Ah, the standardized test . . . that fill-in-the-bubble-with-a-number-two-pencil experience you probably remember from your own school days. Now that you’re a homeschooling mama (or dad), it’s time to decide if and how to test your own child.

Like visiting the dentist, standardized tests can cause discomfort—but at some point it will probably be necessary for your child to take them. And we promise, they can actually be pretty painless!

As with most homeschooling decisions, you’ll start by checking your state law to find out if your student is required to take any standardized tests.

When reviewing your state requirements, also make sure to find out the grades in which your child must be tested and the deadline and format for submitting scores. In many states, testing is required only in “skills subjects”—usually language arts and math. You are free to test your child in other subjects (such as science or history) but do not turn in any unrequired scores.

Apart from complying with the law, here are some other reasons to consider standardized testing for your homeschooled kiddo:

  • It is the most objective form of academic assessment.
  • It is well recognized by academic institutions. If your child reenters the traditional school setting after being homeschooled, having some well-recognized test scores may ease the process.
  • If you need, or want, to know what grade level your child is in based on content knowledge, then these tests can be more helpful than specific-subject placement tests.

(While standardized are not strictly “placement tests,” these scores can act like one of those Leatherman multi-purpose tools that make you feel like a MacGyver version of a homeschooler! They accomplish a lot of jobs all at once. You can learn about other kinds of placement test tools and learning readiness assessments here.)

Other benefits of standardized tests

Building test taking skills

  • Taking formal tests gives your child practice for when “it really counts” with the SAT, CLT, and ACT, etc.
  • Especially if your child takes her test at home, you can observe and see what skills she may need to work on. Then you can incorporate that skill-building into her homeschool. (See? You’re a MacGyver!)

Offering a general snapshot comparison

  • These tests are normed to the knowledge expected in the United States for children following a traditional scope and sequence.
  • So, your child’s test results can help you see how they’re doing compared to other kids, if that’s helpful for you. (But keep in mind, these test scores are only snapshots of how your child was doing on a given day.)

Recognizing gaps or needs to change curriculum

  • Your child’s scores may reveal a struggle in a certain subject, and maybe the problem is the curriculum your child is using.
  • Maybe there’s a better approach to customize the process for greater success.

Surfacing learning challenges

  • These tests may also help you realize your child may have some learning challenges that may benefit from expert reading or math assessments and advice.

Let’s get technical: A few more things to know about standardized tests

Like any tool, you should be careful to use tests properly to avoid injury. It’s helpful to remember the abilities and limitations of these tests and scores.

Standardized tests measure students’ knowledge of material that is deemed common knowledge for all children in their grade level. These tests are not cognitive or IQ tests. All standardized tests cover reading, language arts, and math, and some also include science, social studies, and other subjects.

Standardized test scores can be confusing because they tell you how your child did in comparison to other test takers. If your student scores in the 75th percentile, it does not mean that he or she got 75% of the questions right. It means that your child did as well as or better than 75% of the students in the norming group who took the same test. This is called percentile ranking.

Stanine ranking is similar. Stanine is an acronym meaning STAndard NINE. A stanine ranking tells where a child’s score falls on a nine-part standard curve (imagine the 99 percentiles divided into nine sections). Thus, the first, second, and third stanines are below average; the fourth, fifth, and sixth are average; and the seventh, eighth, and ninth would are above average.

Then there is the grade equivalent—for example, 7.2 GE. This simply means that a child in that grade and month (in the example, the second month of seventh grade) would have done as well as your child did. It does not mean that your child is on a 7th-grade level—unless he or she actually is in 7th grade! It just indicates that a 4th grader with this score is doing well, or that a 10th grader with this score needs some extra help.

And finally, the last thing to know is that the commercial publishers who develop these tests carefully regulate how they are administered because they want to assure the scores are always objective and reliable. This is why, for example, some tests can only be administered by people with certain qualifications.

What about testing young children (below 3rd grade)?

Do you have a 5-, 6-, or 7-year-old? Are you wondering how ready your child is for this kind of formal testing? You might be interested to know that some early childhood experts have questioned whether standardized testing is really appropriate for children younger than 3rd grade. And they suggest kid-friendly and research-supported alternatives to assessing progress in the early years.

So, even if your state law requires you to test your child before 3rd grade, you might be surprised to discover how much freedom you have—and how many (less formal, less stressful, and even fun!) assessment options you have—to choose the best fit for your young child! Learn about the many possibilities in Part 3 here.

Keeping standardized test scores in perspective

You or your child can feel a lot of pressure to do well on these tests, and we get that. But, we encourage you to hold these scores loosely and remember that these are simply a snapshot of your child on a given (good or bad) day. (We all have them!)

So, don’t be too swayed by the actual percentile scores. Instead, pay attention to extremities in scoring, like maybe your child has an average math score but a significantly low language arts score. And to how your child does in their daily and weekly schoolwork. Then you can determine how your child is learning overall and whether any changes are needed moving forward.

However, if your state law specifies a specific minimum score or percentile for your child’s required year-end standardized testing and your child doesn’t make that that minimum, that’s a legal issue you should take seriously. If you are an HSLDA member, please contact our legal team immediately (before you turn the test scores in to the state) so that we can come alongside and work with you on the important specific next steps to keep your child and your homeschool moving forward.

Phew! We got all that groundwork out of the way.

If you have a child under age 8, you might want to check out the next post on standardized testing for young children.

In Part 4, we’ll talk about how to arrange standardized testing for your child. And in Part 5, we’ll give you tips for preparing your child before their test and what to do afterwards.