29 Jan 2014

Note: This online version of this article has been edited to update some information about the Stanford Achievement Test.

Our Philosophy on Testing

Achievement testing is the educational topic most likely to incite questions and concerns among homeschoolers. Homeschool parents have questions about the nature of achievement testing and why some states require testing for homeschoolers. Many parents also become concerned that their children pass their grade at the end of the year. Given these concerns and questions, it is no wonder that some parents become quite contentious altogether about the topic!

As test administrators, we meet with many families who are anxious about testing. It’s natural, really. How often does the idea of testing have a positive connotation? When was the last time you thought of a medical test as something to eagerly anticipate? Even in the spiritual realm, few of us look forward to going through testing. We know that something is being measured, and we fear that we will miss a mark that somebody has set for us.

As homeschooling parents, we often feel as if we are being tested as well as our child. Somehow the idea settles upon us that test results will validate our homeschool, and the anxiety levels begin to rise. Our children can easily catch this anxiety from us, even without a single word to them. We, your authors, are homeschooling mothers, too, and we get it—believe me, we get it! Let us encourage you—no test validates how successful your homeschool year has been. No achievement test measures the things that truly matter in life—how faithful your child is, how she has grown in her spiritual life, whether his heart is one of service to his family and his neighbors, whether she learned to do her chores cheerfully. The academic arena is important, but it is not the most important. Don’t lose sight of the bigger picture as testing season approaches. Relax a bit, and your children will, too.

The test is simply a tool; it is not your judge! The information you receive in results is yours alone. Use the results as a tool to shore up the weaker areas that may be revealed and to challenge your students more deeply in areas of higher ability—or even (gasp!) let them coast for the next year in those strong areas. As we discuss some of the nuts and bolts of testing that can help you learn to use this tool in your homeschooling toolbox, keep the larger picture in mind.

Types of Tests

North Carolina law requires all homeschool students to take an achievement test each year without exception. Parents may choose from any number of nationally normed achievement tests. What are nationally normed achievement tests?

In the world of education there are three kinds of assessments—aptitude, criterion referenced and norm-referenced.

Aptitude tests measure a student’s innate skills or aptitude for a particular subject, job, etc. The military offers an aptitude test for service applicants. The SAT is an aptitude test that predicts how well a student will do academically in college. (Though that claim is in question today, the SAT does sort students by academic aptitude.) Some companies and organizations offer career aptitude tests that help students decide what career options fit their personal traits.

Criterion referenced tests measure student achievement on a particular set of material. The tests I used to develop and give to my chemistry classes were criterion referenced. I wanted to see how much they absorbed and understood of the specific material I taught them. Some states (like NC public schools) have end of course or end-of-grade tests which measure student success on the particular material taught. These school system tests are not required of homeschoolers because the tests were developed for public school curriculum.

Norm referenced tests are generally described as nationally normed and standardized. This means the tests were developed to measure achievement levels in a general sense. The method used to develop these tests involves designing questions on general material, testing the questions in a national pool, then developing normative data on the test from a large and diverse sample of students in each grade level. Choosing a large and diverse sample test creates a profile of the average student in a grade level. Of course, no such average student really exists, but the average scores do allow us to compare our particular student to expected levels of achievement in each grade level.

The standardized label refers to the requirement that these tests be given in a specified manner that levels the testing field for all students taking test.

The Nationally Normed Standardized Achievement Test

It is the nationally-normed, standardized achievement test that NC homeschool students are required to take each year. There are specific tests in this category. Some of the most popular for homeschools are: IOWA, also called the ITBS (Iowa Test of Basic Skills), CAT (California Achievement Test), TerraNova (newest version of the CAT), Stanford (most often used by private and Christian schools), Woodcock-Johnson Achievement Test (W-J) and Brigance Comprehensive Inventory of Basic Skills II (Brigance CIBS).

The IOWA, CAT/TerraNova, ITBS and Stanford tests were originally developed for classroom administration. All of these are probably familiar to most people because they have been used in schools for decades, and you probably took them with your class when you were in school. All of these are multiple choice tests that have time restrictions One exception to the time restrictions is the Stanford which is no longer timed in either the paper or online form. The Stanford is a good option for students who typically work at a slower than average pace.

In today’s electronic age, many testing companies are going towards online administration.  Not only is the Stanford now given without time restrictions, but homeschoolers now have the option of administering this test on the computer in their own home.  The BASI is another computerized achievement test which is offered in testing centers at some locations.

The W-J is administered by a trained administrator who works with one student at a time. It is an accurate test without multiple choice questions that allows students to answer in a more natural way, either orally or in a natural form of writing.

The Brigance CIBS is a good choice for special needs students who work at lower than average levels of achievement. There are actually two levels of the Brigance, one for early childhood or low development and one for developmental levels between grades K and 9.

Our Thoughts on Selecting a Test

Choosing a test can be confusing for new homeschoolers. One huge consideration for most families is the cost of the annual test. Costs vary widely between types of tests and even among providers of similar tests. While there is more to consider than merely costs, economic reality is that families cannot disregard this factor.

Therefore, if you feel you know about where your children are working academically, and they don’t seem to be experiencing difficulties, by all means use the least expensive and easiest test to give! In most instances this will be a CAT, TerraNova (the Plus section needs to be added to cover spelling),  IOWA or the Stanford. These are the least expensive options overall and may sometimes be given to your own children.

Any parent may administer the CAT or TerraNova to their own children. Parents basically rent the test booklets from the provider, administer the test according to the directions, and then return the booklets and the “bubble chart” scoring sheets to the company. The vendor scores the sheets and returns a score report to the parent. Even though the CAT is the old version, it is still available by some test providers. Several companies offer the full version of the CAT which includes all the subject areas (and a few you might not have thought of, like research skills or library skills). There is a survey battery which includes only selected subtests in reading, writing and math. One company offers a 1970’s edition of the CAT at a very low cost. Parents who have used this version report that the directions and vocabulary are quite different and the subject matter includes material we don’t typically cover any more (i.e. how many card catalogs have your children used at the library recently?)

Most providers of any standardized test will carry the most recent version of the test because test publishers strictly control how the test is distributed, administered and scored. At this time, parents may administer the IOWA (ITBS), Terra Nova, CAT and Stanford (online or paper version). There may be some administration qualification requirements for different tests and the costs of these tests will vary by provider. The company providing the achievement test is the best source of specific information about these issues.

All of these tests have specific administration directions. You must read the script as you give the directions and you must carefully avoid helping your students. To ensure test security, you should not look at the test itself before you have your children take it.

If you have young children who are not reading, there are “non-reading” versions  of these tests.

The W-J is a test that works well for students who are well below, well above or right on grade level. It must be administered by someone trained to do so. Since you are hiring someone to privately do the testing, it is more expensive to use. One enormous benefit of this test is that a good administrator who is familiar with homeschooling and homeschool curricula can share valuable insights about your students’ learning styles, right/left brain dominance and relate those to curriculum choices. A good W-J test administrator can also recognize signs of learning issues that many parents are not aware of. We see parents who are sure that their child is lazy, when in reality the child is working as hard as he can and is simply unable to do the task, such as remembering the short vowel sounds even after significant time invested in doing so. Once such an issue is recognized, parents can help the child work differently to overcome the challenge. The availability of the W-J varies and depends on there being a trained administrator in your area. The W-J is a good test option for students with mild to moderate academic or cognitive disabilities.

If your child has learning challenges it is possible to administer any achievement test by making accommodations for your child. Commonly accepted accommodations are extended time on subtests and having a scribe to record answers for a student with severe motor control issues. Typically, to be legitimate, a specific diagnosis is required to justify accommodations, and they must be carefully noted on the scores that become part of the permanent record.

The Brigance CIBS is designed for students with severe cognitive disabilities. The advantage of the Brigance CIBS is that older students working at low academic levels are better able to demonstrate their growth from year to year on this particular test instrument. This would be a very good option for students who are older than seven and yet still working at a grade level several years younger than their age would indicate. Some test providers offer the Brigance CIBS to their clients for rent or including administration.

High School students may take any of these achievement tests to meet the NC homeschool testing requirement. However, a good option for these older students is to take the ACT test (act.org) that is used for college entrance requirements. This test meets the requirements to satisfy the homeschool testing requirement. This test is administered by the publisher at certain times and locations throughout the year. Students sign up online. The scores are returned to the parent and may also be reported to selected colleges.

The SAT (www.collegeboard.com) is another college entrance test. It is an aptitude test and not an achievement test. The SAT does not satisfy the testing requirements for homeschoolers. The SAT subject tests are achievement tests for specific subjects. The literature and math subjects of the SAT subject tests will satisfy the requirements, but is certainly not the simplest or cheapest way to go. Information about these tests is available on the website above.

Providers for the standard achievement tests are listed at the NCHE website and on the DNPE website.

What is the purpose of an achievement test? Why should my students take one? The original purpose for achievement tests was to evaluate the effectiveness of school educational programs. These tests can still be useful for helping you, as a homeschool parent, evaluate the effectiveness of your curriculum. These tests also establish a gauge to measure your student’s progress from year to year. Most of the time homeschool parents have a sense of how their students are doing, but an achievement test can confirm your personal evaluation and also identify strengths and weaknesses.

The most important thing to remember is that these tests are not pass or fail endeavors. Any achievement test is only a snap-shot of your student’s achievement level. You should always compare test results with daily observations. We do not recommend using the test results as the benchmark for moving on to the next grade level. Use the test results to help guide your homeschool plans; do not let the current mania over test results destroy your joy in homeschooling or distract you from the larger goal you have established for your children.

As you make your best choice for this year for your family, God will give you wisdom about which to choose as you seek His guidance. If you don’t like the one you try this year, you have the freedom to make a different choice next year. Take the information, study it, pray over it, and move forward. Then take a break and have some fun with your kids!

Marji McIlvaine and husband, Rick, homeschooled for 26 years in 4 states and are now officially retired as homeschool parents. All 6 of their children have graduated from their homeschool, half are college graduates or students or working. Marji’s heart is to encourage other parents in the homeschool journey. She served on the board of Henderson County Homeschool Association for 20 years, administers the Woodcock-Johnson test in WNC, and teaches homeschoolers online and in-person with Master’s Mark Academics, Luma Learn, BBC tutorials and Classical Scholars Tutorials. Marji also tutors students with reading difficulties. She has a passion for foreign languages, science, writing, history and, oh, the whole of God’s incredible creation, and for sharing the joy in those subjects with her own children and others in our homeschooling community.

Diane Allen began her educator journey as a classroom science teacher. After transitioning to a stay-at-home mom, she homeschooled her 3 children to graduation over a span of 21 years while also serving the homeschool community through co-ops, being a testing provider and an online teacher. She was blessed with the opportunity to serve as the NC DNPE director from 2016-2018 and currently works with a University Model School as director of program support. She and her husband love small town living and building relationships with their 4 grandchildren.