The end of the semester brings on not only feelings of accomplishment and perhaps some relief and anticipation of a break, but also reflection. Quite often, this is also the time “How do I know if my student is learning enough?” comes to the minds of both new and veteran homeschooling parents.
As your student’s primary teacher, you should have a decent idea of your student’s learning progress. Testing your student regularly isn’t something that is necessary nor required of homeschoolers in Michigan. However, if you, or perhaps a spouse, is a little unsure or are just a person who likes quantifiable data, standardized testing can provide some useful information.
There are a few considerations if you decide to utilize standardized testing. Any testing results are just a snippet of that day. A student having an off day could impact testing accuracy. Results can also be influenced by other factors, including teaching to the test, varying scope and sequence of curricula, experience in test-taking, and time restrictions. Lastly, while assessments can be a useful tool, they do not measure all growth areas of your child while homeschooling.
That said, I found standardized testing worthwhile when I was homeschooling my kids. I tried to test annually, starting around 3rd grade. I found that the results usually were not that surprising, though sometimes gave a clearer picture of strengths and weaknesses. It helped me to understand what was working, and what was not, with our curricula choices. For my student with learning differences, it was a first indicator that there might be something underlying to be addressed. Testing was a tool that gave me both reassurance and direction.
Standardized Testing Options
If you are considering testing your student, there are many options from which to choose:
Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS) Available K-12th. Can be administered by a parent who holds a Bachelor’s degree. Areas tested include: language, math, science, and social studies.
Stanford 10 Available K-12. Can be administered by a parent who holds a Bachelor’s degree. Areas tested include: language, math, science, and social studies.
- An online version administered by a testing service is available.
TerraNova 2 Available K-12. No Bachelor’s degree required to administer. Areas tested include: language, math, science, and social studies.
California Achievement Test (CAT) Available 4th-12th. No Bachelor’s degree required. Areas tested include: vocabulary, comprehension, language mechanics, language expression, math computation, math application.
PASS Test Available for grades 3-8. No Bachelor’s degree required.
- Uses a pre-test and is normed by level rather than grade, making it a good choice for advanced students)
- Provides results normed by both homeschoolers and traditional students
- Not as recognized outside of homeschooling circles
NWEA/Map Growth Available for grades K-12. Areas tested include: mathematics, reading, language usage, and science.
- Administered online through a testing service
- Adjusts to student’s performance as they take the test, making it a good choice for advanced students
DORA Reading Appropriate for K-adult. Administered online
- Reading only. Tests nine phonemic awareness skill areas
- May not be useful for typical readers beyond 3rd or 4th grade reading level
NUMATS Talent Search Available for grades 3-8. Administered at testing centers.
- Out-of-level testing appropriate for gifted and talented students only
- Review eligibility in link above
- May be stressful for even gifted students because of advanced content
- Costs more than other tests
- May currently be limited because of COVID
Understanding the Results
Regardless of which test you use, the results are not useful if you do not know how to interpret them. Two key areas to review are Percentile Ranking and Grade Equivalency.
Percentile Ranking: This score is not the percent answered correctly on the test. Instead, it tells you how your student did compared to other students who took the same level test. A percentile ranking of 88% means your child did better or the same as 88% of the students taking the test. In this example, 12% did better. A percentile of 50% is considered average.
Grade Equivalency: This is where there is the most confusion. Many times I have overheard parents say, “Our annual testing shows that little Susie is working three grades ahead!” This is usually not the case. In most assessments, the number in the grade equivalent column does not tell you what grade level your child is working. Most assessments are grade level tests with material that covers one grade. The only thing results can tell you is how much your child knows in that particular grade level.
So, what exactly is that number in the grade equivalent column? To best explain, I will use a numerical example. Say little Susie takes a 3rd grade CAT test and has a grade equivalency of 6.5 in the Reading Comprehension subtest. What this does not mean is Susie is comprehending at a mid-6th grade level. What it does mean is Susie answered just as many questions correctly as a 6th grader taking the 3rd grade test would. Yes, she knows her third grade material, but knowing how far above is impossible to extrapolate out of the results.
Parents like to look at those grade equivalent scores, but the percentile scores are really more useful. Look closer at subjects that have very high or very low percentile scores to understand your child’s strength and weakness areas.
Other Free Options
There are free and unofficial testing options if you are on a budget.
- Many homeschool programs have placement tests. While they are geared toward that particular curriculum and vary in content, they are a quick and easy way to get an idea of what your student knows.
- Another option is to look for released tests from various states, such as Texas Education Agency’s released STAAR assessments.
- If you have a rising or early high school student, having them take an ACT or SAT practice test at home is a good gauge as well. Most libraries will have test prep books available. I recommend the official prep books released by ACT or College Board since they contain actual retired tests. You can also find practice SAT and ACT tests online.
Things to Remember
If you do opt to utilize some sort of testing, remember that homeschooling is not a comparison game. It is hard not to look at how our kids are doing compared to others, but it is not fair to your student. While testing can be a useful tool to help you understand strengths and weaknesses, it does not necessarily show all there is to see. Rather than focus on numbers, the question of how our children are doing is answered best by looking at the bigger picture. How is my child doing compared not to others, but to themselves? Are they growing, learning, and improving?
Numerical data is helpful to give direction on how to direct your student academically, but does not define your child. Using standardized testing hardly puts a dent in the answer to “Is my student learning enough?” Math facts and vocabulary contribute far less to the end result of a happy, healthy, and responsible adult than character and social-emotional learning. We all know brilliant people who just aren’t that great at being human. Are your students learning how to learn and problem solve? Will they be able to carry on healthy and caring relationships? Do others consider them reliable and trustworthy?
Successful homeschooling involves more than solid numbers on a standardized test. While academics are important, as a homeschooling parent, the end result is far more important than any current stats.