In some states, homeschooling students must take standardized tests at some point in their education. But even where they are not required, many parents choose to have their children take standardized tests.
As testing takes up more time and resources in the public schools, the question of whether or not to test -- and how to make the best use of them if they are used -- is one that homeschoolers should consider as well. If your state lets homeschooling parents decide how, when, and whether to test, here are some things to think about.
The Way Tests are Being Used in School and College is Changing
States around the country are stepping up standardized testing as part of the move towards a Common Core curriculum. Many parents and educators feel that the tests are taking away the ability of classroom teachers to use their own judgment and experience when deciding what to teach and when.
Parents have also begun to speak out in concern about the effect that long, grueling days of testing is having on students as young as six and seven. Pressured by teachers and administrators to do well, kids are showing signs of stress at school and at home, and a movement to opt out of testing is growing in states around the country.
In the upper grades, high stakes testing is holding otherwise competent learners back and driving some right out of the public school system.
Meanwhile, in college, the use of tests and how they are given is changing. For students who are applying, more and more colleges are making tests like the SAT and ACT optional. Once enrolled, many colleges allow students to take some tests online, outside of class. This lets them choose the time and place to complete the test, and to use open book resources.
More and more, the use of tests that don't fit real-world models of working and using information is being questioned. And the time and money spent on preparing and administering them is being looked at as well.
Pros and Cons
For homeschoolers and traditionally-schooled students alike, standardized tests can have positive and negative aspects:
- Standardized tests help homeschoolers measure their children's test-taking ability compared to students in school.
- They give some indication of subject matter learned.
- Certain tests are needed in some states to receive a high school diploma.
- Tests may be needed or helpful when applying to many programs for gifted students, colleges, and scholarships.
- Preparing for and taking tests help develop skills needed in careers where they are used for certification or advancement, such as civil service, medicine and law.
Tests are limited in their ability to measure subject mastery.
- Scores can change based on test-taking skills, preparation, and testing conditions.
- Habits acquired through test-taking practice can hurt skills in other areas, such as essay writing.
- Time spent preparing for tests takes away from time for more meaningful learning.
- Tests cause extreme stress in many students.
- Test scores can mask actual weaknesses and strengths.
- High stakes testing can lead to a culture of cheating among students or school officials.
Ways to Make Testing Easier
In my state of New York, where homeschoolers are required to take standardized tests in certain years, parents I know use several strategies to minimize the negative effects on their kids. Here are a few of them:
Treat the test as a puzzle. Standardized tests are really a form of game or puzzle. Understanding the mechanics behind their creation can help kids figure out the best strategies to use to beat them. For instance, tell them to watch out for wrong answers designed to trick them. And help them to deduce which answer the test-writer is looking for -- even if more than one answer could arguably be correct.
Teach test-taking skills. Let them practice filling in bubbles on an answer sheet. Make sure they understand "test speak" conventions such as "all of the above."
Look the test over before you give it. Make sure your kids have a nodding acquaintance with the bulk of the material on the test. One outdated test still used by a homeschool testing company asks children to decipher information from a library card catalog -- something most children have never seen.
Pretest if possible. Some test companies let you adjust the level of the test, depending on how the child does on a pretest. This helps avoid giving a child a test with information they are not yet ready for.
Explain why you're giving the test. If the score on the test has no real impact on your children's education, lessen their anxiety by explaining that it is simply a required process they need to go through to continue on with their regular learning.
Give the test at home. Testing in a gymnasium full of students is stressful even for kids in their own school. For homeschoolers in an unfamiliar environment or unused to working surrounded by a crowd, taking the test at home can avoid some of that discomfort.
Choose an untimed test. Many kids who otherwise know the material freeze up when the clock is ticking.
- Keep the environment as worry-free as possible. I know parents who let their children take tests with snacks on the table. Many break up testing over several days, or give kids a chance to get up and move around between test sections. Staying relaxed can help your kids get through the testing process as painlessly as possible.