Fortunately, Montana homeschool parents are not required to test their students each year. Montana homeschool families have fought hard over the years and have been diligent to protect this freedom of choice. While it is true that standardized achievement tests have their flaws, achievement tests can be a useful tool for homeschool parents, helping them evaluate their student’s course of study or the parent’s teaching materials or methods.
Standardized achievement tests are designed to evaluate the effectiveness of a course of study, to determine a student’s relative weaknesses and strengths within a specific subject area, or to describe a student’s developmental progress within a test area. Although these tests are not designed to place students within a specific grade, parents may use them to determine if a student has generally mastered concepts at a given grade level (the level tested). Homeschool parents also have the flexibility to be able to test their students in a lower or higher grade level if need be, though results are sometimes not as accurate if the test level is more than one or two grade levels above or below a student’s actual grade level. Even though parental goals for each grade may vary greatly, eventually students will need to be prepared for high school (and then perhaps college) coursework; standardized achievement tests are one tool that a parent may use to gauge a student’s progress from year to year.
Scores from a norm-referenced test such at the Iowa Test of Basic Skills or the Stanford 10 indicate how a student’s knowledge or skill compares with that of others in the norm group. Students in the norm group are carefully selected to be representative of students nationwide. The performance of individual students in this norm group are divided approximately into the following three groups for the grade level tested: Below Average (bottom 25%), Average (middle 50%), and Above Average (top 25%). In the report that parents receive, scores are broken down by subject (math, language arts, reading) and by specific skills (adding/subtracting fractions, spelling, algebra, etc.). Parents may then use that information as they see fit, according to their own goals and educational philosophy.
A parent may rightly ask how the test creators determine the concepts that are typical for a specific grade levels. Traditionally, test creators have aligned their questions with state and national standards, referring to the scope and sequence of various textbooks commonly used nationwide. As evidenced by the recent debate on Common Core State Standards, standards and textbooks are often updated, and tests eventually need to be updated to reflect these changes. Even if a homeschool family is not using a textbook or materials aligned with state and national standards, an achievement test can still give a general indication of how the student is doing...