Testing our Little Ones: K & 1st Grade

Let not your heart be troubled.

Should we test our kindergarten and first grade students?  That is a question that has been debated by education experts for many years.  But if we do decide to test them, it is important that we choose the right test levels and that we put testing in a proper perspective.  

The newest version of the Iowa Assessments offers one kindergarten level (Level 5/6) and one first grade level (Level 7).  The parent of a first grader who is still at the pre-reading level can contact CHEWV to discuss other options. But parents need to be careful about choosing levels that are beneath their children’s reading ability, because it can actually hurt the scores rather than help, particularly in first grade.  

Joanna Lynch of BJUPress, our test distributor, offers this advice to homeschool parents of young students, “Now, more than ever, it is critical to choose the correct test level.  The Iowa tests in particular have made the tests very specific for the early levels.  Using a level that is too easy can actually hurt the scores – the material simply doesn’t provide enough points to compete. A student taking an easier level test is still compared to a ‘norm group’ by grade – and most of the norm group would have had more points available from the harder test.

“Consider an Olympic gymnastics example:  If Country A has an incredibly high difficulty level, they can afford to make some mistakes and still get big scores.  If Country B has easier routines, they can perform perfectly and still come in second place.  Consider another example of a piano recital. A student making a few mistakes on a Beethoven piano sonata would still be considered better than a student playing ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ perfectly. The starting difficulty needs to be on-target to compete.”

With this in mind, a first grader who has successfully completed at least half of a reputable first grade curriculum before the spring test window should take the Level 7 test.  We asked Ms. Lynch for some additional guidelines for parents who are choosing whether to test or choosing between the early test levels.  She explained:

Level 5/6 is designed for Kindergarten students but can be used for beginning first graders (through about the 3rd or 4th months). It is administered orally except for a very short, optional reading section at the very end – which does not affect the overall scores at this level. Level 5 can be scored (normed) as either Kindergarten or as first grade; however, it is designed for Kindergarten. 

Level 7 is the default level for first grade students after Christmas break. Unless a student is unable to read a short sentence on his own, the Level 7 should be used as the default for first grade. This is also the first level to include Social Studies and Science (part of Composite but not Core Totals).

This is the first level, then, that provides all five scores required by the WV homeschooling law.

There are other reasons that homeschoolers in the early grades may earn lower test scores than they will in later years.  CHEWV came face to face with this issue when we began using a more recently normed version of the Iowa in 2008 in order to meet the law’s publishing requirements.  When the scores came back, a troubling trend appeared!  Our younger homeschoolers’ scores were lower than usual.  On the other hand, our oldest homeschoolers scored better!   While experienced homeschool parents with older children had no reason to be concerned, it was a shock to many of our newer homeschooling parents.  The compelling question:  Why the score differences?

First of all, these test results for our younger children were not surprising to our testing distributor.  They explained that this trend was not unique to CHEWV, but was seen across the homeschool community at large and was not really a concern at all.  Rather, it reflected the public schools’ growing emphasis on preschool education, which tends to temporarily yield better scores at earlier ages, pushing up the norm scores against which homeschoolers are compared.  As Ms. Lynch explains, “With the increased emphasis on test scores in general, many school systems are simply starting earlier.  Instead of learning the basics in kindergarten, now public school students who enter kindergarten are usually expected to already know the basics of reading and math.  Thus the ‘basics’ are now being taught as standard Pre-K material.  While homeschooled students used to have a head start by so much close interaction with adults, now their competition has a head start — hence the scoring is more competitive.  It’s not necessarily a case of students knowing less but rather of the bar being higher.”

So, should homeschool parents respond by starting earlier too?  Not necessarily!  Research has shown that accelerated early learning comes with a big price tag:  burn-out.  Although early formal education can demonstrate apparent success in the early grades, by the time those children reach 3rd grade or so, the benefits disappear, and indeed, many of them seem to stop learning and sometimes fall below those students who started formal learning later.  This was widely demonstrated by numerous research studies conducted by Raymond and Dorothy Moore in the 1970’s and earlier.  Their basic research at Stanford and the University of Colorado Medical School analyzed over 8000 studies of children’s senses, brain, cognition, socialization, etc., and concluded that no replicable evidence exists for rushing children into formal study at home or school before age 8 or 10.   Their research suggests that waiting allows children to gain the maturity and logical skills necessary for formal work and prevents them from becoming frustrated and discouraged by attempts to handle material they are simply not yet ready to understand.

It is quite common for homeschooled children, especially those using a flexible homeschooling approach, to learn to read as young as three or to delay formal reading until age eight or nine. This may seem like a shocking idea, but boys in particular are often not ready to read until they are seven or older, and they quickly catch up to the early readers.

So is it actually preferable to delay some formal instruction to age 8 or later?  Research does suggest that it can be better for many children. (Our preschool section has other helpful articles on this subject.)

Parents who delay pushing their children should expect test scores to be lower in the early grades and may choose to use portfolio review instead.  But truly, the child’s daily success is the best indicator of how he or she is doing. Most homeschool parents are already aware if Jimmy is not reading ready or if Sally is not retaining what she reads.  A lower percentile ranking is not a surprise.  What the parent may not realize is that a low percentile scores on the early test levels may not be predictive of how the child will do later!  When Jimmy and Sally are ready and begin to soar, the later scores will reflect that.  In the meantime, they do not suffer “labels” or opinions that they are deficient just because they are concrete learners in the early years.

Education is to benefit the child for his entire lifetime, not to bow down to dictates that are unreasonable.  The “one size fits all” viewpoint is largely responsible for the non-success of public education – which relies heavily on mass, conveyor-belt-type education.  One of the biggest strengths of home education is tailoring the education to the individual child, both in learning style and in readiness.

So if parents choose to style early education for their child instead of what produces a higher score, how should lower test scores be handled?  First, remember that these are only comparison scores.  Today’s young homeschoolers are not inferior to earlier homeschoolers. They are only being compared with higher norm scores.  Secondly, remember that the scores will likely improve by 3rd or 4th grade.  Our homeschooling scores by the middle school years are like they have always been:  well above the national average.  And since public schools show the least success by grades 9-12, high schoolers who have always been homeschooled tend to show the greatest advantage in test scores.  Indeed, our CHEWV scores are impressive in the high school years!  Lastly, the WV homeschool law does not preclude homeschooling because of scores below the 50th percentile.  If you feel confident, there’s no long-term disadvantage to lower scores now.   The county will respond if the mean is below the 50th and you might be required to remediate (show that you plan to master those skills rather than just go on), but that’s it.  Later level scores should be more indicative.  Besides, although the WV law targets the mean of five scores, the core and composite scores are actually better indicators of educational readiness and success.

A parent who is putting education first may accept lower scores in the early years to ensure better education in the long run.  Or that parent may choose the portfolio assessment option in the early years.  There are certainly pros and cons to testing and many educators feel that testing is not an accurate tool for early learning assessment.  The advantages of early testing might include getting used to the testing environment, getting used to the testing format, and deriving a baseline composite score with which to compare when the scores are more valid.  The disadvantages are that the scores may not be indicative of the learning abilities of the child:  you may get “false” weaknesses or “false” strengths because the questions are vague or dependent on pictures.  Young students may also tire easily so that subtests taken later in the day or later in the week become less reflective of knowledge.

Regardless of your assessment decision, do educate yourself and do not become discouraged about testing or portfolio evaluations!  Homeschooling success is well documented and the Lord blesses those whose hearts are turned toward their children.  While reading and math skills are very important, character training and reliance on the Lord are far greater priorities.  Point out God’s faithfulness to your children and actively seek His wisdom for your circumstances.  Ultimately it is His assessment that counts.

(This article was updated in January 2016.)