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Getting ready for Achievement Testing??? What can we do to help our kids be prepared?
Susan Richman, 3/4/2010

Susan Richman is editor of Pennsylvania Homeschoolers and mother of four homeschool grads. She also does all the 3rd grade testing during our Fall Testing Service as well as our smaller Spring Testing Service for homeschoolers.


(7th grade portfolio cover page for our son Jesse-- who's now 32 and the father of four!)

So, is it time for achievement testing for your kids? Many families do achievement testing with their kids in the spring-- for many, it's part of a state law requirement. For instance, in PA homeschool kids need to take a nationally normed standardized test in 3rd, 5th, and 8th grades. In some states it's every year-- in some states it's an optional thing that many parents just like to do for their own information and sense of well-being. Regardless of why we are having our kids tested, most of us want  our kids to have a fair chance at doing their best. So let's think about how we can do this.

First, I think it's handy to realize what the variables are, so we can see what we might have some *control* over when thinking about standardized testing. One website I looked at years ago had the following list of key variables that all impact how a child does on a specific test, and I've found these categories very helpful:

  • Demographics
  • Physical environment for testing
  • Attitudes of teachers and students toward the testing program
  • Student's test taking skills
  • Alignment of the curriculum content with the test content
  • Quality of the instructional program

Now, this list was looking at kids in schools, but I think this can be a great start in thinking about how we can deal with testing effectively, too. We'll cover the first two in today's posting-- look back here every few days to see discussion of the rest.

Let's look at that first variable-- demographics. This is basically the idea that kids from more well-to-do and well-educated families tend to do better on any standardized test. Some strong critics of standardized testing will go so far as to say that these sorts of measures could be done away with entirely-- replaced by the simple question, "How much money does your family make each year, and how many years of college do your parents have?" They feel that's the only information standardized tests really give. There are lots of studies that corroborate this line of thinking-- and this is not something you have much control over before your child takes a standardized test in a month! My guess is that there may be less correlation between, say, family income and student test scores in homeschooling families, as homeschooling families are generally one-income families. Further, I've known so many wonderful homeschooling families with modest incomes and no advanced degrees, who had kids who were exceptionally bright and high-achieving, earning fine test scores. The key factor that over-rode the demographic one?? It's that last variable on the list-- quality of their homeschooling program (which we'll get to in my next posting...). Basically I think the key is being a family that takes a lot of initiative -- never letting modest finances keep you from developing a terrific program for your kids.

Now on to the 'physical environment for testing'.... Now there's something you have some control over! You could decide to have your kids tested for free at your local public school in many states, including PA-- but depending on your child, this might not be the best place. Oh, the lighting and temperature and desk height may be fine-- and those are important physical environment factors. But will going into a full classroom of unfamiliar kids and unfamiliar school routines, make your homeschooler feel a bit anxious? And who knows-- in a crowded classroom, the 'extra' kid thrown in for testing day may be put in a desk that's way off to the side and not the right size. The school bells going off may distract a homeschooler who wouldn't feel ruffled at all by a baby yelping or a dog romping through the room (or a baby romping and a dog yelping, for that matter...). The teacher may even be a bit irritated at having to integrate in a 'new kid' when high stakes testing is going on. and the teacher is feeling pretty anxious about how it will go. The teacher may forget to tell your child simple things like where the restrooms are, and how to ask permission to go there. Some kids, especially as they get older, take all these sorts of things in stride-- but for a younger student, I'd be very careful on deciding to use a public school setting for standardized testing.

So what other 'physical environment' options do you have? You could opt instead for testing with a group of homeschool kids. Many homeschool co-ops offer testing, many evaluators offer testing for groups in their area, or you could sign up for one of our three Spring Testing sites (two in Western PA-- March 9th and 10th, and one in the Greater Harrisburg area on April 29th). And you might want to ask about the physical set up too-- will lighting be adequate? Will it be a quiet atmosphere (ie, no toddlers racing through with trucks and trains!)? Will kids be seated at tables, and not holding their test on on a small 'lap desk' while sitting on a very soft sleep-inducing sofa (I heard of this happening!!)? When we do group testing days away from our farm, we use churches or synagogues with nice, brightly lit classrooms, and adequate seating so kids are not too close to one another.

And you might want to ask about 'dividers' so kids can't peek easily at their neighbor's work-- especially with young 3rd graders, this can be a real problem. They don't mean to 'cheat', but if a quick glance let's them see what the little boy right next to them put down, what do you expect? I always set up file folders as vertical dividers so that each student has more privacy-- and to remind them to keep their eyes on their own work. And I even share a little quick story about a time during the very first year we did group testing. We were in a church that had very small Sunday school rooms-- and I had about 20 kids. They were packed in much closer than I'd like-- and I didn't have the file folders, because I hadn't thought of the idea. During the test, I could see one little girl who was obviously confused over a question. She'd put down her best guess, but was just sort of looking up and around and scratching her head, like anyone does when they're not sure  of something. She happened to see the boy's test next to hers-- and he had a different answer. She looked back at her test, and then looked again at his. She quickly erased her answer, checked on his again, and very carefully filled in the answer that the little boy had. She looked relieved. Then I say to the new 3rd graders I'm working with, after a dramatic pause, "Now, guess what???" And they think for a second, a bit blankly, and then it dawns on a few, and the hands wave in the air. "The little girl had the right answer-- and she changed it to the wrong one!!!" Yep, that's what happened. You might want to tell your kids this little story, too.
Other things to consider about the physical location.... where will you, as the parent, be during testing? Some kids are just fine with mom going off shopping for 3 hours, and picking them up when the testing is done-- and others really want mom right in the room. Some test proctors may not allow parents in the room. I always welcome parents in the room when I do 3rd grade testing-- but I have some rules. Parents need to sit on the opposite side of the room from their child. I once had a helpful parent in the room when I had a very large group of kids-- she was helping me check to see that kids were on the right page, etc., and I appreciated this type of of assistance. But I began noticing that she kept literally hanging over one little girl, intently looking at the test. It didn't occur to me at first that this might be this woman's own child-- but that was what it was. This is obviously out of line. Parents in the testing room should just be a quiet comforting presence, someone who might smile or nod at the child occasionally, but otherwise be reading a book quietly. A parent in the room needs to exude calmness and confidence-- not overbearing anxiousness about what their child in answering on the test. 
And then there's one-on-one testing.... Some families will opt for this, often in PA along the lines of "I'll test your kid, if you test mine" (if both parents meet whatever test-giver qualifications may come from the test provider...). The idea is then your child can be right at home, in their familiar environment, where they feel really comfortable, and they'll be working with someone friendly that they know. I just have one caution here, and this comes from my own experiences the very first year of the PA homeschool law. I was doing an individual test for a very anxious and worried 3rd grader. And not only was the child worried, but the mom was an absolute basket case-- she opted to stay out in the family's truck as she just could'nt bear to be even in the house when her son was taking his first test ever in his life. So I was trying to be extra nice to this little boy-- I was smiling, I was warm and welcoming, I was affirming. In fact, I was too affirming, and too smiley. I realized this when the little fellow missed his first question on the test-- as I was sitting right across from him, and he was marking his answers right in the test booklet, this was very easy for me to notice. He immediately looked to my face-- and I suddenly realized that he was gauging how 'well' he was doing by my smiles. If I now looked a bit concerned, or even neutral, he'd take that as a 'sign' that he'd made a mistake, and probably would work to change his answer-- I was his 'barometer' for the test. 
Kind of reminded me of the real story of 'Clever Hans', the amazing horse who could count and even figure out square roots and more-- turned out the animal was just really tuned in to his trainer's unconscious body language when the horse got to the right number (here's a good link on this very interesting case:  http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/h2g2/A2390104 ... and I know our homeschooled kids often try to 'read' our body language to see if they are 'right or wrong', maybe more than 'school kids' do with their less involved teachers... this might be worth a whole posting!). Oops. So I smiled-- and learned a real lesson. Since then I try to be much less obviously 'following' a student's answers, and I'm very careful (I hope!) not to 'give away' whether I think a child has gotten a right or wrong answer. I've heard of one tester many years ago who always gave tests individually-- and she was always very obviously following how the child was doing. Parents shared that the tester would say things like, "Hmm, maybe you want to check that answer again??" (the astute kid then immediately know that 'choice C' was not the right answer.... ). The tester also ignored all time limits set for the tests, considering all homeschoolers to be in the 'learning disabled' category, since they didn't do this sort of thing all the time, like 'school kids' would. More on this in the upcoming discussion of test taking skills of the student. So just be discerning-- and don't set yourself up for a 'Clever Hans' type situation-- or one that doesn't follow the testing protocols at all.
Next Monday look for discussion of.... Attitudes of Teacher and Student toward the Testing Program.  And I hope you'll post your own questions or your own observations of how testing has gone for your kids in the comment section.  And looking forward to seeing some of you next week at testing-- or in late April near to Harrisburg! Still time to pre-register online!


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