Testing your views of testing

When parents start homeschooling, one aspect of the modern educational structure that they usually consider is testing.  Often, the parents’ viewpoint is that testing is a necessary activity.  I assume this is based on their own educational experiences, both as schoolchildren, and later as graduates of service schools.  Test scores validate quality, or that is the theory.

Testing itself is a tool used by bureaucracies that serve large numbers of clients.  To my mind the schools are in place to serve the children (their clients), not the children to serve the schools, so any tests should be used to check the quality of instruction given to children.  Testing, using various standardized methods, is how our educational system tracks the progress of these large numbers of individuals.

Homeschool parents may ask whether they need to track their children this way.  For the most part, homeschooling parents do not keep track of classroomsful of children.  Our children’s schooling is on a human scale, not an industrial scale.  Because of this, parents do not need standardized tests to gauge their school-age children’s progress any more than they need standardized tests to tell if their babies are progressing from crawling to toddling.  Yes, in some instances, testing is required when parents notice that their child’s development is either unusually slower or faster than is said to be ‘normal’ for their child’s age.  In this case, the process of pinpointing developmental delays or beansprout-fast leaps, with the intent to provide some kind of ‘fix,’ is helped by diagnostic testing.  Overall, though, homeschooling parents have enough experience of ‘tracking’ to see whether their child’s learning is progressing or not.

For homeschooling parents, testing is an option, not a requirement, although some homeschooling families have no choice concerning periodic standardized testing that may be required by law depending on which state is currently ‘home.’ Any state in the country could be ‘home’ to military personnel because not only are military bases scattered around the country, but recruiting stations and ROTC assignments are in every state, as are Reserve or National Guard units.

Some parents feel that testing is a valid measurement of their children’s educational accumulation, while others are content with conversation and observation. Parents who value testing may want to know in which areas their children score well or poorly.  Non-testing parents may feel that the reduced pressure of an untested childhood is enough payment for not micromanaging.  Parents are free to choose whichever style suits the family best unless state law dictates otherwise.

One area of exception for parents who do not feel the need to test their children is if the almost-graduated or graduated children want to go to college. An SAT or ACT score may be required for admission to a college.  Another reason for using either the SAT or ACT tests could be if the kids just want to ‘know how I did.’


Kinds of tests

One aspect of testing that parents may want to consider is how developers intend test-givers to use the test results.  Tests that rank the group of people taking them are called ‘norm-referenced.’  Tests that measure how well a person can answer questions about something in particular are called ‘criterion-based.’ Tests that report the child’s score as a ‘percentile’ or ‘stanine’ are the ‘norm-referenced’ tests.14, 15

Norm-referenced test developers purposely include questions considered too hard for the average person in the group to answer correctly.  This ‘feature’ is built in to the test to make ranking the test-takers easier. Testing companies regularly change the questions on norm-referenced tests because once the questions become well known within the tested community more children correctly answer the ‘hard’ ones and that ruins the test’s bell curve.  Norm-referenced tests include the CTBS (which includes Terra Nova), the California and Iowa tests, IQ tests, ‘cognitive ability’ and ‘school readiness’ tests.

Criterion-based tests are the kind we have all taken to check our knowledge of spelling words, arithmetic problems, or state capitals.  This kind of test tells the tester if the testee knows the answers to the test questions that day.   Children can also demonstrate this kind of knowledge by playing games such as Scrabble, Yahtzee or Trivial Pursuit, or by using flash cards, filling in crossword puzzles or completing chapter quizzes in textbooks (if the questions are well written).


Norm-referenced tests

In the case of a norm-referenced test, developers take a sample of all the students who have already taken the test; this is the ‘norming group.’  Test grading charts spell out where each score lies compared with the score spread of the children in the ‘norming group.’  The scores rank from the 1st percentile to the 99th.  Scores above 50% are ‘above [the] average,’ and those 49% and lower are ‘below [the] average.’  Norm-referenced standardized testing shows the strengths or weaknesses of the people tested in relation to the sample group of people.

Test developers write the questions to ‘separate the wheat from the chaff.’  The point of the test is to rank test takers and compare group results, not to see who knows what.  When the tests are used as they are intended, there can be no time when all the test takers are ‘above average.’ It would be as if all the test takers were lined up by height from tallest to shortest. Half would be above the ‘average height’ and half would be below the ‘average height.’  Even if the group improves as a whole, say from better nutrition, there will still be a tallest person and a shortest person.  If everyone’s growth pushes the people in the compared group closer in height to each other (they’re all doing well on the ‘test’), then the measurement cut-offs will just become finer so that everyone is still ranked from tallest to shortest.  There is no way for everyone to be ‘above average’ in height because the average is midway between the tallest and shortest person.  The children in Lake Woebegone did not take normed tests.16

The dilemma for homeschooling parents considering standardized testing as a reference is that if a homeschooled child’s learning doesn’t reflect what is tested on a norm-referenced test, then the results will only show what the child knows compared to children taught the standardized curriculum, not whether the homeschooled child is ‘smart’ or ‘not.’ Norm-referenced tests would only show whether the tested child has learned the same information as everyone else, and has the same cultural references.


Grading on the curve

Norm-referenced ranking is also what your teacher called ‘grading on the curve.’ That ‘curve’ was a bell-curve of the distribution of scores.  The teacher awards the person with the highest score an A, and delivers an F to the person with the lowest score, regardless of the actual score.  If, on a test of 100 questions given to 10 people, the range of final scores were between 90 and 100 correct answers out of the 100 questions, the person with 90 correct answers would be at the bottom of the heap and would get the F.  For ranking-purposes it does not matter if 90 would normally be an A, the person with 90 correct answers did the worst in comparison to the other test-takers.  On the other hand, if the final answers ranged from 1 correct answer to 10 correct answers out of the 100 questions, the person with the 10 correct answers would be top dog and reap that A.

Norm-referenced tests are graded on the curve.


Criterion-referenced tests

Criterion-referenced tests are ones on which everyone can get 100%. If everyone in the classroom knows the spelling words, everyone gets an A and we all have a pizza party because the teacher promised. This is our mental model of what tests are ‘supposed’ to be.

Criterion-referenced testing shows the strength or weakness of the people tested against the information contained on the test, not against each other.


Where to get tests

If you live in a state that does not require standardized testing, but you want a pencil and paper demonstration of how well your child has learned ‘the material’  (instead of, perhaps, a portfolio), you would have to use a test fashioned from that ‘material.’ Chapter quizzes in a textbook could serve that function (again, if they are written well), or you can read the material yourself and make your own test.

If you want to use a standardized test, even if the state where you are stationed does not require one, you can buy the tests from providers around the country.18


No Child Left Behind

The “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) legislation is meant to cause schools to collect children’s test scores so that each school can be ranked.  The goal is to determine if a school has successfully taught the children attending it.  If children test well, the school has made “adequate yearly progress.”

NCLB rules apply only to schools that receive federal money.  The NCLB legislation does not apply to families in which the children are homeschooled.

Protections for Private and Home Schools

NCLB has provisions that contain important protections for private and home schools, including that nothing in the law shall be construed to: (a) affect any private school that does not receive funds or services under NCLB; (b) affect a home school; (c) permit, allow, encourage, or authorize any Federal control over any aspect of a private, religious, or home school; or (d) require any SEA or LEA to mandate, direct, or control the curriculum of a private or home school.  19




14. FairTest, “Norm-Referenced Achievement Tests,” 342 Broadway Cambridge, MA 02139 http://www.fairtest.org/facts/nratests.html

15. Educational Resources Information Center (ERIC), Norm- and Criterion- Referenced Testing, ERIC Digests ED410316, December 1996 http://www.ericfacility.net/databases/ERIC_Digests/ed410316.html

16.  John Jacob Cannell biography, “‘Lake Woebegone’ and Fraudulent Testing” http://www.vitamindcouncil.org/cannellBiography.shtml

17. FairTest, “Criterion- and Standards- Referenced Tests,” 342 Broadway Cambridge, MA 02139 http://www.fairtest.org/facts/csrtests.html

18.  A to Z Home’s Cool, Testing Services http://homeschooling.gomilpitas.com/articles/010499b.htm

19.  Choices for Parents, Nonpublic Education: A Vital Part of U.S. K-12 Education June 2008 http://www.ed.gov/nclb/choice/schools/onpefacts.html


Copyright 2006, 2008 Valerie Bonham Moon

This work may be copied and freely distributed as long as the copyright and this notice are included.

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