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Standardized Testing

The PA Home Education Law requires standardized testing at certain grade levels. Note that this applies only to homeschoolers who are in a PA home education program (i.e. they submitted an affidavit). There are many ways to obtain this testing for your child.  But before we get to the details, I want to remind you to keep these tests in perspective.  You will find that most of them are simple multiple-choice tests.  They do NOT test the overall effectiveness of your home education program.  At the most, they can give you a rough idea of how well your child is doing in basic subject areas (reading and math) compared to other children of the same age.  (Most parents have a pretty good idea of this anyway.)  They may or may not follow the same scope and sequence as the curriculum you are using.  They do not test character, or resourcefulness, or politeness, or other difficult-to-test things that many homeschoolers consider to be part of their school program. Don't worry too much about testing, OK?

Who needs to test?

~~ PA students who are enrolled in a home education program (Act 169) need to test in 3rd, 5th, and 8th grades. The rest of this page gives more information on these requirements.

~~ PA students who are too young to be registered with their school district as home educated students do not have to test, even if they are in third grade or doing third grade work.

~~ PA students who are privately tutored are not required to test at all, ever.

~~ Students enrolled in a church school or an umbrella school are not required by the state to do standardized testing at any time; the individual school may have additional requirements of their own.

~~ PA students who are enrolled in a public cyber-charter school may need to take the PSSAs and/or other tests required by (and provided by) the school. These students are not under the PA home education law, and their testing requirements are different than the 3rd/5th/8th grade testing required for home ed students. Testing for these public school students is discussed here.

~~ High school students who are college-bound may also want to take various tests (like the PSAT, the SATs, the ACT, AP exams, SATII subject tests, etc.) to meet college admission requirements, but these are not required by the PA home ed law, nor do they fulfill the required 3/5/8 testing. If your child is college-bound, I suggest you start researching these tests and college admission requirements in general no later than 8th grade, so that you can plan accordingly. See my high school page for good places to start. Details of these tests are beyond the scope of this site.

~~ Homeschooled students in states other than Pennsylvania may or may not need to test, depending on their state law. If you do need or want to test, the list of test providers here may be useful, even if you are not in PA.

When do I need to test?

The PA Homeschooling Law says:

"In order to demonstrate that appropriate education is occurring, the supervisor of the home education program shall provide and maintain on file the following documentation for each student enrolled in the home education program:..."

"Such documentation [the portfolio and evaluation] …shall be provided to the public school district of residence superintendent at the conclusion of each public school year [June 30]."

"The portfolio shall consist of

a log, made contemporaneously with the instruction, which designates by title the reading materials used,

samples of any writings, worksheets, workbooks or creative materials used or developed by the student

and in grades three, five and eight results of nationally normed standardized achievement tests in reading/language arts and mathematics or the results of Statewide tests administered in these grade levels."

Thus testing is required in grades 3, 5, and 8. It is not required in other grades. You, the parent, determine what grade your child is in, and what level test is appropriate for the child. Test results are a part of the portfolio, and are shown to the evaluator during the annual evaluation. As of the October 2014 law change, the portfolio, including the test scores, does not need to be handed in to the school district at the end of the school year.

"At the discretion of the supervisor, the portfolio may include the results of nationally normed standardized achievement tests for other subject areas or grade levels."

Sometimes home educators test their children in grades other than 3, 5, and 8. These results can be included in the portfolio if desired, but it is not required.

Assuming that the children score well, this can be a useful strategy for those whose home education program must withstand scrutiny or criticism, such as from an ex-spouse. Some families whose children score well submit test scores yearly in lieu of a more extensive portfolio. (That is, they feel that they can submit fewer samples of work because the test scores are an objective assessment of their child's "sustained progress in the overall program".)

On the other hand, many families object to testing, and do/submit only the minimum required by law.

You can test at any time during the school year -- beginning, middle, or end. Some tests take longer to score than others. For example, the individual tests can be given one-on-one (often as part of the evaluation) and scored on-the-spot; at the other extreme, some mail-order companies can take 6-8 weeks to return your scores. I recommend that you don't wait until the very end of the year to make testing arrangements! It may take time to contact a test provider, have the test scored, etc - you don't want to be caught short at the end of the year if there's a complication of some sort. Some families test in the early fall – this gives you plenty of time before the deadline to deal with any problems that may arise. Other families have their evaluator administer the test during their end-of-year evaluation; in this case the evaluator can often score the test immediately. I believe the scoring of most standardized tests take into account the time of year the test is given, to make sure there is no scoring penalty for testing earlier in the year.

How much will it cost?

Expect to pay around $35-$45 for a basic test. If the price is much higher than this, make sure you understand why, and what you are getting for your money.

If you are hoping to gain useful information from the testing, rather than just fulfilling the state requirements, you will want to choose carefully. Do not pay a lot of money (more than $45) without really understanding what you want out of a test and whether the particular test you have chosen will do what you want it to. 

If you choose to have your child take the PSSA at the local public school to fulfill the testing requirement, there is no charge.

Which tests can I use?

The law says, "The department shall establish a list, with a minimum of five tests, of nationally normed standardized tests from which the supervisor of the home education program shall select a test to be administered if the supervisor does not choose the Statewide tests."

NEW!--> As of May 6, 2014, as per my correspondance with Suzanne Tallman of the PDE, the following tests are approved. (The first eight are listed in the 2009 PDE Basic Education Circular (BEC).)

~~ California Achievement Test
~~ Comprehensive Testing Program (CTPIV)
~~ Iowa Test of Basic Skills
~~ Metropolitan Achievement Test
~~ Peabody Achievement Individual Test – Revised Version
~~ Stanford Achievement Test (not to be confused with the SAT test for college admission)
~~ Terra Nova
~~ Woodcock Johnson Revised Tests of Achievement III
~~ Woodcock-Johnson IV
~~ Wechsler Individual Achievement Test III (WIAT-III)

Remember that you only need the "reading/language arts and mathematics" parts of the test that you choose. Scores for any other sections (science, social studies, etc) need not be submitted to the district. In fact, your child doesn't even need to take these parts of a test.

(The old list, accepted until June 30, 2009, included the California Achievement Test (CAT), the Comprehensive Testing Program (CTPIII), the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills (CTBS), the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, the Metropolitan Achievement Test, the Peabody Individual Test, the Stanford Achievement Test, the Terra Nova, the Wide Range Achievement Test (WRAT), and the Woodcock Johnson Revised Tests of Achievement. This list was from the 2004 PDE Basic Education Circular (BEC) which listed the acceptable tests. The following tests from that list are no longer acceptable: Comprehensive Testing Program (CTPII) , Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills, Peabody Individual Test, Wide Range Achievement Test, and the Woodcock Johnson Revised Tests of Achievement.)

What about the PSSA?

Note that, in addition to the tests listed above, the PSSA test is acceptable to meet the testing requirement. (It is a "statewide" test.) The PSSA is a test given to most public school students. The PDE's 2009 BEC states, "If the supervisor of the home education program requests that the student(s) take the PSSA, the school district must allow the student to take the test at the school building the home education student would normally attend or other accommodations agreed to by the school district and the parent." Thus you may choose to take the PSSAs (for free) at the local public school to fulfull the home ed testing requirement. If you wish to take the PSSA, the PDE's Standardized Testing page suggests, "The supervisor should notify the school district early in the school year if the PSSA is to be taken so the school can order the extra tests and arrange for where the test will be administered." The calendar for the PSSA is here.

Note that the PSSA test is usually administered over several days, and the school district will see the scores before you do. The vast majority of PA home education students do not take the PSSA. They choose to test privately, using one of the tests listed above.

Home educated students do NOT have to take the PSSA. Sometimes a school district says or implies that homeschoolers HAVE to take the PSSA; this is NOT true. For home educated students, testing is only required in 3rd, 5th, and 8th grades, and any of the tests on the list above will fulfill this requirement. Contact the PDE if your district gives you a hard time about this.

Which test should I choose?

If you want useful information from the test, you will want to choose the test carefully. If, however, you just want to fulfill the state requirements, it's OK to just do what your friends do, what's most convenient, or what's cheapest!

I don’t know a whole lot about the tests themselves. Here are a few details that may be useful. I have gathered this information from listening to the experiences of other homeschooling moms. (It is for some reason difficult to find this information on the web.) Please double check with your test provider.

~~ The Iowa/ITBS gives a lot of sub-scores, so you can see more clearly how your child did on different aspects of each subject.  There is a sample IOWA score report here. The CTBS and Terra Nova give fewer sub-scores.  There is a sample Peabody score report here. There is a sample Stanford/SAT score report here. I don’t know much about the scores on the other tests.

~~ The CTBS and the CAT can usually be given by anyone.  The publishers of the Iowa/ITBS and Stanford tests have some rules about who can give their tests, and therefore these tests can be more difficult for an individual family to obtain/use.

~~ The CAT has a survey version and a more expensive “complete battery” version.  The survey is shorter, cheaper, and meets the law’s requirements. The CAT/5 is the 1992 edition. There are earlier editions (1970, 1986). Thurber’s Educational Assessments (TEA) has a nice page about the CAT.

~~ The Peabody, the Woodcock Johnson, and the WRAT (which is no longer approved) are given individually.  The advantages of individual tests, as well as some information about different tests, are discussed in this paper by Shirley M.R. Minster, M.S. Ed. (Note that not all the tests she discusses fulfill PA's testing requirement.)

The Peabody Achievement Individual Test - Revised is described in more detail at the publisher's site. The publishers feel it is appropriate for children with disabilities. They say it is "easy to administer" and that "Reading, mathematics, and spelling are assessed in a simple, nonthreatening format that requires only a pointing response for most items." In her A Brief Discussion of Individual Achievement Tests, Shirley M.R. Minster notes "This test is unique in that paper and pencil are used only during the written expression section. I recommend this test if your child dislikes having to write a lot. Please note that no scratch paper and pencil can be used during the mathematics section. (It is a multiple choice test.) The total test takes about 1.5 hours." (There are six subtests, and it's not clear to me that all are multiple choice, especially the written expression one. I'm also not sure if all subtests need to be given to fulfill the law's requirements.) Like the WRAT, "only those items within the student’s range of difficulty are administered". The six subtests, as described on the publisher's site, are:
* General Information—100 verbal items assess general knowledge.
* Reading Recognition—100 items measure recognition of printed letters and the ability to read words aloud.
* Reading Comprehension—82 items measure reading comprehension. The student chooses one of four pictures that best illustrates a sentence.
* Written Expression—assesses written language skills for two levels. Level I, for K-1, tests pre-writing skills. Level II, Grades 2-12, requires the student to write a story about a picture.
* Mathematics—100 multiple choice items test knowledge and application of math concepts and facts.
* Spelling—100 multiple choice items measure recognition of correct word spelling.
The publisher seems to only sell this test in bulk, in a 50-test bundle, so the initial investment is costly. However, the per-child price seems quite reasonable, so it may be worthwhile for evaluators who have previously used the WRAT to look into using the Peabody. There is a sample score report here.

~~ The WRAT is no longer approved. On the WRAT, progressively harder questions are asked – the child only goes as far as he can.  It is a very short test.  The WRAT can be an ideal test for children who will be overwhelmed by group testing.  It is also useful for children who are scoring below grade level and who may be upset by a test that is too hard for them.  The publisher only sells the WRAT to qualified people, and only in bulk quantities.  Many people who used the WRAT in the past did it through a local evaluator. Again, unfortunately, as of the '09-'10 school year, the WRAT is no longer on the PDE's list of approved tests.

Most people I know have used either the CAT from Seton (if they want to use a mail-order fill-in-the-bubble test), the WRAT (which is no longer an option) from a local evaluator (particularly for children for whom fill-in-the-bubble-style testing would be traumatic), or local group testing for homeschoolers, such as is offered by PA Homeschoolers and some local homeschooling support groups.

Which level test?

Each test is different, but most come in a different version for each grade level. Normally, folks use the level of the test appropriate for the child's grade or age. However, it is my understanding that some folks use a test at a lower grade level if they think it will be more appropriate for their child. For example, they may choose to use a second grade test for a third grade child if they think it will be more suitable. If you take this route, you would generally have the test “normed” for the child’s actual grade. (That is, the child would take the second grade test, and it would be scored as if a third grader had taken it.) You can also use a test at a higher level if it is more appropriate; again, you can have it normed for the child's actual age/grade.

Where can I get a test?

There are basically four ways to get testing: Participating in group testing for homeschoolers, purchasing a mail-order test, arranging for individual testing, or testing at a local public school.

Group testing is one option for home educators. In some areas, group testing is something of a yearly community event, and some kids are less intimidated if their friends are testing alongside them. It also has the advantage of helping kids get used to fill-in-the-bubble testing and testing in a group setting. (Obviously this aspect is mainly useful for older, college-bound kids who will most likely be taking the PSAT, SAT, etc.). Other kids, especially younger ones, might be intimidated by group testing; it is not the right choice for everyone. 

PA Homeschoolers is one company that offers local testing in many areas throughout PA. They typically offer the Terra Nova for about $35. Local co-ops, support groups, or evaluators may also offer group testing, sometimes with the Iowa – check with local support groups for information about group testing in your area. Some private schools, such as Upattinas in Chester County , also offer group testing.

Testing by Mail-Order is another option. Basically, you buy a test from a supplier, have a suitable person give it to your child, and send it back. The company will return the scores to you. If you plan to use mail-order testing, be sure you inquire about the turn-around time for initial delivery of the test, doing the test, sending it back, and delivery of the scores. Some test suppliers are speedy, others not so much.
Don’t wait until the last minute! It can take 6-8 weeks just to score the tests, and some suppliers only do testing at certain times of the year. See the list of suppliers below.

Individual Testing: Some evaluators also offer individual testing services. You can test with the same person who does your evaluations, or you can use another method of testing. Remember that your evaluator works for you -- you should not feel pressured to purchase other services from them. Check my Evaluator List for an evaluator near you.

Sometimes local private schools offer testing to homeschoolers; call around in your area to inquire.

Online Testing: Some providers are now offering online testing. Since the scoring is done immediately, this may be a good choice for families who are working on a looming deadline.

Public School: You may arrange for your child to take the PSSAs at your local public school. (This is not required; see above.)

Test Suppliers:

Here are a few test suppliers - this list is NOT comprehensive!  Remember that local evaluators and support groups may also offer testing in your area.  (Prices and tests offered were last checked in July 2011.

~~ Seton Home Study School offers several options. (Many PA moms have used Seton and have told me it has gone smoothly. They are known for a quick turn-around.) They also sell Spectrum test-prep books.

--The California Achievement Test (CAT-E, survey edition) by mail ($25). Seton does not require a certified teacher to administer the test.

--The IOWA Test of Basic Skills (ITBS) for grades K-12. (grades K-2, $39.00, grades 3-12, $29.00). This is an excellent price. The tests are scored by Seton. The publisher requires that the person who administers the test must have at least a bachelor's degree.

--The TerraNova, Second Edition/CAT 6. Complete Battery/Plus K-12 ($45) or Survey Battery/Plus 2, 3, 4, 6-12 ($45) No bachelor's degree required.

~~ PA Homeschoolers offers local group testing in many areas throughout PA in the fall.  They do testing near Pittsburgh in the spring.  They typically offer the Terra Nova for about $30-$35.  They have a reputation for speedy score return, and they are very gentle with the 3rd graders, many of whom have never been tested before.  (Many folks I know use this service, and report that it has gone smoothly.)

~~ Family Learning Organization carries the California Achievement Test (CAT/5, Complete Battery, $37) and the CAT Survey ($37) by mail. 

~~ Debra Bell's Homeschool Resource Center offers the Iowa/ITBS in South-Central PA for about $48. They can also be a source of tests and scoring for homeschooling groups who wish to offer their own testing. They also sell Scoring High test-prep books for the SAT/10, the CAT, and the ITBS.

~~ The Sycamore Tree carries the Terra Nova/CTBS by mail ($50) in the spring. They have a strict return deadline, and their schedule may be cutting it close for PA's June 30 deadline.

~~ Bayside School Services offers the California Achievement Test (CAT/5, Complete Battery) by mail ($60).  Their site has a nice description of the test.  They also offer the Terra Nova ($60).

~~ Christian Liberty Press offers the California Achievement Test (CAT), 1970 edition, by mail ($25). This is a significantly earlier edition than most other test providers offer. They also offer the same test in a online version.

~~ Thurber’s Educational Assessments (TEA) offers the complete California Achievement Test (CAT/5, complete battery or survey edition, 1992 version) by mail ($49), during certain times of the year only.  They have a nice page about the CAT.

~~ Kolbe Academy Standardized Testing Service offers the TerraNova 3 Complete Battery by mail ($55). Their web site provides a good description of the test's content.

~~ Triangle Education Assessments offers, by mail, the Iowa/ITBS for grades 1-12 in complete battery format ($40-$50ish).  They require Iowa Test administrators to have a bachelor's degree.   They provide a discount for larger groups. They also offer the Woodcock-Johnson® III Tests of Achievement (WJ III®) for PreK-12th grade ($95). (The WJ III, an individual test, is offered primarily in the Raleigh, NC area.)  (Note:  This company has the tests scored by Riverside, the test publisher, not by BJU, and thus may be a suitable choice for those who want the Iowa but prefer not to do business with BJU.) They also sell the Scoring High books and other test-prep materials.

~~ Brewer Testing Services offers, by mail, the Iowa/ITBS ($44) and the Terra Nova ($55), both in very recent versions. They promise to return the scores in 1-3 weeks. They also sell the Scoring High books. I do not know who scores their Iowas.

~~ Bob Jones University offers the Iowa ($64) and the Stanford ($44) by mail.  (They offer several aptitude tests, which do NOT meet PA’s testing requirement.)  They only allow “qualified” people to administer the tests. For the Stanford, if you are administering the test to children who are related to you or part of your immediate household, you must also include two or more unrelated children in each testing group.
I must also mention that I've always been a bit queasy about the idea of doing business with Bob Jones University, due to their only-recently-repealed ban on inter-racial dating. In 1983 they went to the Supreme Court over it. After losing the case 8-1, they chose to give up tax-exempt status rather than repeal the ban. See Bob Jones University v. United States, 1983. They repealed the ban in 2000, after much bad publicity when George W. Bush made a campaign speech there. (They were also widely criticized for being anti-Catholic.)

~~ Piedmont Education Services, a homeschool company in North Carolina, offers the California Achievement Test, Fifth Edition (CAT/5), 1993 version ($40).

~~ Summit Christian Academy seems to be out of business. They used to give the Iowa Basic Skills Test ($45) by mail once a year, in March. (They had the Iowa scored by the test publisher, Riverside Publishing, and thus were a good choice for those seeking an alternative to BJU.) 

~~ Riverside Publishing -- In an attempt to help those who want to use the Iowa, and who are seeking an alternative to BJU, a few years back I looked into the possibility of ordering the Iowa directly from the publisher.  If you have a group of people who want to take the Iowa (such as members of a co-op or support group), it may be an option for you.  I have talked to them a bit about this, but you will need to look at it further to see if it will work for your particular group.  They do not want to sell to individual homeschoolers or even evaluators, but they said they will consider selling to schools or co-ops.  (I called twice, and I did get the sense that this was a judgment call and might vary somewhat depending on who you talk to.)  Be aware that this may be a dead-end – there are a lot of hoops to jump through.  Here is my initial impression. 
Prices seem to be competitive if you are testing a group, especially if you will be doing it annually.  They would not be if you are testing just one or two kids, since some of the tests only come in packs of about 25.  You can have the tests scored by Riverside.  You’ll need to find someone who meets Riverside’s qualifications (basically, a teacher) and jump through some hoops to order the tests.  I strongly suggest you read their web site before talking to them or ordering, so you understand these hoops.  You might also want to request a catalog.  1-800-323-9540
Update, Dec. 2012- Now that Seton is offering the Iowa/ITBS, at an excellent price, they may be a more competitive source for small groups.

Who can give the test?

"The supervisor shall ensure that the nationally normed standardized tests or the Statewide tests shall not be administered by the child's parent or guardian."

In general, if you buy a test privately, anyone except the child's parent or guardian may give the test. Some homeschoolers have a relative, friend, older sibling, or neighbor give the test to their child. Some families do a "you test my kid, I'll test yours" swap.

In some cases, for some tests, the test supplier or the publisher will have restrictions on who can give the tests; there are also suppliers and publishers who do not impose such restrictions.

How can I prepare my child for the test?

If you are concerned about testing, consider looking at some test prep materials.  I make this suggestion not from the point of view of helping your child score higher, but rather helping a child who may never have taken a test before understand what it’s going to be like, so they are comfortable emotionally with the testing. 

The Scoring High series (which prepares students for a particular test) and the Spectrum workbooks (which are more generic, not geared to a particular test, and less expensive) are popular choices.  Both are available from Rainbow Resource, Scoring High is available from Mari and from Debra Bell, Spectrum is sometimes available at bookstores like Borders and/or Barnes & Noble. Many test providers also sell test prep materials. 

Having your child see and maybe work through some test prep materials can not only help your child be comfortable with testing, it can de-mystify the testing for you too.  Bottom line, most of these tests are pretty much just multiple-choice worksheets. Both mom and child are usually much less anxious about the testing after even briefly looking at test prep materials.

Many parents explain to their children that the law requires home educated students to take a test, and that they should try to do their best, but not worry too much about it.  They explain that nothing bad will happen if the child does not score well on the test. They explain that, chances are, some questions will be too hard for them, and some may seem very easy.  They explain that it’s perfectly all right to skip the questions that are too hard.   When the scores come in, you may choose how much to tell your child about their scores; some families go into detail, others say, "You did great, good job!" and leave it at that.

If you have particularly bright children, you may have to show them how to choose the answer that the question-writer intended to be correct, which may require them to ignore their own, more complex, understanding of the material. Sad, but true. A hypothetical example would be, "When is the sun directly overhead?" On a third grade test, the correct answer would be "noon". The real answer is significantly more complex; for kids who are interested in the topic, this question could be very frustrating. Many mothers have found that the best solution is to explain to the child that the question-writer is perhaps not all that bright (or assumes the test-takers aren't), and that the game is to pick the answer the question-writer wants rather than the actual technically correct answer.

What if my child does poorly on the test?

As homeschoolers, we know that children develop at different rates, and standardized testing is only one method of assessing a child's progress.  Don't forget that in theory half of the children taking the test will score below the 50th percentile!  There is no "passing score". Your child does not need to get high test scores to continue homeschooling, though low scores might raise some concerns.  Remember also that a child who scored in, say, the 10th percentile as a 3rd grader and again scores at the 10th percentile as a 5th grader has, in fact, made progress.  If your child does not do well on the test, and you are concerned about putting these test scores in the portfolio, you have several choices.

  • You can go ahead and submit the scores with your portfolio.  Remember that the scores will be presented in the context of the whole portfolio.  You may want to think carefully about what you will put in the rest of the portfolio, especially in those subjects where your child scored poorly, to show progress.  Also, remember that you can write a paragraph or two about the issue and put that into the portfolio, if you wish.
  • Or, if you think your child just had a bad day, you can re-test the child.  If they do better you can submit the new scores and ignore the first test.
  • Before the October 2014 law change, evaluators could address the poor test scores in their written evaluation, and could explain why they think your child is making progress despite the test scores. This may be largely unnecessary under the new law, as in most circumstances only the evaluator will see test scores. However, if you feel your home education program may need to withstand a challenge, it remains an option.

Where can I get more info on testing?

FairTest is an organization that expresses concern about the increased use of standardized testing.  You may find their site informative.

Bayside School Services has an interesting page on testing, aimed at North Carolina homeschoolers but with quite a bit of general information.