My son John did not begin reading until he was seven years old. He had mastered the basic phonics skills, and testing revealed he had a high IQ. But for the life of him, John could not put the sounds together from the page to actually form words. This wouldn’t have bothered me except for the restrictive state homeschooling law we had South Carolina back in 1987. This law required that I take John to a public school he had never attended, leave him with a teacher he had never met, and take a standardized test he couldn’t read. And if John’s scores were deemed “inadequate”—whatever that meant—the local school board could deny our request to homeschool John the next year.
Desperate for help and advice, I called my good friend Dr. Loreen Ittermann, then chairman of the Department of Elementary Education at Columbia International University. She tested John to see if my teaching were to blame for his inability to read. (As a young, insecure homeschooling mother, I needed to know.) After an evaluation, she assured me that John’s only problem was that I had been pushing him too hard. If I would allow him to proceed at his own pace, he would be fine.
I desperately wanted to follow Loreen’s advice, but the stakes were too high. John had to take the standardized test for first graders, and he wasn’t reading. Dr. Ittermann, my attorney, and I all wrote letters to the school board requesting that John’s testing be postponed until the following year, but to no avail.
The week of testing came. I assured John he had nothing to worry about and coached him on the only way I could think of for him to take a multiple-choice test. “Mark A for the first question, count to five, and move on to number two. Mark B for the second question, count to five, and move to the third question.” When John asked why he was to count to five between each question, I reminded him that pausing between questions would keep others from noticing that he could not read.
I assured him that Daddy and I certainly weren’t worried about his not reading yet—we knew he was a smart boy. Everybody John cared about was happy, so with no concern at all he marched into that public school to take the test.
I, on the other hand, went home and sobbed, knowing the results would likely be disastrous. Barring a miracle, my application to continue homeschooling would most certainly be denied. I had already been threatened with jail by the South Carolina Superintendent of Education in 1984 for our initial decision to homeschool, and I dreaded the thought of dragging our family through more legal proceedings.
On my knees, between sobs, I asked God for a miracle: “Lord, if you indeed want us to homeschool, I need your help now more than ever.” I reminded God how He protected the Hebrew midwives from Pharaoh’s punishment and had even blessed them because they refused to harm the male babies as they were born (Exodus 1:15–21). I prayed that, in the same way, God would protect John, my husband, and me from retribution by the school district. I then asked God to blind their eyes to my son’s scores.
I’ll never forget the day the test scores arrived in the mail. I trembled as I opened the letter from the school district. I was stunned as I tried to comprehend the results: The scores were terrific! As a matter of fact, some of them were perfect. How could this be?
Eventually, I realized the district had pulled up scores belonging to another student named John Tyler. He was two years older than my son, had a different middle initial, and lived at an address similar to ours. The mix-up was our miracle. God had indeed blinded the school district’s eyes to my son’s scores. He had answered my prayers, protected my child, and preserved my ability to homeschool for the next year—all while encouraging me in a way I have not forgotten to this day.
The next year, things clicked for John, and he learned to read. He once again marched confidently into a public school to take the annual standardized test. I’ll never forget his response when I asked him how it went: “Mom, you can’t believe how much easier it is to take a test when you can read what’s on it!”
His scores were excellent that year, with most of them landing in the upper nineties of percentile ranking.
Educators often view standardized testing as the easiest way to objectively measure the academic effectiveness of any educational option, not just homeschooling. As the above story demonstrates, standardized testing has its problems:
1. Standardized testing is limited as to what it can assess. It does not measure a child’s spiritual understanding, character development, creativity, or social skills.
2. Standardized tests should be used as diagnostic tools, not as yardsticks to determine the worth of the student or the teacher.
3. Standardized test scores do not always reflect effort or work habits. Some children don’t test well, even if they have been taught well, have learned well, and have worked hard throughout the course of the year. Conversely, some children who are lazy in school score in the 90th percentile with very little effort.
4. An overemphasis on standardized testing results in teachers’ spending too much time teaching to the test.
5. As homeschooling parents, we sometimes fear that others may judge our entire school year and the effectiveness of homeschooling based on one set of test scores.
However, standardized testing does have its benefits. When used properly, standardized testing can help you determine where your children excel and where they might need some extra help. Their scores can help you make decisions regarding future curriculum choices. Are your child’s test scores in math weaker than you would like to see? Maybe he has a learning problem or disability. Or maybe you just need to consider changing your math curriculum.
Also, homeschoolers as a group tend to do extremely well on standardized tests. Even though many educators, legislators, and the community around us might not agree with our educational choice, they understand the language of test scores. When they see the composite test scores of homeschoolers, they can see that homeschooling not only works but that it works exceptionally well.
If your children are taking standardized tests this year, here’s some advice from one who has a love-hate relationship with the process:
1. Relax. Refuse to succumb to the notion that your teaching is a success or failure based on your child’s test scores.
2. Encourage your children to relax. Explain to them the real purpose of standardized testing.
3. If your children have never taken a standardized test, purchase preparatory resources that cover the type of material that’s being tested, time limits, and the process of taking a multiple-choice test.
Don’t let standardized testing rob you and your children of your joy. Remember that God is control. He is the ultimate Superintendent of Education. He will go before your children to prepare the way, make the rough places smooth and opening remarkable doors of opportunity and service for them (Isaiah 45:1–2, 1 Corinthians 16:9).
By the way, my son John is now 32, an attorney, and married to a wonderful Christian woman. They have three amazing children. And nobody has ever asked John what his standardized test scores were in first grade.
Zan is the director of Apologia Press, a division of Apologia Educational Ministries. She is the author of the book 7 Tools for Cultivating Your Child’s Potential and is an international speaker. Her goal is to empower and encourage parents in the eternally significant task of homeschooling. Zan and Joe homeschooled their three children from kindergarten through high school, for a total of twenty-one years. She founded the South Carolina Association of Independent Home Schools in 1990 and served as its president for ten years. She has also served as the National Grassroots Director for ParentalRights.org.
This article previously appeared in The Old Schoolhouse magazine.