative to each other. A norm-referenced driving test would pass the top 50% of test-takers and fail the bottom 50% of test-takers, regardless of their scores. We can easily see why this would be ridiculous! Citizenship tests are another example of a criterion-referenced test. 

How Does This Relate To Homeschooling?

At CRHE, we prefer criterion-referenced tests. This is because we believe it is more important for you to know what skills and knowledge your child has mastered than it is for you to know how your child scores relative to other children. However, in most cases, the only way to access a criterion-referenced test is in your local public school, which is not always accessible, and some states require homeschooled students to take norm-referenced tests. 

Many homeschool statutes were written in the 1980s, when norm-referenced tests were still widely used in public schools. Today, however, all fifty states use criterion-referenced tests in public schools. As a result, norm-referenced tests often rely on old norming, or are otherwise outdated. However, because state homeschool law has not kept up with these changes, many states still require homeschooled students to take a “nationally normed” standardized test. 

Many of the norm-referenced tests that are marketed to homeschooled students send parents extremely brief testing reports that give only a percentile ranking for each subject (i.e. how the child compares with other students), and little or no information about student proficiency in specific skill areas. This may not be a problem if you are having your child tested only to meet a state requirement or put a paper in your child’s file, but it may be frustrating if you want to learn something more practical from your child’s testing report. 

Therefore, we recommend that home educators do one of two things: 

  1. Contact your local school district to learn whether your child can take your state’s criterion-referenced test at your local public school during their testing period.
  2. Have your child take a norm-referenced test marketed to homeschoolers, but make sure to select one that provides parents with a rich testing report.

Note: If you are having your child tested in order to meet a state homeschool requirement, you should always verify beforehand that the test you choose will satisfy that requirement. 

Taking Your State Test at Your Local Public School

But wait a minute, you may be thinking. Don’t standardized tests administered in public schools test over the state curriculum? Well, yes and no. The criterion-referenced tests administered in public schools typically test students on a set of state learning standards. Remember, those standards are the “criterion” in criterion-referenced tests. However, that does not mean that these tests are testing over a specific curriculum or set of textbooks. 

Many people equate curriculum with a textbook. This understanding is outdated. In fact, everything that is taught, or that a child learns, is part of the curriculum. Public schools today rarely use a set “state” curriculum or textbooks. Instead, teachers draw on a variety of learning resources (and create their own lesson plans) as they work to build the learning outlined in state standards. State standards are grade-level expectations for learning. State standards tend to focus on building skills (such as reading comprehension) rather than on memorizing specific pieces of information (such as names or dates).

At CRHE, we recommend that homeschooling parents familiarize themselves with their state’s learning standards, and even that they use these standards to guide their teaching. If you haven’t already, please read our section on curriculum and learning standards.

Parents who homeschool can meet their state’s learning standards while selecting or building their own curriculum. In fact, many home educators teach the learning outlined in state learning standards without realizing it. State learning standards are designed to “scaffold,” or build on each other; as a result, while home educators may choose to teach subjects like social studies on a different schedule from their local public schools, they will typically teach the skills outlined in state learning standards in a similar sequence. 

While all fifty states now use criterion-referenced tests (you can find these listed here), most of the nationally available tests typically used by homeschoolers are norm-referenced tests. As a result, the simplest way to have your child take a criterion-referenced test is to have them take your state’s test at your local public school. You can contact your local school district to find out whether this is permitted. In some states, it is; in other states, it is not. 

Taking a Nationally Available Norm-Referenced Test

One of our biggest concerns about norm-referenced tests is that they may give parents false perceptions of children’s achievement. For example, when a norm-referenced test says a 5th grade student performed “at the 8th grade level” in math, many parents assume this means their child is at the 8th grade level in math. In fact, this actually means their child’s math score on the 5th grade test was the same as the score of the typical 8th grade student taking the 5th grade test. Remember, the test does not actually include 8th grade level content! 

As a reminder, norm-referenced tests measure students’ performance against each other, while criterion-referenced tests measure how much students know against a set of learning standards, or criteria. At CRHE, we believe that criterion-referenced tests are preferable, because they help parents assess what a student already knows and where a student has weaknesses. However, if you end up having your child take a norm-referenced test, there are steps you can take to ensure that you get the most out of the experience. 

Pay more attention to: 

Mastery or proficiency: Look for a measure of the student’s performance level. Some testing reports may call this a “national standard score.” Remember, you want to be able to see whether your child’s performance meets expectations across a range of different skill areas. For example, see how this testing report for parents categorizes specific skill areas as “reinforce” (where the student has mastery), “develop” (where ongoing learning is needed), and “introduce” (where the student needs substantial work). 

Detailed breakdown of subject areas: A detailed breakdown that includes categories like “multiple meaning words” or “geometry and measurement” is better than a more limited breakdown into “reading” and “mathematics. Note how this testing report shows the number of problems attempted and number or problems correct for specific subject areas. 

Pay less attention to: 

National percentile score: Percentile scores are normed nationally, and factors like parental education and family income have a substantial impact on student performance. Whether your child performed better or worse than vastly disparate students (and better or worse than students who have far different life circumstances than yours) is less important than knowing areas where your child has achieved mastery and areas where they could use more work. 

Grade level equivalent: Do not become distracted by this number. Remember, a 5th grade test does not measure your child’s performance on 8th grade content. If the results say your child performed at the 8th grade level, it means your child performed at the same level that the typical 8th grade student would if they took the 5th grade test.  

In our companion piece—Choosing a Standardized Test—we offer an overview of several norm-referenced tests available to homeschooled students, along with information about each test and the testing report parents will receive.

Don’t forget to read the other articles in this series! 

Assessments & Record Keeping
— Introduction to Standardized Testing
Choosing a Standardized Test
Creating a Homeschool Portfolio
Homeschool Record Keeping

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