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Testing Questions-- what if my child doesn't do well??? what then??
Susan Richman, 9/22/2010

Susan Richman is the longtime editor of Pennsylvania Homeschoolers, and the mom of four now-grown homeschoolers, and grandma of four. She's worked as an evaluator since the very first year of the PA homeschool law in 1988, working with a wide range of homeschooling families with all types of approaches to learning. She's been testing 3rd graders in small group situations since 1988, and has talked with countless parents about their child's reactions to testing. She also leads a very popular AP US History online course with homeschoolers across the nation, and is a member of the Board of Directors of PHAA, the PA Homeschoolers Accreditation Agency.

As our PA Homeschoolers Fall Testing Service is gearing up for mid-October through mid-November, I'm starting to get more questions from homeschool moms about what to expect, and how to prepare their children. One question came up today on what to do if a child scores poorly-- especially a child who may indeed be a bit behind typical grade level expectations. Will families have to be braced for 'trouble' from their school districts? Will they be in danger of not being allowed to continue homeschooling? What have other parents in this situation found in the many years of the current homeschool law? I'll aim to answer all these questions here-- and I'd love to hear comments from families facing this issue, sharing what you've experienced.

First, yes, some homeschooled children do not fare well on formal academic testing. I know, I know.... we've all seen the studies of how very *well* homeschool kids tend to do compared to students in public schools-- and our results from our large testing service also back up these general statistics. BUT that doesn't mean that all homeschool kids ace achievement tests. My previous articles on thinking about standardized testing (see our archive) talk about the range of reasons why a particular child might not do well on a particular test on a particular day. All that said, some kids just will *always* find it very challenging to take these tests-- and some kids are indeed working at a slower pace than the norm. Some may have some learning deficits or difficulties or challenges that make typical studies daunting, to say the least. Some may have true difficulty in learning to read, making these types of reading-dependent tests almost impossible.

So, what typically happens if a child scores in the 20th or even the 5th or the 1st percentile on one of these tests? Well, I've certainly evaluated a number of students who have fallen into that situation.... and I can happily report that *none* of these families faced any challenges about their home education program from their local school district. None have been told they couldn't continue homeschooling-- none have even been called in to show more work samples, and none were taken to due-process hearings over low test scores. I personally thank the breadth of the PA homeschool law for this-- in some states there are indeed specific 'cut scores' for homeschooling, but not in Pennsylvania. In some states, if a student doesn't score overall at a certainly level (often somewhere around the 45th percentile, which is VERY close to 'just average'), then the student is at best now on 'probation' for a year, until scores 'come up'. After all, the school district (or the state) has NO other way to gauge if education is taking place or not-- all they 'get' is this one score to summarize a whole year of learning. And so a low score on a key test is not just a 'red flag' that something might be amiss, but a major *stop light* to the whole endeavor, putting the family under close scrutiny, with real pressure to 'show results'-- and quickly.

But in PA the case is quite different-- here we have several requirements for end-of-year assessment, and testing is only intermittent (3rd, 5th, and 8th grades only). School districts also need to look at the private evaluator's report on how the student is doing, and at the actual portfolio of work. My experience with the families I've worked with is that it's always very clear to me through talking with the family and looking over the portfolio, that indeed the family is *aware* of problem areas for the student. They are gearing instruction and learning to a level where the child can feel some level of success-- and they often 'begin again at the beginning' if they can see that *even though* they've trotted through two full phonics programs, the child still isn't decoding smoothly, or reading common words with ease or fluency. My husband, who worked years ago as a reading specialist in our local school system, used to joke that the 'third phonics program was always the charm', no matter what it was-- some kids just really need several complete 'run throughs' of a phonics approach before it all 'catches' and they get it. So I can honestly report in my narrative evaluation that *even though* the student's progress is not yet 'showing up' on standardized testing, I can certainly see steady if very gradual progress over time, and that I feel the parents are very capable guides for the student. If the parents have shown special initiative to gain greater knowledge of their child's problem area, I note that-- if they've done lots of reading. consulted with experts, attended special seminars, done Internet research, talked with other parents dealing with this type of learner, this all helps build a picture of a competent parent handling a challenging situation. I also can report that the family put together a *comprehensive* portfolio that really demonstrated that appropriate time was put into learning-- this shows that the 'low score' was not due to the family simply not 'putting in time on task'. Sometimes I can point to a similar pattern that I'd seen in an older sibling-- and remind the district that now that older sibling is excelling and that I fully expect this younger one to do likewise in the coming years. I put all this into my evaluation report-- when a child scores markedly low on required testing is not the time, in my opinion, to simple sign-off on a standard form that says that 'the child is doing hunky-dory, the end'. The district person looking over things will pretty quickly see that 'red flag' of low scores and wonder what is really happening.
The portfolio will also demonstrate broad and appropriate learning in all areas... and give a much fuller picture of the child's activities and programs. Say, when our district could see that one student, who had had significant trouble learning to read, was involved in longterm piano lessons, local sports, a homeschool public speaking group, service work through his church, choir, community theater, horseback riding, and more, they could tell that this was a family that indeed really cared about providing a full program for their son. Although this boy always had extra help in reading (including vision therapy, plenty of focused help and guidance from his mother, extra diagnostic testing, etc), the program was much broader than just a remedial reading program-- the family rightly helped their son get involved in a wide range of activities, so that he could also experience his many strengths as a young person, and gain real skills that would serve him well in his future life. I'm happy to report that he is now married, self-employed as a blacksmith working with horse-shoeing, and he even completed a community college program. The district could tell that this was a really responsible family-- and that was what was important. The family never had a problem with the district over low test scores.
Sometimes families have opted to offer to re-test the following year.... One family I evaluated had a child who literally didn't even get the 'easy' sample reading questions right when he came in for our Fall Testing service as a 3rd grader-- and he had already been 'held back' one year, too. To his credit, he did not *cry* during testing, and he really did try -- I see a number of defeated 3rd graders who pretty quickly realize that their only way of 'coping' with this situation is to just quickly and randomly mark any old answer, and be done with it. Instead, this boy really appeared to be working at the testing items-- he just couldn't effectively read any of them at that point. His mom told me afterwards, when she heard how her son had done, "You know, he's made so much progress since last spring's evaluation, too!" I suggested they might want to bring him back for testing the following fall, rather than try to 're-test' in the spring. In my experience 6 months or so just isn't enough time for most kids to show any appreciable improvement-- and they are then taking the 'next level up' test, too, where the expectations are now steeper. So that's what they did-- they came for testing the following Fall, and I insisted the boy come into my 3rd grade testing group, rather than try for the 4th grade test. This time the boy literally got every reading question correct on the test! Not only was this real proof to the school district that the boy had made major progress, but it was a true boost to this boy's sense of inner competence-- he could see concretely how very different things were for him in the same testing situation where he'd floundered the year before. By 5th grade he took the normal test for his grade level-- and he excelled there, too. By the way, the mother shared that the 'break through' came when she simply required him to spend at minimum one hour per day in independent reading-- and held to that goal consistently, every day of the school year. She let him choose his books, too-- and his 'first choice' was a quite challenging book... but when he'd finally gotten through it, he could indeed read-- and was now energized for the task.
When families do Fall Testing and a child scores poorly, they can show in the portfolio how they have used these results to help them adjust their program and curriculum and approach to learning. We offer a phone consultation service after testing for a very reasonable fee, that can help parents of children who've scored poorly in some area to understand more fully what seemed most difficult for a child. The family can then demonstrate in the portfolio how they used this to perhaps adjust their approach to various subject areas to help their child improve and gain skill and confidence and a sure grounding. Families can relate that this helped them realize that using 'grade level' materials would probably be counter-productive, and so they'd shifted back to materials their child could really work with more readily. I often suggest to families of low-scoring students that right next to the score report, they write up their own 'report' on what they learned from the testing situation about how to help their child work to his best level.
Many families with kids who are significantly behind in reading will opt to have individual testing done, rather than group testing.  This allows the student to take one of the tests (such as the Woodcock-Johnson or the Peabody Individual Achievement Test) designed for one-on-one assessment, where much more is done orally, and the child doesn't have to worry about what the rest of the kids are doing. It's often a lot easier emotionally on a child who knows they struggle academically, as the test 'ends' when the child finds the test items too difficult. Now, this is not to say that a child will 'score better' on this type of assessment-- but it does mean that generally the scores will be more meaningful, and that parent should be able to consult with the test-giver to really gain some insights into how the child did on various types of items. Figure that individual testing will generally be more expensive, as it's more time-intensive for the test-giver, and the testing materials themselves may cost more, or the test-giver must have a special level of training-- but this can be well worth it.
Finally, keep in mind that all school districts know that some kids have more academic challenges than others-- that's just how things are. You will not be penalized for having a child who finds typical school academic learning more difficult than others-- but your evaluator and your school district will want to see that you are aware of the various ways to help a child like this do their best. So put your time into learning what you can about all the many ways you might support your child's learning-- and know that that is going to come across in your evaluation and when you turn things into your school district office at the end of the year.


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