Mandatory Testing for Homeschoolers?

by Robert Pondiscio
December 29th, 2009

Should homeschooled children be required to sit for state exams to ensure minimum competency in reading and math?  And what should happen if they fail?    Indiana University School of Education professor Robert Kunzman, who studies homeschooling, proposes in the journal Theory and Research in Education that states require a basic skills test for homeschoolers.

Seconding Kunzman’s article, Miller-McCune magazine asks, with as many as 2 million students currently being homeschooled, whether ”it might be time to consider some sensible oversight.”  In theory, the magazine notes, a required basic skills test “could be a useful tool to help homeschooling parents understand which areas their child is excelling and struggling in and, if constructed properly, could illuminate where to focus additional attention.”

Above all, it’s essential that the test be crafted by individual states (just as individual states create tests for public schools in compliance with federal testing mandates) and be viewed as “neutral” (evolutionary science off-limits?) by parents and students. Then perhaps local homeschool organizations could work with the state to create a skills assessment that contains no ideological or moral “litmus test.” The result, as Kunzman conceives it, “would involve computation skills (adding, subtracting, multiplication, division) and reading comprehension.” In other words: a simple, rudimentary, noncontroversial test that even a serviceably educated student could pass.

Even that won’t be simple, however.  At the website Homeschooling Research Notes, Milton Gaither, a professor at Messiah College sees several problems with Kunzman’s proposal:

First, he is not clear about exactly when these tests would need to be administered or what would happen if a student failed them.  By what age must a child be able to read, write, and cipher?  For some unschoolers such skills are not deliberately taught until a child wants to learn them, which could be as late as 10 or 12.  Such children would fail the Iowa test of Basic Skills, perhaps repeatedly.  What then?  Kunzman says in a footnote that failure doesn’t mean kids should be forcibly placed in public schools, for they might do even worse there.  All he says is that repeated failure shoud prompt “a closer look by the state into that particular homeschool context, the quality of instruction, and the needs of the student before deciding how best to protect his or her educational interests.” (p. 328)  This I find unhelpful and vague.  Why bother administering the test at all if there’s no clear consequence for failing it?

Kunzman’s website has a lot of interesting information and resources about homeschooling (his state-by-state chart of homeschooling regulations is fascinating).  While I understand the impulse behind his proposal–he points out we really have no objective information about how homeschooled students truly perform academically–but I think it’s unlikely that many, perhaps even most, homeschoolers will see mandated testing as anything other than an unwarranted intrustion.  “The underlying assumption of this proposal seems to be that the citizen is somehow subject to the standards set by the state,” writes one homeschooling blogger.  “Or perhaps that the state has a more compelling interest in the well being of the child than the parent. As any homeschooling parent can tell you, we don’t need a test to tell us how our child is doing. They are not a name on a roster, they are our focus of attention.”

In short, prepare for a fight.  Given the relatively low performance of most states, it will also be hard to make a credible case that they know best or are even minimally competent to gauge, let alone assure academic success.


  1. What’s interesting about this issue is when the same folks who object to using testing as an indicator of teacher quality want to test homeschoolers for precisely that purpose.

    Comment by Stuart Buck — December 29, 2009 @ 12:23 pm

  2. This will not happen in California for the simple reason that parents who choose to educate their children at home must file the same private school affidavit or statement in leiu as every other type and style of private school, be it Catholic or secular. Can you imagine the state demanding the students of the local parochial school submit to state testing?

    Comment by TM Willemse — December 29, 2009 @ 2:00 pm

  3. As a homeschooler, I go in two directions about this issue. In theory, I don’t have a problem with a certain (small) amount of testing and oversight. The big problem with that, however, is that I really don’t think any government or teaching bodies are competent to design and administrate such regulation.

    I think the odds are that any oversight the state and educational bureaucracy would come up with would be useless and damaging instead of helpful. (I live in California, which may possibly have something to do with this cynicism, but I wouldn’t trust any other state to do it either.) I wouldn’t object to well-designed regulation that would work–I just don’t think that legislators and administrators who work in the public schools are really equipped to design it. They don’t have the experience or knowledge of how homeschooling works, and they’re far more likely to hurt than help.

    The great strength of homeschooling lies in the ability to individually tailor the education to the child. Oversight and testing will constrain that. So I think it would be quite difficult to come up with something that would both ensure reasonable progress for the few who really are in trouble, and allow the educational freedom for the majority that is the main reason we do what we do. Most homeschoolers–by far the majority–are working very hard at a self-imposed task to which we have dedicated years of our lives. We are much more invested in our children’s success than any governing board could be. But as with anything in this world, there are a few who are not putting in the effort.

    I’ve been thinking for a while that perhaps experienced homeschoolers should be coming up with regulation design proposals to offer when state legislators start making noises about regulating homeschoolers. Otherwise we might find ourselves legislated into a corner. If we design something, at least we have a better chance of it being sensible and effective rather than handicapping.

    So I don’t know; things being as they are, I think homeschoolers are mostly better off without government interference. There are always going to be families who aren’t doing so well. And there will always be those problems regardless of how much testing or oversight or control is put in place–so perhaps we’re better off as we are.

    Comment by dangermom — December 29, 2009 @ 2:14 pm

  4. I think that this ignores the fact that a number of states already have a system in place for evaluating annual progress of homeschoolers. Some states require submission of standardized test scores such as the Iowa Test of Basic Skills or the Stanford Achievement Test. Other states allow for testing or annual portfolio reviews. Other states require quarterly submission of work to demonstrate progress. Other states have fewer requirements.

    Given a test bed of 50 states, is there any evidence that more testing produces homeschool students who excell more than those from states with less onerous requirements? I think that most of the research has indicated that there is little connection between DOE oversight of homeschooling and homeschooling outcomes.

    Our own personal experience was that there was such a disconnect between testing assumptions and our children’s ability that it was somewhat pointless to do testing. Yes, annual testing did highlight the fact that my oldest considers capitalization rather optional (something that even a casual glance at his written work could show me) and that he tended to rush his math computation and make careless mistakes (again, something that sitting across from him while he works his math had already demonstrated to be the case). But more annoying were the low scores that his younger brother had on the reading skills portions of his 2nd grade exam. Despite the fact that he was reading Redwall novels at that age, he found the test portions geared to beginning readers difficult because his phonics program had taught letter sounds but not taught the terms vowel and consonant. Thus questions that required matching the vowel sound from a word with the sound from words represented by a variety of pictures was more than a little confusing. The result was a score that didn’t inform me at all about his actual reading comprehension ability.

    And standardized tests do nothing to test my children’s understanding of Greek myths, the rise and impact of the Roman empire, the formation of the feudal system, the influence of the church during the middle ages, the Renaissance and Reformation periods or the battles of World War I and II. All of these topics have been a focus of our studies at one time or another over the last six years. Standardized tests have frequently queried them on their ability to recognize a line drawing of the White House as the place where the President lives, a factoid that borders on trivial, given that it rarely accompanies a question about the three brances of American government. Science questions are frequently best answered by ignoring the details that they might know (such as the fact that Venus is in fact hotter than Mercury, despite orbiting further from the sun). And I’ve yet to encounter a standardized test that evaluates their ability in Latin or German, the two foreign languages that they have studied thus far.

    In short, a standardized test is not going to give me much useful information about where my children excell and where they are struggling. In fact, those strengths and weaknesses are abundantly clear as we sit side by side on a daily basis. I am constantly amazed by what they have learned from the hundreds of books they read a year. And I am constantly humbled by how much more I want to teach them, expose them to and guide them through.

    Comment by Sebastian (a lady) — December 29, 2009 @ 6:44 pm

  5. Given the deleterious impact testing has had on public schools (most notably curriculum narrowing) I’d be hard-pressed to support testing of homeschooling. I’m also intrigued to know the number of cases of educational neglect that have been brought against homeschoolers or proven. Unless it can be demonstrated that it’s a significant number (I suspect it’s not), testing is a solution in search of a problem.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — December 29, 2009 @ 7:15 pm

  6. Does it seem unusual that this proposal follows an increase in homeschooled children or, at least, an increase in interest of the numbers of children being homeschooled?

    I am a public school teacher who favors choice: homeschooling, charter, or private schooling. (I’m iffy on unschooling.)

    “The underlying assumption of this proposal seems to be that the citizen is somehow subject to the standards set by the state,” writes one homeschooling blogger. “Or perhaps that the state has a more compelling interest in the well being of the child than the parent.”

    I think there is something to be concerned about here, when “the state” begins to dictate what is right and timely for those who choose to educate and raise their children outside the state’s control.

    Comment by redkudu — December 29, 2009 @ 9:08 pm

  7. The only time the government has the right to demand standardized testing IMHO is when the funding for the student’s education is paid for by the taxpayers. I don’t receive one red cent in funding for my children’s education from the government, so therefore the state has no right to require my children be tested.

    Give me the $11.5k per child per year funding my local government-run school receives, and I’d put up with them taking the STAR tests and following the state standards…

    Comment by Crimson Wife — December 29, 2009 @ 9:45 pm

  8. Well said, dangermom, and well said Sebastian.

    Let’s look at this from the other side. If a kid goes to public school and does poorly, then maybe the state should step in and force the parents to homeschool. Does that make any sense?

    My only experience with homeschooling is that I’m known a few kids who were, and they seemed to do well. I always thought they benefitted greatly from a lot of individual adult attention. But I’ve got some experience both as a teacher and as a parent that tells me that some kids will do poorly no matter what. Before society makes a very serious intrusion into the parental domain I would think we would want convincing evidence that a particular child would do better in some alternate placement. How could we ever get evidence of that?

    We seem to be in an age in which a lot of people like the idea of using government to force people and institutions to do what we think they ought to do. I hope it soon ends. I think it has been noted before that government can generally make people do certain things, but is very poor at making them do those things well, or as intended. Fortunately we are also in an age when the term “unintended consequences” is also meaningful to most people.

    Comment by Brian Rude — December 30, 2009 @ 11:38 am

  9. Crimson Wife,
    You mentioned that you do not receive funding from the state to homeschool your children.

    I have a sincere question: do you receive some kind of exemption on your property taxes as a result of homeschooling your children? or do you still have to pay taxes as if your children attended public school?

    Comment by Tony G. — December 30, 2009 @ 11:47 am

  10. Seems like homeschooling is starting to get under people’s skins. Particularly since increasing numbers (anecdotally to me, anyway) are doing so for purely academic reasons, rejecting a system that has failed their kids.

    On my blog recently, there was an excellent discussion of yet another (poorly reasoned) academic article advocating increased homeschooling oversight. You can see that here:

    Do check another

    Comment by SwitchedOnMom — December 30, 2009 @ 11:56 am

  11. Tony G.- we still have to pay the full portion of our property taxes the same as parents who enroll their kids in traditional private schools and as childless folks do. Though as we live in CA, the property taxes are not the source of bulk of the funding the district receives. Most comes from the state general fund, which is primarily raised through income and sales taxes.

    Comment by Crimson Wife — December 30, 2009 @ 1:03 pm

  12. Thank you for the info, Crimson Wife.

    I’m from Illinois, where the vast majority of district funding comes from property taxes. Like most things in education, it evidently varies greatly by state.

    I would be interested to know if states that allow tax vouchers for private/charter schools also give tax vouchers to parents who homeschool their children.

    Comment by Anonymous — December 30, 2009 @ 1:35 pm

  13. There are states that give tax vouchers for private school kids?!?

    I was always under the impression that we all paid property taxes (even the childless or the elderly) because public education is a public good — even if we choose not to use it, it’s in our best interest to have well-educated neighbors.

    Which is why one does not have to have children in the school to be on the school board.

    And why I care about the quality of local schools even though MY kids are home-schooled.

    Comment by Deirdre Mundy — December 30, 2009 @ 3:36 pm

  14. There are a few states that allow tuition tax credits (not vouchers) for private school expenses. But it’s a fallacy to suggest that such tax credits are inconsistent with the notion of education being a public good. Quite the opposite, in fact.

    Think of it this way: If I’m a taxpayer in such a state and I send my kids to private school, I’m still paying taxes (property, sales, income) that go to support public schools. But on top of that, I’m personally shouldering the burden of providing the very thing that you say is a public good — the education for my children. So it’s only fair that the public would help me pay for that so that I’m not paying double.

    Comment by Stuart Buck — December 30, 2009 @ 10:00 pm

  15. California does have a bunch of virtual charter schools that provide a certain amount of funding (usually $1600-1800) for the purchase of curricula and classes. Legally, students enrolled in them are considered public school students so they have to take the STAR tests and the work they complete at home must be reviewed by credentialed teachers. There’s a lot of controversy within the homeschooling community as to whether these kids are “homeschoolers” but I’m not going to open that can of worms.

    Comment by Crimson Wife — January 1, 2010 @ 12:29 pm

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