Note: This series of articles on testing was planned before we learned of President Bush's plan to focus on increased testing on the national level as a measure of public school performance. This article points out some of the flaws of a test-based system. We think that now is the time for public dialogue to occur and perhaps these articles will contribute in some small way to the current debate. Make your opinion known! Our children's future will be greatly affected by the ways in which we assess their performance. Testing is just one way to measure performance, as the following article indicates.

There are a growing number of parents (and educators) who do not believe testing is a valid measure of learning. Many are not willing to have their children tested at all. There are good reasons for concern. Standardized testing has several inherent weaknesses. The fact that almost all standardized exams are multiple-choice means they are limited to showing whether a student can pick the best answer. They cannot tell whether students have the ability to come up with the answer on their own. Standardized tests are also limited to testing how well a student knows a certain curriculum. Many home school students use vastly different curricula than do public schools, so these tests are not an accurate representation of their learning. The fact that home-school percentile scores are on average much higher than the norm is a testament to the fact that home school students quickly master the basics that comprise the total of public curriculum. A related problem is that while national achievement may actually be worsening, percentile scores may remain high, showing the tests are subjective in content and in scoring.

And finally, when standardized tests are used, the results are often falsified by the fact that teachers (and even home school parents) "teach to the test." In other words, they specifically focus on material known to be on the test, and allow students to "cram" for them at the last minute. Material "learned" in this manner is poorly retained and applied. Therefore, a student who tests very well, may actually have very little working knowledge of the subject.

In actuality, current standardized testing procedures and norms really favor home schools. The limited content and norm referencing make home schoolers look just fine. We are not trying to say that home schoolers are deficient, rather, that because of the limitations of the tests, they are often easier for the home schooled. This is true because most home schools follow guidelines for subject matter used in traditional schools. Since the tutorial and discovery methods of learning are more efficient than classroom teaching, and home school students tend to be more self-confident testers (on average), they score higher on the tests. Research indicates that scores for those who have been home schooling longer (as opposed to those who have been in school, but are now home schooling) are higher. [See "Home Schooling Works, Pass it On!" an independent study by Lawrence M. Rudner, PhD., Director of the ERIC Clearinghouse on Assessment and Evaluation, published by and available from HSLDA, PO Box 3000, Purcellville, VA 20134.]

For this reason, most home-school parents find testing to be a lesser of evils in proving the competency of their home school program. Some states allow no option but to test for those who are following home school law. However, it is possible in many situations to use alternative assessments in place of testing. Keeping a narrative account of the student's progress is one option. Another is to keep a portfolio of the student's work. Ultimately, the student's ability to prosper in society and make a gainful living will prove the ultimate test of your curriculum.

Special testing for special needs

Some achievement tests are available to home-school parents that provide some help to those who may have slight learning disabilities (check with test suppliers). Others have special forms or administration techniques that may accommodate a special need. College Board exams are also available in formats that limit discrimination due to a handicap. If you have a special needs child, you will want to contact test distributors for more information on their provisions for you.

If you want help with diagnosing a learning disability or accommodating a handicap, the best place to find help is with a private practice physician or psychologist. Most special needs testing is performed by a licensed psychologist. Your school district may provide testing and services free of charge (except to the taxpayer), and you may want to take advantage of this. Beware, though, that many of these "free services" come with strings attached. In many states, using public services means giving the state authority to direct the student's education. We suggest that you contact the National Challenged Homeschoolers Associated Network (NATHHAN), P.O. Box 39, Porthill, ID 83853
(208) 267-6246, e-mail: NATHANEWS@AOL.COM for information on homeschooling a challenged child. Many states have separate home school organizations for families with challenged children. Check with your state home-school organization or NATHHAN for information.

One more resource is The Essential Learning Institute. Testing for learning disabilities at home by parents, computer-based sensory integration therapy (SIT), academic evaluation and placement, and individually prescribed curricula are available ( http://rsts.net/home/index2.html, 334 Second Street, Catasauqua, PA, 18032, e-mail: eli@fast.net, (800) 285-9089).

Did you miss the beginning of David and Laurie's series on testing? Read Testing, Testing 1, 2, 3.