Standardized Testing Hits Home
By Julie Onufrak
Joanna Lodin’s three sons like to pace up and down the room and read questions out loud when they take standardized tests. Laura Alderson prefers that her daughter Sara, 13, take the test before spring arrives and produces distractions outside the window. And if one of Laurie Spigel’s sons has a headache, she’ll let him take the test the following day instead.
These options are available only because the three women homeschool their children. In New York, the 30,000 homeschooled students statewide are required to take periodic standardized tests, the results of which are submitted to the local school district. Only eight states require standardized testing at certain points in a homeschooler’s education, according to the Home School Legal Defense Association. The organization classifies New York’s testing rules as among the most restrictive.
The responses to such regulations are as varied as the reasons and methodologies behind homeschooling itself — from parents who send their children into public schools for testing more often than is required, to parents who flat-out boycott the tests; in the middle are those who test their kids when necessary, but devote as little time and attention to the tests as possible.
Many parents recognize the state’s need to monitor whether their children are actually learning but wonder if there is a better way to assess progress without standardized testing. “I might choose testing as the number one thing wrong with the school system,” said Spigel, a mother of two and creator of www.HomeSchoolNYC.com, a Web site that provides resources for homeschooling families.
Spigel described her decision to homeschool her sons as “more to do with the result of a test-driven, overburdened system.” When her son Solomon was in third grade in public school, she remembers that he received 90 minutes of homework every night, at least half of which was test preparation. Though he was a good student, Solomon, now 17, said that he worried that he would fail the state test and not be promoted to the next grade. “I hated the test,” he said. “To put that much pressure on kids at such a young age [is unfair.]”
Alderson decided to homeschool partly to avoid testing when her daughter was young. Alderson and her husband moved to New York City when Sara was a toddler and soon realized that she would have to take an IQ test at age three to apply to private preschools. Alderson said she thought that was a little young, and she worried about throwing her daughter, who needed time to adjust to new situations and people, into a high-stakes testing situation.
New York’s homeschooled students are required to take a “commercially published norm-referenced achievement test” every other year in grades four through eight, and every year in high school, according to state homeschooling regulations. By comparison, federal law requires that public school students are tested in reading and math each year from third through eighth grade and at least once in high school, and in science three times over the course of a child’s schooling. For homeschoolers, the test, which compares students with their peers, must be chosen from a list of six options that include the official New York State Department of Education exams, or parents can request approval for another test. Tests can be taken at a public or private school, at home or in another location, as long as the Department of Education’s Central Office of Home Schooling approves.
Despite the extensive security measures that surround testing in the public schools, many homeschoolers take standardized tests at home with minimal supervision. Parents simply send away for the exams from the testing company, administer them within a set period of time, and then return them to the company to be scored. Spot checks by the district aren’t possible, given the number of homeschoolers involved and the fact that parents do not submit exact testing dates, officials said. There is slightly more security for the state tests, which can only be obtained the day before they are to be taken, according to Nancy Murray, a New York state education program assistant. But in general, “standardized tests aren’t secure exams like state tests are,” she said.
Test results must be submitted with the fourth quarterly report, due in late June. These reports evaluate whether the goals set forth in the parents’ yearly home instruction plans — in which they lay out the curriculum and materials they will use to fulfill the courses required by the state — have been achieved. Parents report the number of hours of instruction, a description of the material covered, and grades or a written narrative evaluating the child’s progress.
Most homeschooling parents administer the required standardized tests in March or April. In order to “pass,” students must have a composite score above the 33rd percentile of students nationally, or the score must reflect one academic year of growth compared to a test administered a year before. Parents whose children do not meet the standard, or who do not comply with the testing requirement at all, are placed on probation for up to two school years and may be subjected to home visits. Ultimately, they may be forced to give up homeschooling.
The reality is perhaps less harsh; parents say that the homeschooling office in New York City is overworked, with just three employees for more than 3,500 homeschooled children. Representatives from the office did not return phone calls or e-mails seeking comment.
Many parents said they have heard of someone who boycotted the test regulations, but few knew anyone firsthand. Lodin, a mother of three who lives in Yonkers, said she knows families who don’t have Social Security numbers, don’t want any government intervention in their lives and refuse to test their children to meet state requirements. She said she also knows parents who test their children regularly because they want their own benchmark, a score to show them their children are making progress.
June Shapiro, a mother of five, prefers for her children to take more standardized tests than required. Shapiro takes her children into public schools to take the tests. Her 13-year-old, who has autism, is taking nine standardized exams this year. A clinical psychologist, Shapiro said she feels that tests administered by parents at home are less likely to be accurate and more likely to come under scrutiny by the district. “The question is, is it valid?” she said. “It’s probably not something that could be questioned in a lot of cases, but it just doesn’t look good.”
She takes her children to be tested in public schools for other reasons. “I am not only getting the kids tested, but I am assessing their ability to adjust to the classroom conditions, including taking it with the actual children for their assigned grade,” she wrote in an e-mail.
Many parents, even those who do not value standardized tests as much as Shapiro, acknowledge that they can be useful as a way to measure, to some degree, what their children know and how they compare to others their age. And because there is some choice in which test to take, parents can select one that gives them the information they need and want. The Personalized Achievement Summary System is popular for grades four through eight. Developed for homeschoolers, it is not timed and is designed to be administered at home. Parents like the fact that results are broken down by skill and that scores are compared with children nationally, as well as among homeschooled children specifically.
One of the benefits of testing at home is that parents can get a sense of how their children do even before they send the test back for grading. “I can look over the test afterwards to see where strengths and weaknesses are,” Lodin said. “That’s useful to me.”
Spigel once noted that her son had missed a question about the Dewey Decimal System — something he had never learned because he did research at home on the computer — so she took him to the public library and taught him to use the card catalog. “Now I’m using it the way a test should be used: He learned from it, and he doesn’t feel like it’s a punitive thing,” she said. “In school, they can’t do that. Their hands are tied; their numbers are too massive.”
Testing is not just a way to assess knowledge; test-taking is a skill that children will likely need at some point in the future. Kids who want to attend college usually have to take the SAT or ACT, and graduate school admission requires tests as well. “That’s an important skill to have by itself,” Spigel said. “Let me teach my kids how to deal with that without it being an obstacle.”
Some parents take the opportunity to turn the tests into a life lesson: sometimes, you just have to do things you don’t want to do. Lodin said she tells her sons, “They’re a necessary evil. We’re going to get out of them whatever we can.” She does not join many parents who boycott the tests because they want to be left alone by the state. And if at some point her children want to go back to school, she wants it to be as easy as possible for them to make the transition.
Many students don’t seem to mind the testing that is required of homeschooled children. Lodin’s son Joe, 15, says that he likes taking tests once in a while, because he likes to challenge himself. In the last few years, he has been able to fulfill the testing requirement with the SAT, which he needs to take anyway in order to apply to colleges. “With the sheer amount of control I have over the classes I take and the subjects I pursue, having to take one or two standardized tests a year?” he said, “That’s fine with me, if I get this custom education.”
In the end, many parents care most about what their children think of testing. "If they had a real problem with it, I would be much more willing to take it on and challenge it," said Joanna Lodin. "Because it's no big deal for them to do it, it's no big deal for me."