Public school students in 25 states are now or will soon be required to pass a state-mandated graduation test to receive a high school diploma. This column will discuss ways these tests are likely to affect us as homeschoolers, provide relevant information about the tests, and suggest what ways we can minimize the damage such tests could do to homeschooling.
How Graduation Tests Could Affect Homeschoolers
Among the ways graduation tests could affect homeschoolers:
* Private school students, including homeschoolers, could be required take these tests. This would decrease our homeschooling freedom and force homeschools to become more like conventional schools since we would have to prepare for the test.
* Homeschoolers' credentials may be more strongly challenged. Questions about public school diplomas may lead people to question our right as homeschoolers to award diplomas as other private schools do. For ideas about how to deal with such challenges, see "What We Can Do" below.
* If graduation tests begin to be favorably regarded, students who do not take these tests could be denied important opportunities such as employment, higher pay, college admission, and personal prestige. Background Information: Why Were the Tests Begun? Who Supports Them?
Pressure to develop graduation tests has come from several sources:
* Attempts are being made to strengthen and reform public schools by establishing standards that students, teachers, administrators, and schools must meet. Education reformers and public officials claim that by using state-mandated tests, including graduation tests, they can determine whether the standards have been met, hold schools more accountable, and deal with schools whose students do not perform well.
* People who favor the privatization of education and want to see public funds going to private schools through vouchers realize that this will be easier to accomplish if private schools can have their students take state-mandated tests to show that the schools are worthy of the money and are making good use of it. Once a graduation test is required of public school students, supporters of vouchers can argue that public money should go to any private school that is willing to include this test in its graduation requirements.
* Large corporations support tests in the hopes that they will force schools to produce more graduates with enough basic skills to be good workers. (Ironically, corporations are downsizing and seldom hire recent graduates. New jobs are being created by small businesses, and these jobs are more often gotten through personal contacts and demonstrating one's abilities than through diplomas or test scores.)
* People who support distance learning (learning by using computers and the Internet) and other ways of learning outside conventional classrooms favor graduation tests as a way of proving that students can learn outside the classroom and then receive a public school diploma by passing a test.
Legal Questions Surrounding Graduation Tests
In states that already require graduation tests, some students who have been denied diplomas, despite 12 years of school with passing grades, because they did not pass the test, have taken the schools to court. During the past 25 years, case law has developed that includes these points:
* A diploma cannot be denied to a student who was not given 3 or 4 years notice both that a test would be required and what it would cover.
* The tests themselves are also a strong point of contention in the courts. Courts have been asked to decide whether the tests are valid, measure what they claim to measure, or discriminate against groups of people, and whether the curriculum prepared students for the test.
These questions do not surprise many of us homeschoolers who disagree with the basic idea that it is possible to develop a test that accurately and fairly measures what people have learned. Tests measure how well people do at taking tests; they don't measure how much people have learned. Tests are consistently biased against people who do not have the same values or experiences as the people who made the tests.
What Is Likely to Happen With Public School Graduation Tests?
* A significant number of students may not pass the tests. (For example, last year in Massachusetts, 50% of tenth graders failed the state math test, 40% of eighth graders failed the science test, and 66% of fourth graders were labeled "needs improvement.") It is hard to devise a test that is difficult enough to be credible and still is easy enough for the vast majority of students to pass. If very many students do not pass, people will feel confused, angry, and betrayed, and demand that something be done.
* Lawsuits filed by students denied diplomas and their parents could cost taxpayers a lot of money.
* If large corporations realize that schools are still not producing the kind of workers they want, despite the tests, they may withdraw their support.
This is not to say that state-mandated tests will be abolished. However, some states are moving away from them. For example, North Carolina and Michigan have given up plans for strong responses to low scores on state-mandated tests. Because of public pressure, Kentucky has ended a tough accountability program that included testing after spending eight years and $45 million.
At the very least, problems with state-mandated tests, including graduation tests, mean that there may not be strong support for testing, and sometimes it will be possible for us homeschoolers to find other people who oppose the graduation test. This will make it easier for us to prevent the test from being required of private school students, including homeschoolers, and to find alternatives for situations (such as employment or college admissions) in which passing the test might become a requirement.
What We Can Do
* Refuse to take public school graduation tests. At first glance taking the graduation test might seem like an easy way to demonstrate qualifications, to show how well homeschoolers do in comparison to public school students, and to be sure we don't miss out on opportunities that depend on passing a graduation test. However, it is very important that we NOT ask to take either the graduation test or tests leading up to it. Such a request could easily be used by the educational establishment to increase pressure to require that homeschoolers take tests. (Those who support increased regulation of homeschooling could claim that homeschoolers do not mind taking state-mandated tests and, in fact, actually want to take them.) Such a request also lends credibility to tests as a good way to demonstrate one's preparation and ability to work or attend college.
* Avoid doing or using research that is based on homeschoolers' test scores. Again, such research increases the power of tests and gives the impression that homeschoolers are willing to take tests. It also leads many public school officials and some legislators to conclude that such tests are an accurate and meaningful way to measure learning and that all homeschoolers should be required to take them.
* Use alternatives to high school graduation tests. Fortunately, homeschooled young people have a number of alternative ways to demonstrate their qualifications that are much better than state-mandated graduation tests. Employers, colleges and universities, and the general public are increasingly recognizing that homeschoolers are responsible, know how to learn, and have a positive attitude, experience, and flexibility. These are the qualities people are looking for, and they cannot be measured by standardized tests. Among the ways homeschoolers can demonstrate these qualities:
Volunteer work: Many homeschoolers volunteer at places that interest them, such as retail shops, radio or TV stations, etc. In addition to gaining valuable experience and insight into whether they want to pursue their interests in these areas, homeschoolers often develop contacts that lead to jobs.
Portfolios and resumes: Homeschoolers can present convincing evidence of their qualifications through resumes, samples of completed work, outlines of learning (such as lists of books read), descriptions of experiences, etc.
Recommendations: People such as employers; mentors; 4-H, Scout, and youth group leaders; and people who coordinate or observe a young person's volunteer work can be asked to write a general "To Whom It May Concern" recommendation.
Transcripts and Diplomas: Homeschoolers can develop their own transcripts either by keeping track of the number of hours spent studying various subjects (between 90 and 120 hours of study are widely recognized as equivalent to one semester's credit in a subject) or by looking back over their homeschooling experience and listing the subjects studied. Sometimes supporting documents such as lists of books read are attached to give increased credibility. As homeschoolers, we can also award our own diplomas. If these diplomas are challenged because public school diplomas are increasingly being scrutinized, we can explain that it is not logical to say that because public school diplomas don't seem to mean much, homeschool diplomas are also worthless. People are disappointed in public school graduates, not homeschool graduates.
Testing: Although many homeschoolers choose to avoid testing and the vast majority oppose state-mandated tests for homeschoolers, some do want to use tests that they have carefully selected. Instead of graduation tests, SAT, ACT, or CLEP tests can be taken. For information, contact the Educational Testing Service, Princeton, NJ 08541. 800-772-9476.
* Work for laws that allow parents to exempt their children from state-mandated tests. Wisconsin was the first state to pass a law that allows parents of public school children to have their children exempted from state-mandated tests by sending a written request to the school. This law reduces some of the damage done by state-mandated tests and would protect homeschoolers if testing were ever required of private school students, allowing us to have our children exempted from the tests. The exemption applies to the graduation test, in which case school boards need to provide alternative assessments so exempted students can still receive diplomas. Homeschoolers spearheaded the drive to get this exemption and now PTA's and PTO's are fighting to retain it.
It is prudent for us homeschoolers to plan ways in which our children can demonstrate to others that they are prepared for employment, volunteer service, college, or other activities. Fortunately, there are a number of ways in which we can do this effectively. However, taking state-mandated tests is not an effective way to do this and, in fact, could undermine our homeschooling freedoms.
© 1999, Larry and Susan Kaseman
This site is sponsored by Home Education Magazine.