Thursday, January 9, 2014

Standardized Testing and Montessori Homeschooling

Oh goodness gracious, this. In the state of Virginia we are required to provide "evidence of progress" at the end of each school year. One way to do this is via independent evaluation. (This way is expensive and a little subjective. I'd need to find someone who understands Montessori to write an accurate letter, and hope that the Superintendent doesn't use his/her discretion to reject our submission.) 

The other way to do this is to submit a "composite score in or above the fourth stanine on any nationally normed standardized achievement test." Yeah, did you get that last part? (If not so much, you can go here to the Organization of Virginia Homeschoolers and read more.) Basically, we needed to take a nationally normed standardized test, and rank above the 24 percentile. 

Oh not so bad you may think. But which nationally normed test? And wait a sec, test? We don't use tests in a Montessori curriculum. Well to keep up with the homeschooling policies we do. 

T is the only one of the three who needs to test this year. (He turned 6 years of age before Sept 1, 2013.) We are only required to test in the areas of Language and Math and I wanted to get this over and done with in the least painful way possible. (There are homeschooling families who like to use the test as an assessment tool to determine which skills their child has learned and which they haven't.)

Researching the tests was a bear. I had no idea what I was looking for, and all the message boards did me no good with their comments of "don't worry, your child will do fine." He's never taken a TEST before! (And my dad works for a company that develops testing assessments and this didn't make me feel better either. Though I should point out the assessments his company develops aren't those huge nationally normed ones.)

So, after a lot of hemming and hawing, and worrying, I decided to just plunge. I picked the California Achievement Test from Seton Testing Services. The survey test only tests language and math, and no other subjects. The average time to administer the test was the least at 2 1/2 hours. They had a first grade test, since other tests don't offer tests for first graders. And the price was right. I paid $25 for the test and $5.60 for postage. I figured if we don't get a passing score, we'll have time to find another option.

I ordered the test on-line Sunday and received it in the mail Tuesday evening. I reviewed everything and concluded that T knew all of the material the test covered. We did the first sections Wednesday and finished everything Thursday morning. By 1:30 PM Thursday the answers were in the mail and now my stomach is churning with anxiety and I am trying to get that "tiger-mom" voice in me screaming **perfection** to BE QUIET!

I know how many T answered incorrectly, but I haven't a clue how that will translate to a composite score. I am pretty sure he passed.

So what did I learn?
  • UPDATE to add: What is a nationally-normed test anyway? I had to ask my assessment-company-dad this one. Way back in the 90's the testing company decided to make a new test. They spend millions of dollars to gather together educators and writers to draft test questions they think reflect grade-level curriculum around the country. Then they test the test. A huge sample, read that thousands, of children take the test in that grade level. They submit their scores for processing and statistical analysis should reveal that old-famous bell curve, if it is a "good" test. There will be a small number of students who do really well on the test and get a lot of questions right. There will be a small number of students who perform very poorly. But the majority of the students are supposed to get some right and some wrong. So, from all this number analysis and comparison, the test writers decide to keep some questions and let go of others. They try to keep it culturally, regionally, gender neutral. So then you have a test and you have a body of students who have taken the test and some statistical analysis of their scores which is now the national norm. So, when your child takes the test and gets say, 90% of the questions correct (this is not T) the computers will look at national norm bell curve and see what percent of that national norm also got that 90% of the questions correct. Say only 5% of test takers got 90% or more of the questions correct, well then your child would be in the 95% percentile, or in this case the 8th stanine. (Go here for a little more on stanines.)
  • Other UPDATE to add: The test is a bubble format. I was kind of relieved to see it wasn't those football bubbles, but actual round circle bubbles. But as my dad noted, the consumable test booklet is a combined booklet. It is combined because the test answers and the bubbles you fill in are next to each other in the booklet.There is no separate scan-tron sheet and test-booklet you can't write in at this first-grade level. The booklets are consumable because each child marks his or her answers in his/hers and then the booklet is scanned and tossed. I guess scan-tron sheets save paper.
  • The questions are a little silly for a first year lower el Montessori student who can read proficiently, and can add and subtract. Seriously, D could have answered some of these questions just fine and he is 2 1/2.
  • The Spectrum Test Prep booklet they sent with the test is NOTHING like the test. The format, the way they ask the questions, how the answers are formatted, and even what the questions cover are not like the test. I didn't have T review this booklet because it wasn't like the test and he didn't need a content review.
  • You can purchase the test and keep it for however long you need to before administering it. I could have given T the test in June five months from now. 
  • As the test administrator you get to review all booklet and the instructions before giving the test.
  • The company also has a return policy so you can return all of the testing materials, in their original condition, within 45 days and get a full refund.
  • Taking the test is probably what trips up most students, not the content the test covers. I'd never heard of a "math sentence" before  a couple of weeks ago. A math sentence is an equation.
  • The child must be able to abstract and use pencil and paper independently without the help of golden beads or any other materials. T said he wished he had golden beads when he was doing a few of his math problems. The child is allowed to write on a piece of scrap paper, but he/she is not allowed to write anywhere in the booklet besides the mark used to indicate the correct answer.
  • The child MUST be a proficient reader before taking this test. The administrator may only read directions, and in some cases the question. The child must be able to read independently the reading comprehension passages, all examples, and the answers.
  • For a child with an auditory processing issue, I thought that this test would just bomb us. There are MANY oral-only directions both in the language and the math sections. Unlike the test prep booklet, there are no written directions in the test booklet the child uses. T really likes SEEING the directions and reading them. Even so he didn't get tripped up by this auditory testing. I think it was because we were at home, he thought the entire exercise was fun, and because he had few distractions. In a traditional public school with 29 other children in an environment where he would have had to have been still and quiet, and work at the pace of the slowest child, T would have just bombed the test.
  • Oh, and those fine motor skills. Those dots are small and there are 100 of them. The administrator is there to ensure that the child fills them in correctly but the administrator may not fill them in for the child.
  • The average testing times on the test sections are just that, averages. We never came in anywhere NEAR that average. I think this was an advantage of taking it at home versus in a traditional school setting. T didn't have to wait silently and still for 29 other children to fill in their little answer circle correctly and he could work at his own pace. It was a 2 1/2 hour test and T finished it all in about 1 hour and 10 minutes.
  • T was VERY squirmy during the test. He was squatting, he was standing, he was cross-legged, he was straddling, and at one point his heels were up near his shoulders, though I don't know how that was possible. In a traditional school setting he would not have been able to take the test this way. At home he can. Even during all that movement he was so VERY focused on his work. (Go, Montessori training!!)
  • There are some timed sections on this test. I didn't tell T that I was timing him and he came in WAY under time for each section. It took him 4 mins and 3 seconds to do an 11 minute section. 
  • Some children, like T, will think this test is fun. I suspect other children, like S, will think that this test is NOT so fun. Having T take this test this year, is giving me a lot to think about in terms of S. I hypothesize that she will either look at me with a raised eyebrow and say, "Mama, this is WAY too easy." Or she is going to look at all the words on the page and notice the distinct lack of pictures that depict flowers, butterflies, rainbows, hearts, and anything pink, and declare that this is a boring activity and most certainly is not worth her time. Well I have year to figure this one out.
  • I hope to get T's scores in a couple weeks and then save them for the end of the year. As homeschoolers we can test any time during the year, but scores are to be submitted by August 1st following the end of the school year. I don't want to submit them early and have them get misplaced.
  • T had already done some workbooks here and there for "fun" and I think that their question and answer format helped him adapt to the test. I suspect that had he never been exposed to those practice booklets he would have not known what to do on the test. For T, he rarely gets to do workbooks so he thinks they are pretty easy and fun. As many Montessorians already know a first year lower el is typically working at a higher level than the traditional first grade curriculum requires. Hence, why T thinks these booklets are "easy and fun."
Anyway, I hope that this post can be a little bit of help to someone out there fretting about these tests. I can't say "don't worry" because I worry. But I know my child is performing just fine in his academic work and that these tests are simply a hoop we may have just passed through. Until next year...

P/S if you have other questions about our testing experience, please don't hesitate to ask me either in the comments below or by private e-mail. I'd be glad to answer any I can.


  1. I gave my 3 year old the kindergarten test (with results compared to those in the springtime of k-en) several years ago.

    I checked all of his answers before submitting to see what his hard percentages were (not percentile, but what grade I would have actually given him.

    He did anywhere from 70-95% on the various sections.

    When we received the results, I found that one area he had 90-something % correct, he was "87th percentile".

    All other areas, he was 95th or HIGHER.

    So it really is just comparing to "other children" of that "grade level experience".

    That was the last test he took - I mean to do another every once in a while and we've never gotten back to it. Maybe later this year - probably not (I keep saying "maybe later this year" for the last 5 years).

    and he had to fill in the bubbles in the book too....

    Your son really WILL do fine.

    1. Jessica, as always, your experience is so very helpful to me. thank you for YOUR reassurance. I feel someone who knows Montessori and what the child typically learns at what plane of development should be better able to calm my nerves. :)
      How are you doing these days with your new busy busy schedule! Thanks for popping by to read.