May-June 2006 Selected Content
Taking Charge - Larry and Susan Kaseman
CLEP Tests: An Effective Tool for Homeschoolers
One of the most effective ways to maintain our homeschooling freedoms is being able to solve our own problems instead of trying to get new laws passed. Introducing homeschooling legislation is seldom, if ever, a good idea. As a small minority, we homeschoolers lack political strength and influence. The serious risk always exists that once legislation is introduced, it will be amended in ways that are unfavorable to homeschoolers, including increased regulation. If seemingly favorable homeschooling legislation does somehow pass, it opens the door for increased state regulation that inevitably accompanies favors or benefits from the government.
College Level Examination Program (CLEP) tests are a very effective tool homeschoolers can use to solve many problems that legislation-happy folks might think required new laws. CLEP tests can be used to document high school transcripts and diplomas, strengthen applications for college admission and financial aid, convince potential employers and others that a young person is qualified, and support the claim that a homeschooler should be granted Tier I status when enlisting in the military. In short, when homeschoolers need to demonstrate, in conventional terms, what they have learned and how qualified they are, CLEP tests can be used.
This column will discuss the ways you can use CLEP tests, advantages, how to prepare for and take them, and how they compare to AP tests.
How You Can Use CLEP Tests
CLEP tests provide a widely recognized way for people to document what they have learned outside conventional classrooms and to earn college credit for it. It's like taking a final exam for a course you have taught yourself.
• As a homeschooling teen, you can develop a high school curriculum based in part or almost entirely on CLEP tests. Choose the tests you are interested in, study, and take the tests. In addition, when you have completed high school, you will have an impressive and well-documented transcript and credits that will be accepted by many colleges.
• CLEP tests are by far the least expensive way to earn college credit. They cost $55 (plus an administrative fee of about $15) for three to six (and, for foreign languages, up to 12) college credits. Compare this to Internet and correspondence courses which usually cost $200 to $500 or more for three or four credits. Tuition at selective colleges can be $30,000 or more per year, during which students typically earn 30 credits, which averages out to be $3,000 for three credits and $6,000 for six.
• CLEP tests often save time. You get credit for what you already know (you may have learned enough already to pass a CLEP test without further study) and what you learn on your own, working at your own pace, without needing to spend time in a classroom or doing assignments for a correspondence or Internet course.
Important: Not all colleges and universities give students credit for CLEP tests. If you want credit from a college, be sure to find out directly from the college which tests they give credit for, what score you need to get credit, and how many credits you will get. Some colleges that do not give credit for CLEP tests will allow you to use them to meet basic requirements, so you can take more advanced (and often more interesting) courses and get more from the time and money you put into college.
For excellent information on alternative ways of earning college credit, including credit by examination, see John Bear and Mariah Bear's books Bears' Guide to Earning Degrees by Distance Learning and Bears' Guide to College Degrees by Mail and Internet. The Bears' website is www.degree.net.
• College credits from CLEP tests are very useful even if you are not working toward a college degree. They can be used to convince a conventional school, a potential employer, and others that you have learned a significant amount about a specific subject. For example, if you are creating a high school transcript based on your homeschooling, you can include CLEP credits and explain that since you have earned college credit in a subject such as American history, you have met and surpassed high school requirements in that subject.
• If you find it easier to study if you have a specific goal to work toward, CLEP tests can give you an outline of what to study and a sense of accomplishment when you pass.
Advantages to CLEP tests
• Because CLEP tests concentrate on general principles, you can focus on understanding the most important parts of a subject, things you're more likely to remember, and avoid getting bogged down in memorizing insignificant details that you may quickly forget.
• You can learn at your own pace and take the tests when you are ready.
• When you complete a test, you receive your score (unless you have done the essay portion that is an optional part of a few CLEP tests) and official documentation that you can copy and give to other people. You can also arrange to have your scores sent to one or more colleges, if you want. This means that no one knows your scores unless you tell them. You can retake a test after six months if you want to improve your score.
• Great test preparation materials are available. However, inaccurate, misleading materials are also published. You do need to be careful which materials you use.
Suggestions on Studying for CLEP Tests
Thirty-three CLEP tests are available from the College Board, the same corporation that produces the SAT. You can take CLEP tests at any age; you do not have to wait until you are 18. Each computerized test is 90 minutes long. Except for four tests that include optional essays, they are primarily multiple choice, although some tests do require the test taker to type a few words or a number for some questions. For more details, visit the CLEP website at www.collegeboard.com/clep.
To study for a CLEP test, get the CLEP Official Study Guide and the guide for the test. Review the introductory material. If you think you might know enough already, take the practice test. Determine your score. (Hint: If you don't look up the correct answers to the questions, you can use the practice test again later. If you do study the correct answers, you might remember the answers the next time you take the test, which means you won't get useful information about how well prepared you are for the test.)
Decide whether your score is high enough for you to meet your goals. If you get 55% to 60% of the questions right, you can probably get a 50 on the test (scores range from 20 to 80). If you just want to pass the test and move on with what you really want to do, or if the college you are planning to attend will give credit for a score around 50, you may want to take the test right away. But if you want a higher score than you got on the practice test, you may want to study before taking the test.
In preparing for a CLEP test, focus on basic principles and basic vocabulary. CLEP tests generally stick to the big picture and don't try to trip people up on picky details. Math questions cover basic operations and understanding of fundamentals and do not require complicated arithmetic to answer questions.
One very, very important point: The official CLEP materials say to study a college textbook on the subject. However, college textbooks have way too much detail and are more likely to be confusing than helpful for most people. Much better resources are:
• Guides to CLEP tests that are not published by the College Board. However, you have to be very careful here, too. Some guides include material that isn't even on the tests, meaning that you end up studying a lot of stuff you don't need that may be confusing. Cracking the CLEP by Tom Meltzer and Paul Foglino, published by the Princeton Review, is excellent and follows closely what is on the tests. Other preparation guides vary in how close they come. Before you choose a guide, compare it with the official CLEP list of topics covered by the test.
• Good books (not textbooks) written for middle schoolers and high schoolers. This material is often well-illustrated, fun to read, much easier to understand, and more in line with what you'll need to know. Check the children's section of the library. For example, if you want to take CLEP tests on American history, consider Joy Hakim's series History of US.
• If you decide to take tests in more advanced subjects like introductory business law, you will find few if any books for middle and high schoolers. However, you can check the adult section of the library for popular works written on the topic. Such books are often 200-300 pages, much shorter than college texts. Since they do not have the guaranteed market college texts have, they have to be clear and appealing or people won't buy them.
• Consider using resources available on the Internet. One website that offers Internet resources is www.clepbuster.com. However, as with printed study guides, be sure the material you are using actually corresponds to the tests you are planning to take.
• If all else fails and you have to use a college textbook, try to visit a college library or bookstore where you can compare several. Choose one that's attractively laid out and appeals to you. Ideally, it will have a one to two page summary for every chapter. Compare the table of contents to the list of topics on the CLEP test to make sure most, if not all, are covered.
Once you have selected a textbook, don't begin at the beginning and work your way through all 450-600 pages, one page at a time, unless that's what you really want to do. If your goal is to learn basic principles, pass the CLEP, and move on, try just reading the summaries for the chapters covering topics that will be on the test. (Don't spend your time on the other chapters unless, of course, you want to learn more than is required because you're interested in the subject. But remember that there are many better ways to learn about a subject than through a textbook.) If you think you have a pretty good grasp of basic principles and vocabulary, take the CLEP practice test to decide if you need to study more and what kinds of things you need to know.
Strategies for Taking CLEP (and Other) Tests
• Don't cram. Study what you want to cover in the days, weeks, or months before the test. Then get a good night's sleep.
• Stay calm. Remind yourself that you have nothing to lose except about $70 if you don't score as well as you want
• Learn how the test is structured, and take at least one practice test before taking the actual test. The CLEP website at www.collegeboard.com/clep has helpful tips.
• Plan your time carefully. If you can't answer a question relatively quickly, make an educated guess and go on. You can come back to the more difficult questions if you have time.
• Answer every question. CLEP does not penalize for guessing.
• Don't worry about how well you are doing while you are taking the test. Focus on answering the questions.
Advanced Placement (AP) Tests
Like CLEP, Advanced Placement (AP) tests are created and administered by the College Board and offer an opportunity to earn college credit or advanced standing. AP tests were developed for students who have taken AP courses in a conventional high school, but you can take tests without taking the courses. Thirty-five tests are available in 20 subject areas. Tests cost $82; an additional fee may be added by the school administering the test. You can take an AP test over to try to improve your score, but you have to wait a year, and your grade report will include all the AP tests you have taken.
Differences Between AP and CLEP Tests
• CLEP tests are offered year round; AP tests are given only in early May. To take an AP test, you must contact AP Services by March 1 by phone (609) 771-7300 or (888) 225-5427 or_email: firstname.lastname@example.org to get the names of local AP coordinators, and contact the coordinators by March 15.
• AP tests include multiple choice questions plus "free response" questions that require test takers to write an essay, solve a problem, etc. Each test is two to three hours long. CLEP tests are 90 minutes, and most tests have only multiple choice questions.
• Some colleges will give credit or advanced standing for AP tests but not for CLEP tests.
• Both programs offer tests in subjects like US history and biology, but some subjects are available from only one.
• AP scores are available several months after you take the test. You get CLEP scores as soon as you complete a test (unless you have written an essay).
Much of the general information about CLEP tests above applies to AP tests. Resources to prepare for AP tests are available at www.collegeboard.com/student/testing/ap/about.html. Commercial guides also exist, including the Princeton Review's Cracking the AP. As with CLEP, make sure that guides you choose are appropriate to and match the tests.
In addition to CLEP and AP, you can get college credit for DANTES/DSST tests (www.getcollegecredit.com), tests offered by Excelsior College in Albany, New York (www.excelsior.edu), and others.
CLEP and AP tests can solve problems as well as allowing young people to earn college credits inexpensively, according to their own timetable, learning in their own way. Tools like these tests enable us to solve our own problems instead of seeking laws that supposedly solve them for us but actually undermine our freedoms.
© 2006, Larry and Susan Kaseman