By Trudy Abel
“Is Testing Really Necessary?” This, of course, is a broad question and must be broken into parts. Testing is necessary, but serves limited and specific purposes. Here are some of the purposes of testing:
a. To determine achievement level for curriculum selection
b. To chart achievement gains during and after instruction
c. To isolate a learning disability in order to provide remediation
d. To discover potential in order to provide sufficient challenge
e. For placement in various programs, schools or colleges
Please note, testing and evaluation are not synonymous. Evaluation is a much broader term than is testing, which plays only a small part of the evaluation process. Evaluation includes two types: formative and summative.
“Formative” evaluation takes place throughout the teaching process and determines whether learning is indeed taking place. End of the chapter tests, exams, projects, and oral and written narration are common forms of formative evaluation. Less recognized or implemented are mid-year achievement tests, structured observations, and subject level tests. Each of these has its place in homeschooling but is very dependent on the individual need of the student and the structure of the curriculum used.
“Summative” evaluation is the end of the unit, curriculum or school year evaluation. These evaluations come in the form of achievement tests and curriculum based assessments. Most curricula come with built-in end of the unit, semester, and year tests. Some publishers or schools provide tests to determine achievement before placing the student in the next grade level.
Now, who needs what and when? All students need formative and summative evaluations to know if they are learning and progressing as they should. The kind of formative evaluation parents choose is driven by their homeschooling approach and the curriculum they chose to implement. For example, those using the Charlotte Mason approach encourage narration to determine reading comprehension (child tells/writes what he remembers and understands from a book he read). On the other end of the spectrum, a child learning through a traditional textbook approach will complete an objective (multiple choice, fill in the blank, short answer) test to determine reading comprehension of the same book. As you can see, approach or method of teaching determines the type of formative evaluation; and, evaluation can occur with or without formal testing.
Formal standardized achievement testing has its place in the overall scope of education. The test data can be very useful in making decisions for the upcoming school year as well as for long term planning. There are two types of achievement tests, group (SAT, IOWA, CAT, etc.), or individual (WRAT, WIAT, etc.).
A “group achievement test” is never quite as accurate as is an individual test. When students take group tests they are not only tested on the amount of knowledge they’ve gained, but also on how quickly they can demonstrate that knowledge. Therefore, if a student is easily distracted, has a fine motor difficulty (trouble holding a pencil or difficulty writing), is a slow reader, or has a learning disability, he/she will not typically perform well on timed tests. When tests are given individually, a more accurate estimation of the student’s knowledge can be ascertained. However, periodic group-testing is a good learning experience and I recommend it for every homeschooled child. You can, at the very least, gain an approximation of your child’s grade level in subject areas, and train him/her in taking “color in the circle” tests.
An “individual achievement test” has greater potential for instruction planning. The Wechsler Individual Achievement Test (WIAT) provides a wealth of information, but it is necessary to ensure that the examiner provides a thorough assessment report. Like others, this test offers numerical scores, but also provides information as to specific math, reading and writing skills.
Another reason I highly recommend achievement testing for homeschooled children is that the parents need accountability to themselves and their Creator. Welcome the opportunity to discover your child’s strengths and weaknesses and to ascertain needs that should be addressed or pieces that are missing in the student’s academic training. For example, one parent discovered after her son took the Stanford group achievement test, that he was weak in study skills. After some reflection, she realized that the curriculum she used never required that her son do much research requiring study skills. She was able to use this information to improve his education by immediately incorporating study skills. Another mom found that her daughter still needed a structured spelling program although the curriculum did not provide this for her grade level. Some parents have been surprised to find their children’s math programs were well below their potential, and were able to accelerate or grade skip their children in math. Others have found that a child’s lack of concentration in one particular subject was reflected in test scores. What a blessing it is to know where your child is academically and to be able to develop goals for their future studies.
I’ll share some guidelines if you’ll remember they are not set in stone. These are simply guidelines from a homeschooling parent, former schoolteacher and college instructor. In other words, I’ve been around the testing arena enough to have obtained a little wisdom on the subject.
A. Formal testing is not necessary for the average child under the age of eight. Numerous child development studies have proven that all primary age children learn better through a kinesthetic, or active, learning approach. Portfolios, structured observations and checklists such as Skills Evaluation by Weaver are effective in determining academic progress. There are, however, exceptions to every rule. If you think your child is not developing as are others, whether that be slower or faster, you may need to retain the services of a psychologist or psychometrist for formal testing. A child with an IQ of 160 needs an exceptionally challenging environment. Therefore, parents would do well to know early on what they are dealing with. The same applies to a parent who thinks his child is developing slower than the typical child develops in gross motor, language and social skills. If the child has a learning disability, the sooner you know, the better.
B. Every child over eight or nine should take a standardized achievement test of some sort every other year, whether it’s a group or an individual test. I recommend taking a standardized test a bare minimum of once every two to three years. Be sure to check your state’s testing requirements for homeschoolers, as some require state testing.
C. Children who are accelerated in their studies should take an achievement test every year to assure the absence of learning gaps.
D. Children with learning disabilities should take an achievement test every year (sometimes twice a year). Data from the test will help to monitor progress, determine if the difficulty has been remediated, and will allow parents to adjust instructional programs, methods and materials accordingly.
E. Individual tests are always more accurate than group tests.
F. Grade level scores mean very little; stanines provide a better assessment of ability. A stanine score of 5 is average. (Think of this as a rating scale of 1-10.)
G. Students taking high school courses should begin taking the SAT or ACT instead of the previously mentioned achievement tests. These achievement tests are used by college admissions boards as one factor in determining college readiness. They can also be used to structure a high school program of study. You may request a copy of the exam after your child has taken it. Analyze the test and the scores to make curricular and instructional decisions. For example, when my son’s ACT score reflected a deficiency in geometry we decided he needed a specific geometry course, since he had not yet made it to Saxon’s Advanced Math. We were also able to determine that my older son needed more science courses after he received his scores. Kaplan has an excellent ACT/SAT study guide (with CD).
H. Realize that all tests have a margin of error. Several factors will affect tests scores, including rapport established with examiner, health of child, lack of sleep the night before, temperature of testing room, attention span, medication taken or not taken, and many other variables. In other words, don’t fall apart if the scores aren’t what you think they should have been. They are just test scores and tests are not infallible.
When seeking a licensed pyschometrist to test your child, you may want to contact HSLDA (www.hslda.org) for a list of homeschool friendly examiners across the country. Also, HEAV’s Counselors, Testers, and Tutors page contains a list of local professionals who provide a variety of services . Or, you could encourage someone with the qualifications to seek approval. The process of approval is not complex, and is well worth the effort.