Homeschooling: To Test or Not To Test

(Texas Family Magazine, July/August 2007 issue)

Standardized tests, such as the SAT Reasoning Test and the ACT, are under more criticism now than ever before. Major universities, school districts and parents are all questioning the value of these tests and are seeking ways to diminish their importance as measures of achievement and predictors of future academic success. Standardized testing has always been controversial in the homeschooling community. Many homeschoolers feel that standardized tests, and this country’s reliance on them, embody the very institutional restrictions homeschoolers seek to avoid by educating their children at home.

Some states, twenty-two to be exact, require standardized testing for homeschoolers. In an attempt to regulate and assess the quality of each homeschooler’s curriculum, these states either require testing or testing as a choice among many assessment alternatives. Texas does not impose any such requirements. Here, homeschoolers enjoy the freedom to educate their children without any regulatory interference. However, choosing to forego testing may not be the right choice for homeschoolers in some instances. One such instance is college admissions. Planning for and taking the SAT or ACT may be the most advantageous step for the homeschooler who hopes to attend college. And studies show that a vast majority of homeschoolers harbor this hope. According to the Homeschool Legal Defense Association, 74% of adults between the ages of 18 and 24 who were homeschooled, attend college or have taken college-level courses. This is an impressive number when compared to the general population’s 46%.

The tough reality is that when it comes to college admissions, standardized tests are still one of the most important criteria colleges use to assess their applicants. In fact, the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) states in its annual “State of College Admissions ” Report that grades and admissions test scores “remain the top factors in the college admission decision for all colleges and universities.”[Emphasis added] Even though these tests are surrounded by a cloud of controversy and doubt, most college admissions officers still feel that they are the best available tool for measuring intelligence, verifying high school grades and predicting success in college. Admissions officers are quick to point out that test scores are just a part of an application package and schools vary widely regarding the weight placed on scores. Still, for the majority of schools, an application is incomplete without them.

Schools are especially interested in the standardized test scores of their homeschooled applicants. Most college applications are highly structured documents designed to collect information that is usually only available from a conventional school experience. Applicants are asked to provide, in addition to SAT or ACT scores, official transcripts, notification of class rank and multiple teacher recommendations. Applications include essay questions and inquiries about the student’s work experience or extra-curricular activities. Some schools conduct interviews. And increasingly, schools also require one or more SAT II subject exams. Since homeschoolers often do not have school transcripts or rankings, the standardized tests are often the only way colleges can measure a homeschooler academically within the pool of applicants. Thus their test scores are weighed more heavily.

Erma M. Nieto-Brect, Director of Admissions at Texas Women’s University, says her school requires an SAT or ACT for this reason, and that “the test score is more important for the homeschooler than the conventional student. It receives extra weight.”

TWC’s admissions policy is very flexible with regard to the transcript requirement. Texas law requires that state schools like TWC and University of Texas accept parent-generated transcripts, portfolios and profiles. In addition, TWC allows additional materials from the homeschooler to give them the opportunity to provide as complete a picture of themselves as possible. But these relaxed requirements hinge on the university’s strict SAT/ACT policy. Each homeschooler must submit their test scores, and they must achieve at least a 950 combined score on the SAT or a 20 on the ACT.

Jonathan Reider, former Stanford University senior associate director of undergraduate admissions and national expert on college admissions for homeschoolers, says this practice is also employed at Stanford. Stanford became a pioneer among the more selective schools in homeschooler admissions several years ago when it began (with Reider’s leadership) to actively court homeschool applicants and accept record numbers into their freshman classes. Stanford was one of the first to dedicate a web page to homeschool admissions and loosen its requirements to allow homeschoolers to show their achievements in less conventional ways. Here, again, an SAT/ACT requirement is at the core of Stanford’s policy. Reider points out that though Stanford wants the applicant to paint a full picture of herself, part of that picture must be the academic component. He says that homeschoolers should approach the application process the way they might assemble a quilt. At Stanford and other like-minded schools, the homeschooled student has more control over the completed application. They can draw from more diverse materials to compensate for what might be missing. But the school needs to see a whole and complete picture. If some of the academic parts are missing (like class rank, grades or non-family recommendations), the pieces that are present take on more importance. Test scores help fill in the blanks.

Okay, so that is the bad news- college-bound homeschoolers will likely need to take the SAT and/or the ACT and do well on them. But…here is the good news– homeschoolers tend to do extremely well on standardized tests. The studies that looked at how homeschoolers fared when tested have shown that homeschoolers significantly outperform their public school peers, and that the longer they are homeschooled, the better they do. A 1997 study conducted by Dr. Brian Ray of the National Home Education Research Institute, looked at the scores on nationally-normed standardized achievement tests. He found that homeschoolers bested their public school counterparts in all subjects by 30 to 37 percentile points. The study also found that new homeschoolers scored on the average in the 59th percentile, while the students with two or more years of homeschooling scored between the 86th and 92nd percentile.

A study released a year later confirmed these findings. Dr. Lawrence Rudner, at the University of Maryland, looked at the scores of 20,760 homeschooled children who took the Iowa Skills Test or the Tests of Achievement and Proficiency (TAPS). He found that the homeschooled children scored “exceptionally high”. Their median scores were typically in the 70th to 80th percentile and 25% of these students were working at one or more grades above their age-level peers, in both public and private schools.

There are no published studies that look at how homeschoolers fare on the SAT or ACT. But the empirical evidence is clear, at least in the minds of admissions officers. A senior officer at UT Arlington felt that their test score requirement was advantageous to homeschoolers because homeschoolers “tend to be better” than their conventionally-schooled peers. Ms. Nieto-Brect at TWC also felt that homeschooler’s test scores were usually strong.

Homeschoolers are also successful college applicants. Many homeschooled children have proven that they possess what many colleges are looking for. According to a 2000 article in Stanford University ’s alumni publication:

“Stanford has found that the brightest homeschoolers bring a mix of unusual experience, special motivation and intellectual independence that makes them a good bet to flourish on the Farm [Stanford’s campus].”

This year, Stanford’s freshman class includes six or seven homeschooled students, adding to an impressive number already on campus. Wheaton College in Illinois, on their easy-to-find web page for homeschoolers, boasts that homeschoolers make up 10% of their freshman class.

Whether the homeschooler views standardized tests as a necessary evil or a helpful equalizing opportunity, the message is clear from the universities and colleges– college-bound homeschoolers do well to consider preparing for and taking them.

© 2007 Texas Family Magazine Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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